Red thread redemption
There’s a red thread that runs through some genres. A set of breadcrumbs that guides the player through the ideal experience lest they are gored by their own wistful tendencies. The Suicide Of Rachel Foster tries desperately to balance the need for a player to explore with the developers own directorial hand. With a few faltering steps it delivers something grand in ambition but safe within the established principles of the wide-ranging adventure genre
Though apt as a descriptor, the term walking simulator carries with it the pejorative sentiments of ‘gamers’ railing against a lack of agency and explosions. Yet it is within this sub-genre of titles like Gone Home, Tacoma, Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture where narrative innovation in games has gone on in leaps and bounds. It is exciting to see advancements in the audio diary, worldbuilding and level design within this sub-genre given the breadth of stories and settings explored.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster doesn’t promise to be the most uplifting title you might pick up this year, but it does promise to be an interesting experience. Given that the plot is pretty crucial, a sparse explanation will hopefully keep the experience spoiler-free. After her estranged father has passed away, the player-character Nicole must trek to an old hotel he owned in Montana to assess the property before she sells it on. However, spookiness is afoot as extramarital affairs, and those involved in them echo through the corridors of the hotel.
Dance magic, dance
There is an inevitable comparison to be made given that the game takes place at a hotel in a winter landscape. But it feels like the developers have built on it’s inevitable likeness to The Shining to establish how they want their players to feel. To their credit, they have pulled it off well with stylistic flourishes in the opening cutscene and interior decor that screams redrum. At times you can feel a little like Danny on his tricycle racing through the labyrinthine corridors.
This is pertinent as the hotel in this game can feel like a labour to traverse. Never before has a videogame space so befuddled this reviewer. But it doesn’t feel confusing in a frustrating manner. It only adds to the effect built by the developers. Certain corridors look the same with several side doors and passages leading off or looping back round. The verticality of the hotel threatens to spoil this wonderful circularity, but the developers have done well with secret passages that layer the experience of exploring this labyrinth.
The resemblance to a labyrinth doesn’t stop with the spatial layout of the hotel but also in the way the narrative unfolds. Instructions and suggestions arise from Nicole’s communication with a local emergency management agent – Irving. From starting the backup generator to finding food in the pantry, the events of the game take place over several days. Throughout all this, the player is free to explore almost every part of the hotel, but it has little meaning without reaching a particular part of the story.
At the next story beat, turn left
There’s a firm directorial hand which guides the player from story beat to story beat. This usually arises through conversations with Irving, but it also manifests in the transition from day to day where time will linger ever so slightly after a particular conversation or revelation before cutting to black – suspending all ideas of exploring further. Though narratively striking in the moment, with this red thread guiding the player there’s a lack of purpose for any extracurricular exploration that might cross the player’s mind.
And that’s an interesting choice of design for this subgenre of games. Titles like Gone Home focused on the audio diary and how that’s embedded within a location that feels like a museum. Tacoma then took the concept of the audio diary and evolved it further though still grounded it in the exploration of the past. Firewatch took the subgenre in a different direction by framing those narrative pieces within a present tense mystery – conversations over radio. It doesn’t feel like The Suicide of Rachel Foster really knows what it wants to be or how to tell its story. Elements of these previous games are taken and jumbled together. The result is interesting, but it’s a curious mix.
This could be heaven or this could be hell
Though the hotel is a monument to the past, a lot of artefacts don’t necessarily give a clearer view of events. Players can pick up cleaning products, pens, food items but little in the way that deepens this story. You can pick up and read the titles of books read by Nicole’s father, but that’s about it. There’s an active mystery within the hotel where the past is being dredged up by the present, but the way in which players might explore this is curtailed. Despite this directorial hand achieving the effect of encroaching horror, it undercuts the active mystery at hand.
With its approach to narrative flourishes, it keeps the tension high so that exploring the hotel is a daunting task. But there are some moments which let it down from a performative side. When picking up objects, they can be blurry for a few seconds before a higher resolution model is rendered. And this same blur can be found popping in and out of bits of scenery. And this is with graphical settings set to high. It can erode that tense atmosphere somewhat. Aside from this there a couple of times where some instructions aren’t as clear as they can be, leading to long sessions of combing the entire hotel.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster is an interesting game. There are many ways to approach and critique it that will reveal myriad facets to it, and this is but one observation of narrative discourse. Within this subgenre, it stands on the shoulders of giants or at the very least tall minotaurs. But it doesn’t quite deliver the all-encompassing experience it might hope to.
[Reviewed on PC]
Ryan Young escaped from the PhD basement in 2017 where he worked on the theoretical links between games, play and narrative. He can be frequently found playing any genre of indie game he can get his hands on and yelling at people on the street about how cool ancient board games are.