The Suicide of Rachel Foster Review
Every little thing she does is tragic
There's an instant familiarity to the feeling of tragedy that permeates The Suicide of Rachel Foster. It’s one that has seeped into almost all journeys into the first-person narrative genre. If you find yourself inhabiting an unseen body and you’re not holding a gun, chances are you're about to find out someone’s big family secret, and it's probably not very nice.
We've got a rich history of games like What Remains of Edith Finch to thank for this. What these games did so well has become the well-trodden path for many an unseen pair of feet to follow, and The Suicide of Rachel Foster is really no different. But see past the game’s broader strokes and you will come to appreciate its finer detail, even if things don’t fully come together in the end.
The game opens with an introduction to our main protagonist Nicole. Prompted by letters from her deceased mother, she has driven back to her family’s old hotel, the site of a series of tragic events. Nicole and her mother left the hotel in a rush of anguish ten years previously, caused by her father’s affair with a young girl who subsequently committed suicide; Rachel Foster. See, lovely stuff.
Nicole’s goal is to return and inspect the decaying hotel, left empty after her father’s death, so she can sell it off and with it move on from her past. But things obviously can’t work out that easily. With a snowstorm descending on the creaking hotel, Nicole isn’t going anywhere in a hurry. She’s not entirely alone, however, as a young FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) agent named Irving keeps in contact via a radio telephone, a befitting piece of tech for the game’s 1993 era.
So, we’re in an old wooden hotel, mostly alone, that shows signs of habitation everywhere, but seemingly houses no one, while a snowstorm rages outside. If you’ve not thought of The Shining yet, you absolutely should be by now. While Nicole discovers more facets to her family’s sordid past, the setting of the hotel groans and creaks around her. It’s because horror would so perfectly befit this setting that exploring it is constantly tense, even though the lights are on and you’re absolutely sure no one's home.
Split out into days, the game mostly revolves around the cell phone conversations between Nicole and Irving, as she rediscovers the home of her past, while Irving, familiar with the family and the hotel, fills her in on recent years. With no time restrictions or rigidly fixed direction, players are free to roam the creepy setting at their own pace, with only the completion of loose objectives structuring when each day ends.
Along the way Nicole picks up items to help her discover more about the hotel, including a blinking flashlight, a Polaroid camera and a filmmaker’s sound equipment. These items appear at different stages of the story and add a great sense of atmosphere to certain scenes. The Polaroid camera, for example, becomes your limited light source when the hotel’s electricity fails. Using the flash of each picture taken briefly illuminates the corridors before you, creating haunting images of the empty halls. As the light grows dimmer, you’ll find yourself spamming the camera constantly, snapping shot after shot to get the brief security of a flash of light.
It’s a shame that these small devices aren’t put to greater use across the span of the game. While all remain in her inventory after collection, after their particular scene they become redundant. The sound equipment that is so effectively used once to let Nicole hear the creepy voices in abandoned halls, brings up nothing when used later. It’s a small missing link, but it's enough to break your immersion, reminding you that this is a game with limits.
Alongside the acquired objects, the game’s voice acting is a welcome break from the usual notes, newspaper clippings and tape recordings that saturate this genre. Yet, at times the script is a little stilted, and it's easy to find yourself cringing at some of the interactions between Nicole and Irving. It gets the job done, as we find out more about Nicole’s family history at a balanced pace, but it fails to give a substantial sense of character to either protagonist.
Where the voice acting falls down, the sound design, and even the world of the hotel itself, makes up for it immeasurably. Just the sound of Nicole walking down the staircase has a level of realism that throws you immediately into the moment. Every floorboard creaks as it should, echoing around the empty space in a way that makes you freeze in space, listening for intruders. It’s like being home alone as a child, too frightened to move in case the noise you hear isn’t your own. There are the usual horror gimmicks of sentient slammed doors, but it’s the atmospheric noises that really shine here.
Combine the attention to sound design with the environment design itself, and we really should be in with an absolute winner here. The soft focus and shifting perspective that can be seen in the screenshots give the environment a filmic atmosphere uncommon to games of this genre. Every object that you can inspect feels weighted with character and use, with so much untapped potential for storytelling.
But the game doesn’t put them to use, and in the end the game leans on convention to tie up its narrative threads. The story comes to a heavily signposted conclusion, with all the impact of a kick to the shin. The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a worthy addition to its genre, but it could have been so much more and that, in fact, is the real kicker.
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