Content warning: This review addresses themes of sexual abuse.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster makes a powerful first impression. From the gorgeously moody score to the evocative opening sequence, detailing our protagonist Nicole reading a letter from her recently deceased mother, interspersed between scenes of Nicole approaching her mother’s grave. The letter details the tragedies that have befallen the family, specifically Nicole’s father having an affair with a “young girl”, who went on to commit suicide. Nicole has been left her mother’s hotel, she is asked to travel there and prepare it for sale.
The game is essentially a walking simulator, which is never a bad thing when the story is engaging. The Suicide of Rachel Foster certainly has an engaging story hook, as Nicole explores the hallways and rooms of the spooky hotel and must reckon with her families dark past as a storm rages outside. While at first, it feels like it may be turning into a horror game, this isn’t really a horror game at heart. A horror game triggers your fight or flight response and gives you agency in how you respond and experience that horror. This is a walking simulator with frightening or unsettling parts peppered in, the horror and the gameplay aren’t working in tandem, rather they work independently.
The game is stunningly designed, the visuals and the sound work together to create a very visceral immersive experience. The varied lighting really creates a sense of time and place and emphasises the tension when necessary. The raging snowstorm is so effectively sound mixed that you can almost feel the chill creeping through the walls. But none of these aesthetic choices really help accentuate the story, they have more impact in the quieter moments of exploration.
The actual ‘puzzle’ solving portions of the game are very basic. The key objects are usually in plain sight. It asks very little of the player, even by the standards of the genre. While the hotel grounds offer you a great deal of movement compared fo many other games of this kind, it is largely pointless as the story can only progress once you collect the key items.
As a walking simulator, this is primarily a family drama with spooky moments peppered in. In that regard, The Suicide of Rachel Foster falls short because, as much as it gets right, it is lacking something so essential to the walking simulator drama: Compassion.
When Firewatch or Gone Home deal with heavy subject matter, they employ a delicate touch where necessary, but The Suicide of Rachel Foster is tackling very, very sensitive subject matter like child grooming and suicide and does so with a ham-handed carelessness.
As you continue to explore the hotel and uncover more details of your family’s past, it becomes apparent that Rachel Foster was a teenager. Sixteen to be precise. She was engaged in a sexual relationship with Nicole’s father. The precise term for this is ephebophilia but most people will call it paedophilia and they would be right to do so, semantics have no place in this sort of debate. This is sexual predation and it is a horrifying thing to discover. Yet, what is truly horrifying about The Suicide of Rachel Foster is the way it treats this subject matter. It is not considered wrong, it is considered tragic. A doomed romance, almost. There are asides about how Rachel was mature for her age, the sort of rationalising abusers and apologists use to excuse a grown man having sexual thoughts about young girls. It is truly unsettling the way this game shrugs off such a relationship. No one seems to bat an eye at the notion of a 40-something man having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old, it is never really judged on those terms. It is only considered bad because it was an extra-marital affair. Really, the only part of Rachel’s story that is deemed traumatising is her death and even that is less about her and more about the impact it had on everyone else.
Rachel Foster has no presence in the story. She is talked about, yet she never gets to talk. Her life has a monumental impact on Nicole’s family and yet we learn very little about that life. Her abuse is a plot device, it only matters to the story due to its effect on Nicole. Worse yet, her abuse isn’t even considered abuse. There is no care for Rachel as a person and, by extension, other victims of sexual predators in the same position as her.
Video games are a valid medium to tell stories with heavy themes like this but The Suicide of Rachel Foster is the product of creators who did not have the understanding or perspective to do it justice. They seemed to care more about crafting a mystery with a big plot twist finish than offer these serious themes any real consideration. Playing this game was a deeply upsetting and disturbing experience but not by design.
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