It’s hard to believe that, not so long ago, the first person mystery/exploration genre barely existed. Sure, if you look back there were games like Myst and Sentient in the 1990s, but this genre didn’t really develop into its own niche until this past decade. The term ‘walking simulator’ gets applied to many first-person interactive fiction games, often rather erroneously, and I am certain it’ll get tacked onto The Suicide of Rachel Foster. Also erroneously.
I’ve spoken about my thoughts on the phrase on several occasions before now and have no desire to repeat myself. Regardless of my opinions on the subject, I would class myself as Cultured Vultures’ official Head of Video Game Walking, as I seem to be the man to take on these sorts of adventure mystery titles. Though I have done many miles of virtual ambling and I still looked forward to a stroll with The Suicide of Rachel Foster.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster sees you take the role of protagonist Nicole as she returns to her family run hotel after the death of her father. It’s been ten years since she was last there, and despite the hotel being closed for some years, it is still in good shape. This is important to the tone of the game, though more on this later. Nicole is here to inspect the hotel prior to its sale when a blizzard causes her to get stranded.
With little else to do, the only thing left is to explore. The first thing that is striking about the hotel is its design. It isn’t a bland, standardised hotel: it’s one of those unique character hotels, the kind I’d imagine you’d find in a beauty spot nestled in the American wilderness, far from the hotel chains that you find everywhere else.
Exploring the hotel, my immediate thought was The Shining, especially finding a similar looking carpet on the upper floor — make no mistake, that’s not a coincidence. The hotel also reminded me of The Great Northern Hotel from Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The design, while not a copy of these inspirations, is very reminiscent. Blending the likes of wood panel museums, cosy snug rooms, wide open overlooks and carpeted hallways all make The Suicide of Rachel Foster feel unique, yet familiar.
Another thing that makes the Timberline an eerie locale to explore is its desolate nature. In the plot, the Timberline has been closed for several years, but has had its owner living there. This means that it isn’t abandoned as such, but has fallen into disrepair over the years. The Timberline’s design is unique enough to keep it interesting, but also a believable location. It taps into the feeling of altered reality at abandoned or empty real life locations.
Much like its contemporaries, The Suicide of Rachel Foster is realised by utilising amazing graphics. The hotel, surroundings and everything inside are beautifully rendered, with the game really capturing a level of detail that outdoes games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Gone Home or Firewatch.
Speaking of Rachel Foster’s contemporaries, the game did remind me of a blend of a few of them. I don’t like to make too many comparisons between similar games, but sometimes it’s not hard to. At its core, The Suicide of Rachel Foster’s gameplay style is pretty standard for the genre: explore the world, click to examine or use objects. Nothing new there. One thing that it does different is a small inventory, allowing you to use a torch, or even a ghost hunting radar.
Similarly to Firewatch, lead character Nicole is in near constant contact with Irving, a Federal Emergency Management Agent, who is contacting her by a new piece of technology called a ‘cell phone’. Irving provides all of the back and forth communication during the game, pointing you in the right direction and generally building the plot.
It’s at this point that I’d like to give praise to the two leads for this game, Kosha Engler and Christopher Ragland. They have a wonderful chemistry that takes up much of the game, and it really helps to build the atmosphere, as well as build the character of Nicole. It’s a dialogue heavy game, all of which is very well written.
Despite the dialogue being well written and well delivered, it can sometimes be a bit of an in-game annoyance. Often I found myself with nothing to do, apart from standing still waiting for the pair to finish chatting. There were occasions where I knew where to head next, but after the pair talked while I walked to the location, their discussion hadn’t ended by the time I arrived, and so I was forced to wait for a few minutes while it came to a conclusion. Far too often I felt I had to stand around with nothing to do.
I don’t want to be too negative about this aspect, but there were times, especially in the finale of the game when I literally had to hang around for what felt like a good five minutes while the pair discussed the game’s plot. Firewatch deployed a similar tactic, but had much of the conversation take place while walking, meaning the player was always doing something during character or plot development.
The sound work in The Suicide of Rachel Foster is probably the best I’ve heard in a first-person exploration game, and some of the best I’ve heard in a game full stop. The game employs binaural audio to give the impression of sound in a three dimensional space, which creates an unnerving experience. As you can imagine, exploring an empty hotel is a little unnerving, but the sound effects turn the freak-out factor up to 11.
Rachel Foster is dialogue heavy, but music, leaving its sound effect to really stand out. Walking around the Timberline Hotel is a nerve-wracking experience: every creak, bump and murmur has you on your toes, and I must admit that it made my hair stand on end a couple of times. At one stage, I had to remove my headphones to work out if the sudden crash was in the game, or damage from the (real life) storm raging outside.
The current trend of low quality indie horror could really take learn from games like The Suicide of Rachel Foster. Developer ONE-O-ONE GAMES have really gone above and beyond to create a game that has a really creepy, unnerving atmosphere, which just builds and builds, unlike many modern horrors. I’d love to see more horror games with a keen sense of creep and less ‘ghosts/monsters screaming in your face’.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster is close to being the perfect first-person exploration title, and has some really nice touches, like micro-cutscenes when you perform an action, showing the protagonist’s hands while never revealing herself. On the flip side, there were a couple of issues with the game in my playthrough, including quitting out of a dream sequence, only for the game to reload after that sequence, missing it entirely.
The binaural audio of the game is sometimes used to locate sounds, meaning you must move Nicole around the hotel until the sound gets louder, usually uncovering the source or next objective. This was done with a tinkling sound earlier in the game, and the sound had returned on day 8, so I spent a long time trying to locate where it was coming from. After eventually exiting the game and coming back to it later, the sound had totally disappeared from day 8. I can only assume that this was also a bug, one that had led me on a wild goose chase.
Despite the occasional issues, The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a fantastic example of the genre. A first person adventure-mystery-thriller, it manages to crank up the creep factor higher than many other modern first-person horror games. It masterfully escalates suspense through world building and sound, and the lack of any traditional jump scares means the tension just builds and builds.
The game doesn’t do anything particularly new, but it manages to do it better than many first person adventure games have before, though the ending is a bit too heavily telegraphed. Also, while the writing is very good, I felt it veers slightly into schlock territory in its final act. Nevertheless, The Suicide of Rachel Foster is a fantasic, slow-build creepfest that is definitely deserving of your time, especially if you enjoyed the likes of Gone Home, Firewatch and co.