Despite their lack of gameplay depth, I quite enjoy “walking simulators” from time to time. It’s enjoyable to just sit back and watch a meaningful narrative unfold, with Gone Home being an obvious favorite of mine. The Suicide of Rachel Foster very obviously tries to court the same audience as Gone Home and proudly proclaims what its social commentary will be about right there in the title.
I am a staunch supporter of games trying their hands at difficult and uncomfortable stories that tackle these kind of themes. However, there is a responsibility that comes with this territory; a requirement to understand what you are actually talking about and how to properly address these sensitive topics. This is a duty that The Suicide of Rachel Foster disregards entirely and for which it has been rightly criticized.
Firstly, as a walking simulator, the game is severely below-par. Players take control of Nicole, a young woman who has inherited her family’s old hotel high up in the mountains. She and her mother moved out after her father was exposed for having an extramarital affair with a teenager, 16-year-old Rachel, who then later committed suicide whilst pregnant.
Nicole ends up trapped in the hotel due to a snowstorm and mysterious events begin to unfold. Telephones ring despite lines being cut off, the keys to Nicole’s car mysteriously vanish, and strange sounds echo across the halls. Guided by the FEMA agent Irving through a mobile phone line, Nicole begins to explore the old halls for answers, dredging up old memories along the way.
Outside of Nicole’s old home in the hotel, very little of the place is actually worth exploring. You just follow directions from room to room, with almost nothing you can investigate or which provides more background or flavor to the setting. Most areas are generic, with the few unique rooms only offering 1 or 2 personal touches that invite a reaction from Nicole.
Graphically the game also appears to struggle a lot. The textures are washed-out and ugly despite being very taxing on the GPU, which doesn’t really help when looking around is literally the main objective of the game. The voice-acting is comparatively great, but the game relies on it too much, to the point of frustrating gameplay. You can discern the objective early on in a conversation and walk there, only for the game to play 3 phone calls with Irving back-to-back that leave you unable to do what you need until they have finished.
The game has other issues, like Nicole getting stuck in the architecture, actions not triggering, flags not being set properly, or the Use prompt appearing at the wrong location. The game took me 3 hours to beat and I could have shaved off half an hour if I didn’t have to deal with these problems.
Getting back to the controversy: The Suicide of Rachel Foster is, frankly, disgustingly proud of its topic. It romanticizes suicide, tasking players with learning the full details of Rachel’s death and presenting the act of self-harm as serene and liberating. You even get an achievement for leading Nicole to her own demise. It’s a thinly-veiled attempt to make the game stand out for having an emotional and grim storyline, but in doing so it makes light of the suffering felt by real people and, even worse, does real harm by ignoring guidelines for responsibly addressing suicide in media and entertainment.
It makes ending your own life seem pleasant, which poses a genuine risk of enticing people to harm themselves. To present such a brazenly misinformed and manipulative story about suicide is irresponsible and morally repugnant.
This comes on top of other valid allegations, such as the game making excuses for Nicole’s father grooming and impregnating a teenager, or its inability to characterize Rachel at all beyond her status as a victim. But even if all of that doesn’t really matter and you just want to play an emotional story, I still wouldn’t recommend The Suicide of Rachel Foster because it’s a storytelling disaster.
Naturally, the game has some major twists and revelations throughout its storyline, but these are so poorly thought-out that it completely shattered what investment I had in the game:
Irving’s entire role in the story is utterly implausible. He dedicated his entire life to confronting Nicole about Rachel, spending who knows how long in a desolate corner of the hotel over-preparing a grand plot that relies on dozens of miracle happenstances. Nicole arriving in the thick of a blizzard, her leaving her car keys up for grabs, her not even remembering him from her childhood, he’s got it all planned out to a tee and manipulates these events all without ever being seen or heard. Despite being an obsessive madman holed up in a freezing attic, he plays his role as a courteous FEMA agent out perfectly, never betraying so much as a hint of his true identity that can’t be immediately excused.
The entire final stretch of the story is ruined by a sequence of baffling twists, after which you get to pick between several lame endings. It’s also, again, just barely 3 hours long and technologically-challenged. There’s no shortage of other walking simulator-style games on the market and I have yet to find one that’s less enjoyable than The Suicide of Rachel Foster.