Review for The Suicide of Rachel Foster
Vacant mountainside hotels are tasty fodder for a good haunted house tale, right alongside abandoned hospitals and derelict asylums. Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick both got excellent mileage out of the Overlook Hotel with its sprawling grounds, multiple floors and several wings of seemingly empty guest rooms. Hoping to rekindle similar magic, One-O-One Games and Reddoll’s The Suicide of Rachel Foster places environmental storytelling at the forefront as players are invited to investigate a dark secret at the Timberline Hotel, accompanying its protagonist as she confronts the skeletons in her family’s closet in an atmospheric, slow burning tale that ends up just a bit too anemic to have as much impact as its premise would suggest.
The story takes place over a period of eight days in 1993. Having inherited the Timberline after the death of her father, Nicole Wilson revisits the mountaintop retreat one final time before selling it off, only to promptly become trapped there by a violent snowstorm. Alone with the rooms and hallways of her childhood, Nicole begins piecing together how the death of a young local girl named Rachel Foster tied into her and her mother’s flight from the place many years ago, which left her father behind all alone. It’s an intriguing mystery that is satisfying to reflect on overall, but unfortunately isn’t always executed in an interesting and consistent manner.
The main issue is that the game sometimes gets in its own way while trying to establish atmosphere and ends up sending conflicting signals to the player. Freely roaming around the empty hallways of the Timberline easily conjures up spooky vibes; indeed, there’s even a short subplot at one point, told via conversation snippets and found video footage, revolving around a group of paranormal investigators who once visited the hotel following sightings of a ghostly Rachel still haunting the place, only to flee in terror shortly after.
But the game undermines these attempts at tension, almost tripping over itself in its haste to have Nicole and Irving Crawford, a voice-on-the-phone from the local ranger’s office who’s in constant contact with the protagonist, assure each other that there is absolutely nothing at the Timberline to be afraid of. Even when Nicole receives creepy phone calls and hears the occasional odd noise…well, people sometimes make prank calls, and old buildings have a tendency to be creaky, and that’s all.
It’s really never clear whether we should expect a supernatural ghost story or be wary of a more corporeal source of tension when Nicole’s car keys, left on her front seat, suddenly go missing, or boots dripping with freshly melted snow mysteriously appear near the locked front doors. This very ambiguity could have been the basis of a thrilling mystery in its own right, but the hypothetical threat of an unseen presence, human or otherwise, isn’t capitalized on in a timely manner. In fact, there seems to be no concrete reason to suspect anyone but Nicole to be in the hotel, so as day after uneventful day goes by, the sense of safety becomes absolute. Seemingly afraid to fully commit to the idea of an unwelcome visitor, the game fills its 5-6 hour runtime with largely uneventful free-roaming, first-person strolls through the surprisingly uninteresting building, largely devoid of anything to actually do.
As each chapter ticks by, sometimes lasting mere minutes, there aren’t enough interesting events or revelations to maintain suspense, and it doesn’t help that Nicole’s personal recollections don’t add much excitement until late in the game. It’s clear there’s a scandal in her family’s past, but you’re given no breadcrumbs to reach a conclusion yourself before it’s spelled out at the end, so you are reduced to passively observing a mundane tale a large chunk of the time.
It’s a shame that the Timberline itself isn’t particularly interesting to explore either. The majority of guest rooms remain locked and inaccessible for the entire duration, and common areas like the dining room and observatory can be visited once and then safely be forgotten about. With little to do and even less happening around you, the rather spacious hotel just becomes a bit of a chore that you nonetheless have to navigate through to reach the next objective and move the story along. The all-important environmental storytelling, tragically, falls rather flat.
In addition to there being little of note to catch your eye as you walk around, the hotel isn’t exactly glamorous to look at either. This at least makes perfect sense given the state the old building is in – after all, it’s been inhabited exclusively for years by the late Leonard McGrath, a reclusive shut-in alone in his mountaintop retreat. It’s just too bad that the intentional shabbiness isn’t made more satisfying to explore with some visual narrative nuggets. As it stands, the realistic 3D graphics feel a bit lackluster, even if that’s partly intentional.
On the other hand, the audio fits the atmosphere and mood quite well. The voice performances for Nicole and Irving are nicely acted, and in the absence of other characters to interact with there’s quite a lot of conversation between the two. Elsewhere, there’s a heavy focus on the normal noises an older building like the Timberline Hotel makes when set upon by a winter storm, made all the more eerie due to its emptiness. Creaky floors, faraway bumps, and the ever-present howling of the wind do their level best to instill some sense of foreboding. Sound even ties directly into gameplay during one memorable section when you find a directional microphone that you must use to track down the source of a ghostly sound somewhere in the empty building.
The entirety of the gameplay revolves around objectives like that. With a simple keystroke, you can pull up a map of the Timberline’s multiple floors, which will also display the current goal, often requiring you to go to a specific location or find a certain object. While the initial goal is simply to give the place a once-over after first obtaining an employee key, later tasks range from the mundane (finding something to eat) to the spooky (going into the basement to get the generator online when the storm knocks out the power). Then there are a handful of times when there is no current objective, when it’s just you walking around aimlessly, until something – usually a phone conversation with Irving – triggers and moves the plot along.
Over the course of her adventure, Nicole is able to acquire a few items, such as a flashlight or a screwdriver. She won’t pick up anything she has not deemed useful, so even though certain objects can be found early on, she’ll leave them behind until an occasion arises that needs them. There aren’t any actual puzzles to solve, nor are there fail states or challenging gameplay sections, though there is the occasional part that requires locating a secret passage or pushing a button in a particular location. The narrative really is the sole driving force behind this game.
The Suicide of Rachel Foster has some good ideas in terms of its story, unraveling the McGrath family scandal bit by bit while keeping you guessing about whether you’re really alone at the hotel. However, a heightened focus on creating a measured, leisurely haunted house mystery and not enough on interesting gameplay or creating an immersive setting that participates in the storytelling leaves the game feeling aimless at times, and not particularly engaging. Though the final scenes are memorable, the questions about the death of Rachel Foster don’t sink their hooks into players deep enough before then, and the slow pacing detracts from the overall impact. There are elements here to enjoy, they just don’t add up to the shiniest example in the environmental storytelling subgenre.