Christmas games are few and far between. Usually the closest we get are either certain levels, such as in Gex: Deep Cover Gecko, or the Kingdom Hearts series (in particular Kingdom Hearts 2) or when December comes around on the game calendar (the Persona series). Then you have Batman Arkham Origins and most of the Yakuza series, which are all pretty much Christmas games in their own right. But I can guarantee you, a really, really dark Christmas game would be quite rare, even by Batman standards…Now let us talk about The Suicide Of Rachel Foster.
Set at Christmas time in 1993, our tale revolves around Nicole McGrath (née Wilson), a 28 year old woman who travels to the abandoned Timberline Hotel on the outskirts of Helena, Montana in the USA. The journey is perilous, as a terrible snow storm starts to brew while she’s travelling there. She eventually arrives. The Hotel in mention was where she grew up, as her parents, Leonard and Claire, were the proprietors of the estate over 10 years ago. Nicole only comes to the Hotel to inspect the site quickly, and then get out of there and sell it. The reason? She has some very unhappy memories of the place, which includes a few involving a 16 year old girl named Rachel Foster and Nicole’s father. However when she tries to leave, she notices that her car key is missing from the driver’s seat, and the snowstorm has gotten worse…and she’s trapped…with nothing but an early cellphone, all of her electrical, heating and water needs met, and enough varied cans of beans to survive the winter. With the cellphone she ends up talking to Irvine, a young FEMA agent who acts as a middle man between her and her Lawyer, Jenkins (who can’t get to the Hotel due to the storm). He gives her the weather report and acts as a verbal guide throughout the hotel. Part of the story is their newfound friendship.
Now to see what makes us want to stay or go:
The art direction of TSORF is clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’, from the wooden walls in the guest areas, to the old paint colours of the staff areas, to the hints of Native American decoration in some halls, to the rug patterns that remind me of that scene where Danny Torrence meets the Twin girls who said “Come Play With Us…”. Personally, I love that design choice because it comes from one of the creepiest films ever made and manages to submerge you into that environment. Complete with dark halls, strong winds and the settling of structural foundations that make it feel like you’re not alone in this place. This is by far the best aspect of the game.
The level design and gameplay, I’ll be honest, leave a lot to be desired, even for a walking simulator. Imagine if several side-missions from an Elder Scrolls or Fallout game were given their own game and happened on different days. The emphasis is on how events or little things learned can make up a day (or so it seems). As the game progresses you start to pick up a few tools to help, including a polaroid camera, a flashlight and a ghost hunter’s microphone…however, 2 of these items become useless when you decide to cheat…by going into options and just turning up the brightness. Doing so takes away the dark and scary atmosphere, but at least you’re not struggling to find a corridor that you forgot was there, while (possibly) waiting to bump into whatever or whoever has stole your car key. Comparisons can be made between this game and the likes of Firewatch (Walkie Talkie Interaction), and What Remains Of Edith Finch (Return to family home full of bad memories). But where those games shine, this game falls flat
Nicole is a fair protagonist, and through her bedroom we get an idea on what sort of person she was before ‘the incident’. She’s not a central character, but very much changes as the game progresses. She starts off with an evident chip on her shoulder, but the car journey she took and the fact that she didn’t ever want to come back to this place means this attitude can have it’s place. Irving comes across as a little dorky, and Nicole has no problem addressing it. But I found Nicole and Irving to have good chemistry. They are a step down from (the very similar but much funnier) Firewatch, as the dialogue and voice acting in that game is really good. Here it’s well done, and where the characters are playful in sarcasm and remembering childhoods, it’s at its best.
The story…the story can be taken in several ways. It started off well, but (without trying to spoil it), I thought the game really missed the mark by the end and fell flat. It brought up a few questions: Are the writers aware of what actually happened in this game’s backstory…or is it just the characters? Where do these characters stand morally? Why is something so hard hitting and dark sweeped to the side & not properly addressed? The themes and subject matters in this story include both sexual abuse and child abuse – two things that should never be normal, and yet in this game…it kind of is…I don’t know if it was the translation issue, but unless it was a mistake, there some lines of dialogue are just…yeah, it doesn’t look good. While the game warns you that it has this kind of subject matter in it and suggests that anybody who came through such horrors might not want to play this game (or at least play it alone), unfortunately some very important points were missed in favour of “The real ending” that distracts you like a magic trick showing one thing while something else has happened at the same time (But you seemingly focus on this one thing and forget the other. That the true monster can walk pass you while the secondary monster is a scapegoat). In a way we got an unexpected ending, but it was not a good ending. Whether you experienced abuse of any kind in the past or not, this is not a game where all perceptions can walk away with newfound empathy or acceptance of the past while moving forward.
The music by Federico Landini is really good, in particular at setting the scene. And I could say that outside of the art design, this is the second best aspect of the whole game. It manages to have ambience and creep factor with its use of minor key western-sounding guitar and piano playing that says “Here’s the snowstorm, here’s the safe haven…and here, you will be haunted. Welcome to Nowhere, America”.
Would I recommend The Suicide Of Rachel Foster? …If you’re a visual arts student or like decent soundtracks, then yes. The game is…quite solid, with a well made and quite likeable journey…then you get to the ninth day and it falls apart. I might say “play it at least once”, if you don’t mind the gameplay or the more disturbing themes it exudes, because , once again, it is a fairly good journey. However, after you’ve played it, it only becomes a good game for study. The art design, music and atmosphere are good for ‘borrowing or stealing like an artist’, and the dialogue has a charismatic flow with 2 flawed but likeable characters. However the gameplay could leave a lot to be desired, and isn’t so much a fun experience or one that gives you any real reward for completing it. So, if you’re an artist looking for a good, creepy atmosphere that plays on less-is-more to draw from the creative well, and you feel that you can tell a much better story with inspired versions of those materials, you’re the best audience for this game.
Level Design: **
Voice Acting: ***1/2
Story: * (***1/4 for the journey, minus **1/4 for the ending)