Indiewatch: The Suicide of Rachel Foster attempts to excuse the inexcusable
Let’s start with a barebones explanation about what The Suicide of Rachel Foster is: a walking simulator set in an abandoned hotel in Montana during a blizzard in the early ‘90s. You play as Nicole, the daughter of the hotel’s proprietors, who is returning to inspect the property before selling it. Her only companion is Irving, a FEMA agent who communicates with Nicole over a primitive cell phone. Together, they dig through the hotel, searching for the truth about Rachel’s death.
That’s the basic premise, but wrapped up in it is a deep ugliness that the game refuses to properly name. Ten years before the game begins, Leonard, Nicole’s father, a man in his 40s, “had an affair” with Nicole’s sixteen year old friend, Rachel Foster. Out of shame, she committed suicide while nine weeks pregnant. When Nicole’s mother, Claire, finds out, she leaves Leonard and takes Nicole with her. Nicole only returns to the hotel to get rid of it.
The gameplay consists of exploring the hotel’s interiors and examining numerous items left behind by Nicole’s late father, Leonard. TSoRF draws inspiration from games like Gone Home and Firewatch but isn’t as good as either. The environmental storytelling is weak - the developers seemed determined to create an extremely realistic hotel, but it lacks any lived-in character. Some of the physical notes and dialogue suffer from serious translation issues. While the voice actors are giving their all, the dialogue feels like it’s been run through Google Translate a few too many times.
Beyond this basic setup, it’s impossible to discuss the major issues of The Suicide of Rachel Foster without spoiling major plot points. If you’re concerned about that, you’ll want to stop here. But let me take a moment to say that this game messes with themes and issues that it has no understanding of and even less appreciation for, and you shouldn’t play it. If you want to know the reasons why, read on.
It’s not an “affair”
I put “had an affair” inside of quotes because the game never calls this relationship what it is, which is child abuse. I had to Google the age of consent in Montana; it’s sixteen - Rachel’s age in the game. (Sidenote: this is probably the first time writing a game review has gotten me on a watch list.)
While a grown man with a Ph.D screwing a high school student isn’t legally statutory rape in Montana, it is horrific and disgusting abuse, made worse by the fact that Leonard was tutoring Rachel at the time. Rachel struggled with dyslexia, and was an outcast at school. She was emotionally vulnerable and looking for support. Leonard wasn’t just a random adult, which would’ve been bad enough. He was her father’s friend, and was in a position of authority over her.
But at every turn we are encouraged to look at Leonard sympathetically. At first, TSoRF seems like it’s trying to complicate the portrayal of a man who has committed heinous crimes. That is an interesting game that I would play. But by the end of the game, you realize that you just participated in a repulsive three hour defense of Humbert Humbert. The writers of TSoRF don’t even seem to think Leonard did anything wrong.
Nicole and Irving both claim that Leonard loved Rachel. The writers’ repeated usage of this word is disturbing. It obfuscates the seriousness of Leonard’s actions and romanticizes the abuse of a minor. Late in the game, Nicole has a nervous breakdown because she finds an extremely creepy replica of Rachel’s bedroom (which, by the way, looks like it belongs to a six year old) in the basement of the hotel.
This “shrine to a dead person” seems to repulse her more than the fact that her father screwed a teenager. Nicole claims her father’s biggest mistake is that he "fell in love with a 16-year old girl." The way the writers deploy this language is important. Even the lead female character refuses to use the terms "raped," "abused," “molested,” or "took advantage of." The game’s writers don’t seem to understand that Leonard’s crime wasn’t marital infidelity - it was child abuse.
And we also need to talk about Irving
Throughout the game, Nicole’s only companion is Irving, who claims to be a FEMA agent who communicates with her via cell phone. During the game’s climax, Irving reveals that he’s actually Rachel’s brother. Irving was obsessed with discovering the truth about what happened to Rachel, so he moved into the motel with Leonard, and waited for years for Nicole to show up.
He’s been living in the condemned back corner of the hotel the entire game, leading her through creepy scenario after creepy scenario to make sure that she was “ready for the truth,” then has the gall to claim that he was lying to protect her. The abuser vibes here are strong.
At the end of the game, Irving explains Leonard and Rachel’s relationship as if it were a fairy tale romance, as “love, nothing more, nothing less” and that this “love” was simply “too much” and that “it would be punished.”
TSoRF’s big reveal is that Claire, Nicole’s mother, killed Rachel out of jealousy, and threw her body in a ravine to make it look like a suicide. Irving claims that Nicole was so jealous of the attention that Leonard paid to Rachel that she repressed her memories about her mother’s suspicious behavior around the time of the murder. So it was actually Nicole that failed Rachel, not the adult tutor who molested her. The problem isn’t child abuse; it’s murderous jealous spouses. If only women would just let men be horrifying child abusers, none of this would’ve happened!
Let’s take a moment to note that Irving loved Rachel so much that he hung out in an abandoned motel with her molester for years. Let the unbelievable weirdness of that sink in. You good on that?
Now I want you to know that someone on the developer's writing team thought that it would be cool if Irving said that “Leonard was a very special man. His soul was big enough to love both you and Rachel.” And this line wasn’t written to reveal Irving as a complete crank; he says this while shaming Nicole for her pettiness and jealousy and it works.
Irving claims that when Nicole left, she abandoned all the people here, namely Irving, Leonard, and Rachel. Nevermind that Leonard sexually abused and impregnated her classmate. This is exactly the kind of person that sensible people run from!
You could make the argument that Irving is an unreliable narrator. But the game makes it clear that Nicole doesn’t think that Leonard abused Rachel either.
When you mouse over certain objects, the game shows you text that describes the item as Nicole sees it. A creepy looking photo of a wolf’s face is “Murdereyes”. Her Dodge sedan is “My Car.” When Nicole sees anonymous threatening letters that call Leonard a pedophile, they are “slander.” Sorry, but “slander” implies untruth, but I don’t see any here.
Villain or victim
And this leads me to another huge issue with this game. There is virtually no character development for Nicole, Rachel, or Claire. In TSoRF, women are only victims or villains. Only men get to be deeply wounded, morally ambiguous characters. The misogyny, intentional or not, is palpable.
Even though she’s half of this “fairy tale romance,” Rachel is a total tabula rasa. Forget the fact for a second that ghost stories only work when we slowly learn what the ghost wants, and that ball is totally dropped here. Her character is voiceless and her consent is assumed. We never learn anything about her side of the story or how she felt about Leonard. We get no voice recordings, no journals, no lost backpack, nothing. Oh, but we do get some of Leonard’s extremely creepy naked drawings of her, which I won’t repost here.
We hear little about Claire aside from a short opening letter and Nicole’s description of the night of the murder. Oh, and she was good at business and liked to feel needed. Also her weapon of choice is Nicole’s hockey stick.
Nicole cusses and snarks through the opening hour, but completely falls apart by the end of the game. She starts TSoRF as an angry survivor, fully justified in her rage. She’s impatient and hard to deal with. She feels real. But she’s never given any agency in the story; she’s just following the breadcrumbs that are left for her by Irving and Leonard.
By the last scene she is begging Irving not to commit suicide. Then she tries to commit suicide by car exhaust. You can save her or let her die. If you save her, she insists she’s going to stay in the hotel forever. She may be possessed by her mom’s ghost. She might not. It’s not clear.
Given that this game spent three hours telling me that old men having sex teenagers is okay because they “love” each other, I’m not particularly interested in parsing whether or not ghosts were involved.
We have a responsibility
I don’t like writing about things like this. I played the game twice to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. I wasn’t. It was even worse than I anticipated. By the end of my second playthrough, I wanted to take a boiling hot shower and scrub my eyes with bleach.
And to be clear, I think you could make an excellent game about a daughter reconciling her love for her father with the terrible things he's done. TSoRF had potential for that, but that is the opposite of what we got.
I’m not against dealing with issues of sexual assault in a game, as long as it’s handled with seriousness and maturity. But no one needs a game that attempts to justify the sexual abuse of minors. Who was the target audience for TSoRF? Jeffrey Epstein?
The gaming industry is huge. It’s the most popular and profitable form of storytelling and art that humanity has ever conceived. Some games aspire to tell human stories of suffering, moral ambiguity, and loss. If we’re going to do that (and I believe we have, and should continue to), if we are in fact storytellers, then we have a responsibility to not promulgate the most destructive narratives in our society. It’s 2020. We shouldn’t sexualize children. We shouldn’t excuse abuse.
After playing and writing about this game, I too felt haunted. Not by the ghosts of Claire or Rachel, but by the fear that we will be struggling with these issues for a long time to come.