FBT steps over the line in this walking sim
After the death of her father, Nicole returns to the family hotel to put it up for sale, with the proceeds willed to the family of a young girl, Rachel, who committed suicide years before. Trapped by a snowstorm in the isolated and dilapidated hotel, Nicole finds herself facing up to the ghosts of her family’s past and uncovering the events that led up to Rachel’s death.
But as Nicole realises what happened all those years ago, we realise we’ve been duped into a melodramatic, manipulative mystery that leaves you feeling uncomfortable instead of moved. That’s if Nicole could actually move.
Just like What Remains of Edith Finch, Nicole is the slowest walker ever. If I were in a terrifying, creaky hotel expecting to see the Shining twins around every corner, I’d put my foot down. This should be a run-like-hell sim. And dragging her heels is not the only thing Rachel has in common with Edith.
Young woman forced to return to empty family house? Check. House filled with regret and family secrets? Check. Eerie goings on and a sense that the supernatural is at work? Check. It’s Edith Finch meets Gone Home (it's even set in the 90s), but without those games’ whimsical melancholy. Instead we get hints of Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath meets The Shining – that’s the carpet from the Overlook, I expect to see Danny trike by or find myself outside Room 237. There’s other references you pick up as you slouch about; it’s a good mash-up, but feels familiar.
There’s a Firewatch aspect too; Nicole is in radio contact with a FEMA agent who was checking everyone in the county has battened down for the storm. They have the same prickly relationship which slowly thaws, and Nicole is initially unlikeable, but as her resolve and grip weakens, a much more fragile person is revealed, one who hasn’t ever dealt with what happened here. Shame we have to deal with it.
The hotel is so vast you’re perma-lost – which works at first, making you feel alone and uneasy; the corridors are claustrophobic, the open spaces make you feel exposed and the excellent sound mix of creaks, bumps and wails combined with clues suggest you may not be the only guest at the Timberland. But you might be the only living one.
As you dig around Dads belongings and your own memories, things start to happen. The twisty hotel starts to bear down on you and it builds in almost unbearable ways – a door that was sealed mysteriously opens, we walk into a freezer and it locks us in; we’re constantly on edge and the game just keeps ramping it up. At one point the lights go out. Ignoring all the lighters lying about, Nicole uses a Polaroid camera, letting the flash illuminate the way. It’s terrifying as hell, the game’s standout moment.
Later, she discovers ghost hunters rented a room for an investigation and we watch a video of them being so terrified of something they left everything behind; and the room has been bolted shut … inside, Nicole discovers a parabolic mic they dropped; I was scared enough turning it on, but suddenly I heard a breathing behind me that terrified me so much I had to go turn the lights on, not sure if it was in the game or not. The more Nicole uncovers, the more the hotel seems to wake up. But what does it have to do with Rachel? In truth, nothing.
While a walking sim’s location is important, it’s the storytelling that draws you in – and it starts off well, with the family running the hotel happily until it’s discovered dad had been having an affair with one of Nicole’s school friends, Rachel. The fallout saw Nicole taken away by Mum, Dad becoming a hermit and Rachel talking her own life. It’s heady stuff to dig into, and you uncover some really uncomfortable truths - not about the story, but the game.
Rachel is never given a voice; she’s not even an enigma you solve, she’s background to the family’s woes, blamed for the break-up. We never learn about her, her side of this. She’s just the catalyst to get us to the hotel, her suicide a Hitchcockian McGuffin to kickstart the plot of repressed Nicole put through the ringer for her own good, like a bloodless Saw film. Dad and Rachel’s relationship is played without comment, an affair rather than abuse; it’s almost romantic, with Dad implied to have groomed her but also genuinely loved her, letting him completely off the hook - and it’s suggested Mom was difficult and disinterested in Dad; poor guy, give him a break?
The only way Rachel is described is physically, as the school hottie, appearing ‘adult’ and said to be ‘mature for her age’ … all classic justifications putting the blame on her - and we find sexualised drawings of her. Yet the devs use the image of a child’s retainer, the classic symbol of adolescence as the game’s motif - designed like a butterfly, the image of change, beauty, freedom. It feels very uncomfortable, tawdry, outdated – if not completely insensitive, and then you remember the game’s title, and infuriatingly even that’s a cheat, a set up for a final act reveal you’d expect from a daytime movie. To use the word Suicide then intentionally rug-pull us into a cliché small town, big secrets plot is offensive.
Even more maddening, the ending puts you in Rachel’s shoes, given the choice to ‘stay at the hotel forever’. In my ending (presumably there’s several given the conversation choices and events), I actually committed suicide then realised I could back out of it – and got an Achievement called “All together, again”. Everyone connected to this story is dead. It’s just distasteful. Even with a warning about suicide themes that’s a pretty irresponsible sequence, since how we got there is confused and contradictory. A game has to be exceptionally well-considered to pull off contemplating suicide as an achievement, and this isn’t even close.
Rachel is often powerful stuff about how secrets and events tear people apart, and the hotel is at times the best walking sim/cowering experience I’ve had yet, but just like Nicole we’re sucked into the hotel under false pretences. As a game, Rachel is an occasionally brilliant if derivative walking sim. As an experience, it’s irresponsible and upsetting for the wrong reasons.