Video games should cover mature and evocative themes – but they have to do it right

The climax of ‘The Suicide Of Rachel Foster’ is utterly shocking and for all the wrong reasons

[Content warning: This article discusses ‘The Suicide Of Rachel Foster’, which includes themes of self-harm, suicide, suicide ideation and sexual abuse. It also contains unmarked spoilers for the game.]

The Suicide Of Rachel Foster is a fictional game containing sensitive subjects,” a disclaimer warns when you boot up the game for the first time. This sombre message sits in the centre of the screen, its careful white text contrasted against a plain, dark backdrop. “If you are struggling with personal issues, our dev team strongly recommends you refrain from playing without supervision, and heartily urges you to reach out to a friend, or call a local helpline. You don’t need to face your troubles alone.”

Five seconds later, it’s gone, and – for a brief while, anyway – I forget it was ever there.

Two and a half hours into the game and I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of my character’s car, talking to a lawyer on her hilariously over-sized ’90s mobile phone. Nicole’s voice is calm but stilted, as though she’s a little dazed. A little… well, broken. A distant warning bell starts to chime in the back of my mind – she’s now talking to people who aren’t there; that’s rarely a good sign, is it? – and I swivel the camera to properly survey my surroundings to discover a hose poking through the driver’s side window, its nose taped haphazardly to the glass. I don’t need to see it to know the other end of it is attached to the car’s exhaust.

The Suicide of Rachel Foster
The Suicide Of Rachel Foster. Credit: ONE-O-ONE GAMES

Beyond the fact I’m struggling to believe that the arsey, obnoxious but undeniably feisty woman I’ve just spent two and a half hours getting to know would do this, I’m furious. The next day, I’m still fuming. Turns out it’s that special kind of white-hot, incandescent rage that sits and burns for days in the pit of your guts.

The game maker, One-O-One Games, says The Suicide Of Rachel Foster was made to “stimulate the players to change their point of view about mainstream stories, buzz and rumours” and at the same time “inspire them to do their own research to discover the real truths”. I’ve played it through twice now – my first attempt seemingly tried to save myself from the horror of the conclusion as I was thwarted by a game-breaking bug about 15 minutes from the end. And yet I still don’t understand what that statement’s supposed to mean.

Suggesting we seek alternative perspectives beyond tabloid headlines is perfectly reasonable, yes, but the actions of Nicole’s father weren’t idle town gossip, were they? They weren’t just an unkind rumour. It doesn’t matter which alternate lens I try to adopt here. It doesn’t matter how liberally I try to apply the developer’s supposed learnings. Two playthroughs of The Suicide Of Rachel Foster later and it’s pretty clear I’m supposed to sympathise with a 40-something-year-old man who got a 16-year-old pregnant and then watch on as his daughter gasses herself in the dark garage of the home she grew up in.

And as distressing as the first thing is, it’s the second that angers me more.

This kind of narrative whiplash can’t be hand-waved away with a generic warning. “Sensitive subjects” might sound like a handy catch-all, but it’s woefully inadequate and fails in any way to prepare you for the story’s final moments. Yes, the name of the game gives a pretty hard steer on where things are heading. Yes, the dev team suggest you don’t play alone if you are “struggling with personal issues”. But Nicole is not the titular Rachel Foster, which makes that final scene all the more shocking. Never are you prepared for the fact that you’re expected to be complicit in a suicide attempt.

The Suicide of Rachel Foster
The Suicide Of Rachel Foster. Credit: ONE-O-ONE GAMES

The world is a messy place where people choose to do certain things in a certain way, and then have to live with the consequences of those choices. Games are a valid and provocative place to explore just that kind of theme, even when stories centre on an unpleasant shitheel of a protagonist that’s utterly unlikeable from the off. But personally, I don’t want to ever be in a position where I’m expected to sympathise with a child abuser, nor do I expect to be forced to reach out my character’s hand to turn the ignition and commence a suicide attempt.

Thing is, I have no choice but to start the car. Short of turning off the game and deleting it unceremoniously from my hard drive, there’s nothing else I can do, as the game will not proceed without my explicit action and implicit consent. I am forced to help Nicole attempt to take her own life.

As she sits there, choking on the fumes, eventually you’re given a choice. You can turn the key again and offer Nicole a lifeline – literally. Don’t turn the vehicle off, however, and you’ll sit there just as she does, listening to her struggling to breathe, watching as her vision clouds with exhaust fumes. It’s a conscious decision not to save her; one that involves you actively ignoring the unblinking “TURN OFF?” prompt that sits in the middle of the screen right up until her vision narrows into a dark tunnel and she gasps her last brittle breath.

The player was in no way prepared for this shocking climax. The developer failed in its duty to properly prepare and protect its audience. I am not – and fortunately have never been – suicidal, and I was utterly blindsided; to someone struggling with suicide ideation or intrusive thoughts, it could be utterly devastating.

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