When we received a press release about The Town of Light by LKA, I initially passed it off as ‘yet another horror game set in an asylum’. But the fact that it takes place in a real-world location caught my attention: although not based on a true story, this first-person psychological adventure is set in a location which actually existed and has been meticulously reconstructed in digital format for the title. Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a now-abandoned psychiatric hospital in Italy, was home to more than 6,000 patients and was famous for its use of electroshock therapy before being closed in 1978 when a law condemning hard treatment in such establishments was passed.
I judged the game too quickly – and indeed, I’ve given the genre in the overview box above as ‘horror’ but it’s not necessarily what you think. Dilapidated mental asylums are nothing new for video games and we’re all used to creeping through dark corridors while hiding from supernatural threats. However, jump-scares aren’t on the agenda here; The Town of Light shows that the most terrifying monsters aren’t those lurking in the shadows but buried within in our minds. A big thank you to Stefano Petrullo of Renaissance PR and the LKA team for providing us with preview and review codes, and giving us the opportunity to play this intense game.
On 12 March 1938, sixteen-year old Renèe was taken away and locked up after the police headquarters wrote that she was ‘a danger to herself and a cause of public scandal’. But what really happened back then in the disturbing rooms of the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum? Players explore the crumbling building and interact with the environment in the present day, while reliving the history of the protagonist through her confused viewpoint. As the Steam page for The Town of Light surmises:
The only horror you will find in this game is the truth: a blow to the solar plexus, much more intense than any supernatural presence.
The title could have easily have resorted to shock-tactics with the writers portraying the hospital staff as demons, but I’m pleased to say this is never the case. Yes, you’ll encounter some truly monstrous characters through Renèe’s memories – and it should be noted here that this really isn’t a game for children. However, there a few good people around her too, whose attempts to do the best they can for their patients are hindered by limited information, scarce resources and an uncaring society. LKA have managed to successfully show an era of medicine with good intentions but horrific outcomes.
The way the protagonist switches between talking in first- and third-person in the present day makes it clear she has attempted to distance herself from her traumatic memories over the past decade. She’s a somewhat unreliable narrator, her internal thoughts becoming more confused as the game progresses; and at times what she remembers is completely at odds with the evidence found in medical records and other notes. My initial attempt at The Town of Light has left a lot of unanswered questions which will perhaps be satisfied by further playthroughs. Most intriguingly: why is she now (and presumably in her nineties if the dates match up) alone and wandering the corridors of an abandoned asylum?
Several medical records scattered around Volterra make note of voices inside Renèe’s head and their constant orders. It therefore makes sense to assume that players are cast in the role of one of these voices, although this way was never fully explained during my playthrough. It’s your job to guide her through the decaying asylum in search of rooms or objects that trigger memories so you can view flashbacks of her past; and while the story is gripping, it becomes obvious very early on that there isn’t much else for the player to do.
It’s therefore easy to see where comparisons to ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther are coming from, although it must be said that there’s more to LKA’s release than that. There are a number of mechanics similar to all games in the genre and these appear within The Town of Light too – some handled in a slightly different or possibly even better way, and others that let it down just a little. The positives do outnumber the negatives however and this is an extremely ambitious title from a new independent developer.
The usual complaint in connection with heavily narrative-driven titles is that they’re very linear: players are guided down a single route and can never stray far from the developer’s intended path. While this is apparent in The Town of Light, at several points you’ll be able to make a number of choices which will affect its outcome. The developer has revealed that there are four endings in total and unfortunately the one I’ve seen so far feels a little at odds with the game’s original premise. I’m hoping that further playthroughs and different choices will reveal the information I’m missing, although I’m not sure I’m ready to jump back in just yet… more about that later.
Objectives are given by way of Renèe’s internal thoughts and as these can be awfully ambiguous at times, it’s easy to become lost within the crumbling building. Fortunately LKA has provided a hint system of sorts: pushing the ‘back’ button on the controller reveals more of the protagonist’s inner monologue and this can be used in conjunction with maps dotted around the halls to determine the next destination. This gives the impression that trying to impose a fictional story (albeit one based on facts and research) on a real-world location resulted in a number of challenges for the developer. Changing the location of rooms to better suit their plot would have gone against their aim to ‘meticulously recreate’ the asylum.
During my exploration I came across a number of decrepit rooms featuring what could so easily be torture implements including a large electrical unit and a table where electroshock therapy had taken place. I also found a projector that, when turned on after locating a power source, shows photographs of the hospital before its closure. They’re stark reminders that this is a shocking tale grounded in reality, in a place that actually exists; and was once the home of a very young science where experimentation into cures led to terrifying therapies.
Games in the genre come alive in the objects uncovered by the player – in the case of Gone Home for example, the notes between family members, official letters, cassette tapes made by Lonnie. The Town of Light’s asylum setting could have provided so many opportunities in this way and the rusted wheelchairs, ripped textbooks and stained hospital gowns certainly do add to the atmosphere. But they’re simply cosmetic and it’s a shame that more can’t be picked up and examined closer. The few medical records found around the environment all relate to Renèe which begs the questions: how have they survived all this time, and where are the notes on other patients?
Touching certain items results in a flashback, usually conveyed in the style of a 2D sepia drawing. While these images aren’t overly graphic it should be noted that the title contains strong content and some may find the details revealed disturbing. The press material provided to us states:
The Town of Light aims to tell a story inspired [by] real facts, some of them we are aware [will] create discomfort in people, especially in the realm of the game medium which is not [usually] used to tackle those aspects… This is the reason we have decided to inform players at the very beginning of the game that the story we are telling contains discomforting elements, elements we have not decided to put in for the sake of it but that are part of what unfortunately really happened in some instances.
Visuals and audio
There are a number of visual styles used throughout The Town of Light which could have potentially clashed but work surprisingly well together. The title begins in the grounds of Volterra on a hazy afternoon, dust-motes reflected on the screen and swallows darting up above. It’s reminiscent of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture here. LKA have added a nice touch by allowing the player to actually use the swings, slide and roundabout in the rusty playground – although it’s a little jarring when you look down and can’t see your legs!
Immediately upon entering the hospital however the atmosphere changes to something more akin to Homesick: loneliness and isolation seeps out of the peeling walls, and evidence of the establishment’s previous inhabitants such as doctors’ notes and dusty garments are found within the shadows. Your footsteps echo through the halls and the walls make random noises as they shift with age. It feels extremely ominous, almost as if there could be a jump-scare at any moment and I spent most of the title with the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
Renèe’s flashbacks begin as a black-and-white scene in which her movements are limited, usually because she has been tied down. Unfortunately the character models don’t look as attractive as the environments but the lack of detail could be construed as the protagonist’s memories fading over the decades. When her memories reach their climax, the visual style shifts to the 2D sepia drawings mentioned above and I’m grateful I only had to experience the most traumatic parts of her history in this way rather than in first-person. It’s at these points that the fear of the supernatural and monsters lurking in the shadows fades away: the real demons are those within the protagonist’s mind and they’re not so easy to escape.
Really, the only speaking character within The Town of Light is Renèe and I have to say that the performance didn’t appeal to me for several reasons. First, the title is set in Italy yet she has that generic American accent which so often appears in video games. Next, she remains calm for most of the game and this is at extreme odds with the information uncovered within her medical records. And finally, as mentioned above the protagonist should be in her nineties if the dates add up correctly; but she sounds as if she has been voiced by a much younger actress.
Replay and innovation
As mentioned earlier in this review, the story develops in different ways depending on the choices you make; and this can particularly difficult to do due to Renèe’s confused state of mind. Creative Director Luca Dalcó said in an interview with the Metro:
One of the key methods for portraying symptoms of mental illness in the game is that you’ll see something that suggests a particular situation and at the beginning it seems very clear. But going through the game you start to realise that they’re not so straightforward and so you begin to question your own mind and the reality around you. That is a common problem for someone in Renèe’s situation.
The multiple endings provide some replayability value and they tie in with achievements available through Steam. I’d love to be able to play again to discover more about the protagonist and what happened to her as I have so many unanswered questions; but if I’m being completely honest I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that for quite some time. Playing this game wasn’t an enjoyable experience. That’s not because LKA’s release is a bad one but because its story is so raw, so incredibly horrific yet grounded in reality that it left my skin crawling.
It’s here where The Town of Light’s innovation lies. It’s to its credit that it doesn’t come across as trying to gratuitously shock but doesn’t shy away from showing unpleasant and uncomfortable scenes either. The patients queuing up for their showers, Renèe being subjected to a medical examination, the moment when she’s brutally pulled away from one small minute of happiness – they’re all presented to the player in a way that isn’t heartless yet effectively conveys how hopeless and dehumanising the situation is. The developer has chosen to tackle a subject matter not usually conveyed in video games and, while some will say that it isn’t necessarily ‘a game’, its evidence of what the medium can do.
There has been an increase in the number of narrative-driven titles on the market recently and they’re proof that video games can be more than just blood and violence. The medium is unique in that it can put the player in the shoes of someone entirely different from themselves and give an insight into what life is like. The Town of Light is highly ambitious in its aim to show how it would feel to be a person beset by mental illness and depression – but with several honours under its belt already, including the award for Excellence in Story & Story Telling at the Paris Game Connection 2014, it’s clearly going about it in the right way.
Some will say that this isn’t truly a ‘video game’ due to its lack of gameplay elements and others will find its focus too disturbing. Yes, it has its flaws and could sometimes do with a little more direction or clarification. But LKA has created a title that opens the players’ eyes to a sensitive subject matter in a way that isn’t gratuitous, and doesn’t try to shock or offend. Here is proof that video games can educate and raise awareness.
It may not be a ‘fun’ experience, but The Town of Light is an emotional, intense and brave one.