The Town of Light is a serious game about a very serious subject. It’s seriously eerie, seriously atmospheric and seriously good.
Mental health has often been referred to in games but, most of the time, it’s presented in such a way as to allow creators to explain away bizarre plots, include weird mechanics or to provide a lazy background for disturbed characters (generally villains). The depiction of mental health issues in games is also fairly generic and stereotypical: helping to create a less than complete awareness about those problems amongst the gaming community. However, developers LKA.it are trying to rectify some of that damage with their new game, The Town of Light.
In this first-person psychological thriller, you’ll follow Renée – a woman cruelly deprived of her youth when she was locked in an insane asylum at 16 – as she tries to collect the pieces of her broken memory in an effort to discover exactly what happened to her there. The game takes place over a number of chapters as you pick your way through the abandoned hospital (based on the infamous Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra) and the choices you make and the secrets you find will affect what truths Renée ultimately uncovers on her journey.
This Gone Home-alike ‘walking simulator’ is actually fairly light in terms of gameplay – most puzzles aren’t too challenging and, while you’ll often be retracing your steps looking for something you missed to progress to the next revelation, it’s all fairly straightforward: there’s no inventory, you tend not to carry anything (with the notable exception of Charlotte, Renée’s incredibly creepy doll) and the UI consists of a single circle that fills if something can be interacted with and very little else. However, The Town of Light has atmosphere in spades and manages to build a sense of creeping dread throughout, without the use of jump scares, grotesque imagery (for the most part) or any sort of combat.
The majority of your interactions in The Town of Light will be with doors, switches and, most importantly, documents. You’ll find reports, telegrams, textbooks and more scattered here and there around the hospital, all of which help flesh out and realise the story – though you’ll have to have a keen eye and a desire to explore to spot them all. They make reference not only to Renée’s past life in the hospital but also to that of other patients, of doctors, nurses and orderlies and of the institution itself. The documents are all in Italian but helpful translations appear for anything important and, for the rest, you’ll probably feel a slight tingle up your spine as you recognise the odd word or phrase, such as “visita ginecologica” or “lobotomia”. Perhaps the most chilling of these are the textbooks – faithful recreations of beautifully illustrated medical journals from the turn of the last century – showing in incredible detail the inner and outer workings of the body as well as giving guidance for certain procedures, both established and experimental.
Story-wise, though, the most impactful of the documents that you’ll find are Renée’s medical records. Locating these provides a wealth of additional information about her time in the hospital and, as she reads through them, Renée will ask you to help her make decisions about who to believe, whether or not to read on and how to proceed with her search for more clues to her past. It’s a strange mechanic: you begin to feel as though you’re not actually playing as Renée at all – more like you’re her subconscious or some inner projection of Charlotte or… someone else – but it works and, most importantly, it fits in with LKA.it’s portrayal of Renée as someone suffering from major depression and, possibly, schizophrenia. The choices you make in these sections will determine how Renée proceeds – will you provide a voice of reasoned argument to convince her to push forwards, a sympathetic ear who can nudge her on with promises to protect her from harm or will you agree totally with her and help her slip ever more fully into the destructive reality that she is creating for herself?
Throughout The Town of Light, you’ll find yourself in situations where you begin to question exactly what version of reality Renée is currently operating in. Early on, you’ll face a strange sequence where hallways twist and turn, down which you walk and tumble in gleeful disrespect of gravity, then you’ll be thrust back in time to relive a few moments of Renée’s re-forged memories before being dropped back into reality (for want of a better word), far from where you last were – making Renée the quintessential unreliable narrator. Not only that, but Renée’s perception of the hospital itself changes as you play. She gives it character as she talks about its various rooms and wards; the most obvious “horror” elements come from the way the building seems to shepherd you to the next objective – closing and opening doors of its own accord – and its history becomes obvious as you begin to explore: from broken machinery to rusted surgical equipment and the abandoned detritus of those unfortunate enough to have been kept there.
Graphically, The Town of Light is superb. In some sections of the building, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a photograph and a screenshot. In fact, the designers visited the aforementioned Ospedale in Voltera and lifted sections of it wholesale for the game – painstakingly recreating the dilapidated hallways and cracked and peeling paintwork, but adding in their own masterful graffiti and troubling artwork. That the environment looks and feels so very real only heightens the feeling of strangeness when you being to question what is actually real and what is happening in Renée’s mind. When the building begins to change – going from tumbledown ruin to scaffold-girdled restoration project to, finally, being almost as good-as-new – there’s the sense that Renée is rebuilding the hospital at the same time as she is rediscovering her memories; populating it with the spectres of her recovered past and helping to bring it, once more, to life so that she can begin to come to terms with her experiences.
As the name suggests, The Town of Light uses light, in all its forms, to great effect throughout. The absence of light in certain situations heightens the feelings of anxiety and fear; the use of your flashlight only helps to deepen the shadows and limit what you can see in the surrounding darkness. An abundance of light is, also, another tool that the developers use to put you off balance – stepping from the dim interior to the sun-drenched grounds helps to briefly lift the feelings of oppression and wariness, though the strangely powerful light that suffuses one of the game’s final chapters only serves to reinforce the feeling of detachment from the “real” world and your commitment to follow Renée as far into the rabbit hole as she’s willing to go to learn the truth.
The game’s also no slouch in the audio department. It’s a common belief that good games can be made great with proper use of audio – in The Town of Light‘s case, it makes a great game even better, though far more disturbing. As with the Paranormal Activity film series, taking off your headphones or muting the sound will take a little of the creepiness away from The Town of Light but, beware, you’ll also be missing out on some of the best dialogue recording I’ve heard in quite a long time. Renee’s narration is yet another tool that LKA.it have used to invest the game with a deeper sense of character and hearing her plead with you not to have to read more from her medical records is a harrowing experience.
More than anything else, The Town of Light is Renée’s story. You sit, uncomfortably at times, behind her eyes; watching as she attempts to unravel the mystery that was her life, forcing her to uncover more (even as those discoveries become terribly painful for her), walking with her as she retreads the pathways of her past, looking out at the place where she was robbed of her family, her liberty and, ultimately, her self. You begin to understand what she must have been feeling, what she must have gone through and what other people like her – innocent but for the fact that they have a medical condition that is difficult for most to comprehend – have had to go through. But, bizarrely, there are moments in the game where you can’t help but feel sorry for the people blamed for her lamentable situation. One doctor hopes that another will take good care of Renée as she is transferred to his care, an orderly or nurse apologises to the director for having to report her suspicions about a co-worker’s intent towards the female population and yet another doctor bemoans the fact that he never gets to really see or examine the patients – the nurses just tell them what’s wrong and they must diagnose from there.
Despite that, there is a downside to telling the story almost solely from Renée’s perspective. While some characters seem sympathetic, the overarching emotion towards the system is one of anger and distrust. While it may be true that, in the late 1930s and early 40s, Italian physicians were amongst the most prolific users of procedures that we now consider to be barbaric and that Italy, as a whole, seemed to just want to rid themselves of any members who had difficulty adjusting to or conforming to social norms, LKA.it making the system the ultimate antagonist in The Town of Light doesn’t help inform people about the kinds of care and treatment that are available today or the good work that has been done over the decades to better understand the mind and the strain that extraordinary events or even everyday life can put upon it. The portrayal of such a hospital as a terrifying “House of Horror” propagates the belief that seeking aid for your problems might result in being locked up, tied to a bed and having anti-psychotic drugs pumped into your veins because you’re, in some way, unsafe. The game takes great pains to reduce the feeling that Renée, as someone suffering from mental trauma, is violent or needs to be locked up (either for her own or someone else’s good) and the writers can be applauded for that, but helping others understand that people trying to cope with mental illnesses aren’t typically dangerous, violent or to be feared is only half the story. The other half is aiding those who need it get in getting the best help available to them.
While the game might not portray mental health care institutions in the best light, it seems obvious that the developers have tried to make something that accurately reflects the people who have to reside in them. It reminds us all that these kind of problems aren’t always evident at birth – the majority of them can strike at any time and are indiscriminating when it comes to whom they affect. This isn’t just a game about a young woman. It’s not just a game about a scary insane asylum. It’s a game that tries, and almost succeeds, to open people’s eyes (gamers’ in particular) to the very real problem of mental health by experiencing it through the journey of a woman who never asked for the life she was given or that that life be taken away. I urge you, please, to play The Town of Light and uncover Renee’s story, and a greater understanding of the cause for it, for yourself.