Volterra is exactly how you would picture idyllic rural Italy. Ensconced deep in the heart of Tuscany, it’s a good hour’s drive from the urban sprawls of central Siena, Florence, and Pisa. Even in early spring, a serpent-like road basks in the sun, tracing its way through farms and vineyards, spiralling towards this walled medieval town.
Therein lies both mystery and tragedy. A human tragedy that, in 2017, is crucially relevant the more we start to understand mental health in our society. It was here, in 1888, that the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra was established. For years a nearby convent of nuns had taken in the sick, lost, and helpless people of this region. From the dense Volterran woodland sprung a cluster of grand pavilions, soon annexed by a compound of outbuildings. The grounds of asylum would effectively become a town within a town.
However, as with most institutions of its kind, the hospital was and still is a great source of controversy, marking a grim and deeply unfortunate chapter in human history. Large parts of the asylum have now been repurposed into amenities such as a museum and hotel, but the more iconic structures still perch atop the mountainside, casting a shadow over this otherwise picturesque town.
Despite huge advances in the way video games convey narratives, there has always been an inherent blindness when it comes to hard-hitting subjects. Up until very recently, we mostly thought of games as a mode of escapism and empowerment. Now they’re also being used as a way of exploring us as a society, holding up a mirror and challenging the way we think.
The Town of Light is a game all about challenges. From its difficult subject matter and creation down to its painstaking authenticity, developer LKA.it has really jumped in at the deep end with its first project. One of the biggest challenges, as creative director Luca Dalcò explains, has been trying to convey their vision to the wider public. “At the beginning people thought ‘Oh, it’s a horror game,'” he said. “Then people thought ‘Oh, no, it’s a documentary.'”
Since Slender, P.T., and the recent skyrocketing of first person horror, there’s a go-to template for most of these games. A shopping list of elements that, as time passes, holds fewer surprises. At a glance, with zero context whatsoever, it would be easy to take The Town of Light for a similarly eerie horror game. If all you have seen are a few screengrabs, you’ve likely pictured a series of jump scares, chase scenes, and a sinister looming threat that follows you throughout.
In truth, the game couldn’t be any more different, and aligns more closely with titles such as Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Although it succeeds in creating a sense of dread and hopelessness, it’s very different from what horror fans are used to.
The story is told through the eyes of Renée, a young girl brought into the aslyum when she was just sixteen. Although fictional, her character and the experiences she faces are coloured by LKA.it’s extensive research of Volterra, mental illness, and what psychiatric treatments were available at the time.
A skewed chronology adds to the mystery as the game’s events slowly unspool. For the most part players will see the asylum as it is today in all its foreboding glory, but also delve into a series of flashbacks and surreal gameplay segments. It sports a slower, more considered brand of horror. Instead of throwing you in the midst of crazed killers or hordes of the undead, The Town of Light explores what it would be like to lose one’s identity as a human being.
“When we said we were doing a game, it was not easy for people to understand,” Dalcò explained. He went on to say that although the industry has evolved and matured greatly, the word “game” still comes loaded with certain connotations. It was important for Luca and the team to dispel this image that they were using the events surrounding Volterra as a convenient backdrop for players.
“I want to convince people that games are the strongest, most powerful medium we have today,” he continued. “After a while, with the team going around and speaking with the various people of Volterra, explaining what we wanted to achieve, people were at ease and opening themselves up a bit more, offering experience and collaboration, helping to create Renée and make the story as realistic as possible.”
Naturally, this involved many visits to the abandoned asylum, most notably the Chalcot pavilion.
“I knew Volterra very well,” Dalcò said. “The first I visited the asylum a few years ago it was much more open than it is now. I fell in love with it as soon as I arrived.”
Having come from a theatre background, Dalcò has experience when it comes to the rigours of artistic management and handling scripts on large and complex projects. However, he quickly realised that The Town of Light simply wouldn’t work on the big stage. Instead, he decided to experiment with game engines, recruiting a small team of developers – students from the University of Tuscany. Together they were able to successfully recreate the Charcot pavilion. This simulation would gradually evolve into something more closely resembling a video game.
Positioned as more of an immersive experience than a traditional horror title, don’t expect a wealth of systems to play around with. Although many of the objects found in the asylum can be interacted with, exploration and discovery are the two driving forces here with some light puzzle solving alongside.
Although we played an unfinished build of the game, its authenticity is already well established. Having toured the main pavilion and its grounds just hours before, seeing them come to life on-screen was a bizarre sensation. The talented team at LKA haven’t just used the asylum as an inspiration – they’ve almost recreated it brick for brick. When tasked with reaching the building’s boiler room, I instinctively sought out the real-world location instead of looking at the in-game map. Sure enough, it was right there.
Of course, not everyone will get a chance to walk the halls of the asylum in real life. To feel the crunch of glass under foot or watch the afternoon sun cut through metal bars, bleaching the overgrown masonry. It certainly colours your impressions of the game and elevates any respect you hold for the developer.
The way The Town of Light portrays the day-to-day life of patients was also carefully researched, as were the treatment methods employed by staff. This was before the Second World War had ended and, as such, the doctors and nurses working within the asylum had no access to psychiatric medicines.
In comparison to the treatment programmes we have today, the methods used by the officials at Volterra were primitive at best. However, while it’s easy to demonise the staff, it’s important to remember that they didn’t have the knowledge or means to remedy this growing patchwork of mental illnesses. That feeling, of not being able to help patients, would itself breed depression and hopelessness.
As psychiatrist Paolo DiPazzia explained to us that patients weren’t treated based on their pathology. Labels for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other conditions simply didn’t exist at the time. Instead, patients were loosely diagnosed based on behavioral observation.
The results of these observations would effectively dictate your life within the walls of the asylum. Where quiet patients often had the freedom to integrate, agitated and violent patients were restrained or isolated. Some of them even went through rounds of experimental therapy deemed cruel and ineffective by modern medical standards.
“The aim was to try to get these people as normal as possible” DiPazzia explained, noting that patients were often taught certain crafts such as carpentry, printing, and tailoring. Aside from being a distraction technique, it also meant that the asylum could become self-sufficient. “It was like a little town or village. [It was] completely autonomous.”
In learning more about the history of Volterra, it’s easy to understand why Luca Dalcò and LKA.it wanted to create a video game based on the events that took place here. Compared to books, film, and television, games allow an unrivalled degree of interaction. When playing The Town of Light, you aren’t just watching, you’re experiencing everything first hand. It’s a sense of involvement you simply don’t get when passively viewing a screen or flipping through the pages of a novel.
Games, as former asylum worker Angelo Lippi pointed out, are also a great way of reaching a younger, more tech-savvy audience. The Town of Light is so faithful to the history and aesthetic that, for him, it hurts just to watch someone play it. Quite understandably, seeing the horrors of the Charcot pavilion brought to life isn’t easy and although he was eager to discuss his time working as a social assistant, being exposed to such an environment clearly had a lasting impact.
Entering the asylum now, your eyes roam between the graffiti, crumbling brickwork, and a tangle of plantlife looking to reclaim the ground upon which it was built. It’s chilling and sobering, yet far preferable to what Angelo would have seen standing here just decades ago. You won’t hear the disharmony of human voices. Instead, words are spoken in cryptic verses, scrawled about the pavilion. The smell of smoke and unkept bodies has long surrendered to that of damp stone and the encroaching woodland. Where the halls were once packed with hundreds of patients, there are only crudely-drawn spectres and the occasional mannequin, quietly standing guard.
During Angelo’s time at the asylum, he only saw black and white. “You couldn’t see that people had a past,” he said, “that they loved their mother – they were just black and white figures that did not express anything.”
If there’s one thing Angelo would like players to remember it is to respect the dignity of every person – regardless of their mental condition. He wants us to realise that although we may not understand, behind even the most complex and volatile of illnesses there is still a person.
It’s a powerful message and one that The Town of Light has remained faithful to. There’s a combined sense of care and gravity that will take most players by surprise. However, for LKA.it and Wired Productions, their biggest challenge is yet to come. In straddling the line between horror game, simulation, and documentary, they’re catering to very specific niche, despite extending their reach to both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.