Mental illness is an incredibly tough issue and one that video games have often struggled to deal with in the past. Schizophrenia, psychosis, and PTSD are just a few of the conditions that have been unintentionally trivialised in gaming and other media, often boiled down to becoming a quick and easy plot device. The Town of Light looks to explore and confront the issue of mental health head on, however.
Inspired by true events, developer LKA.it takes players on a tour through the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a former mental asylum that still stands in the Tuscan countryside. It’s a slow, sensitive game that leans on a personal, somewhat harrowing tale as its focal point. While The Town of Light certainly has problems, it’s a strong debut from the Italian indie and one that delivers a unique insight absent from mainstream video games.
Despite the spooky setting and atmosphere, The Town of Light doesn’t fall in line with preconceptions of the horror genre. Although there are many of the trappings of terror, these are of a much more human kind, exploring what it would be like suffering from a mental illness. Instead of being chased by demons, aliens, or cannibals, protagonist Renée tries to run from the inescapable: a troubled past obscured by her impaired memory.
This is a constant theme throughout the game which is a completely narrative-focused experience. You’ll explore the asylum one section at a time, slowly piecing together an idea of what happened to Renée and why. As the clues begin to unlock, so too do the doors to new areas, allowing the player’s journey to continue.
Much like Firewatch, Gone Home and other so-called “walking simulators”, if you’re not drawn in by story then there’s little else here to win you over. Thankfully, despite some heavy-hitting themes, the story is fairly easy to digest, at least to begin with.
Upon finding dossiers, diaries, and medical records, you’ll be asked to cast your own judgements on what really happened to Renée. These choices have a notable impact on how the game plays out, creating multiple variants for certain chapters. While it’s always great to see studios experiment with storytelling methods, it was often hard to decipher what kind of response a certain dialogue option might trigger. Luckily, for those wanting to witness every possible variation or re-do their answers, a chapter select option is available.
The asylum itself has been painstakingly, recreated using a combination of scanning technology and conventional methods. This helps to emulate that sense of abandonment and decay found throughout the hospital grounds. It does a great job in depicting the overgrown architecture, much of its brickwork crumbling or smeared in graffiti. Having visited the asylum myself, I can tell you it’s a faithful recreation. Although you won’t smell the damp or feel broken glass underfoot, it’s hard not to feel as though you’re actually there.
Away from the asylum, the visuals take a slight hit. Dense foliage can have a weird pop-in effect on approach while some of the game’s more surreal sequences cobble together fairly blank textures.
The Town of Light isn’t a game you play for fun. There’s nothing enjoyable about the true face of mental illness nor the fear and isolation it engenders. Instead of aiming to reward players with a sense of enjoyment, LKA.it strives to help them empathise with the character of Renée and the unspeakable horrors she’s forced to endure. There’s a sobering, meaningful story to be witnessed and while its delivery is imperfect, The Town of Light still makes for one of the most thought-provoking games of this year.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro