As someone who’s dealt with and suffered from mental illness since childhood, I’ve always been intrigued by how it’s portrayed in popular culture. As such, the first time I heard about LKA.it’s first foray into gaming, that being The Town of Light, it piqued my interest and became a must play for me. Thus, I began to follow it and reported on its journey towards a console release more than once, all while looking forward to seeing how the fledgling developer would tackle such difficult subject matter.
Best described as an interactive story, The Town of Light is a walking simulator style video game that aims to both teach and horrify those who play it. However, unlike many of its peers, this particular title is devoid of ghosts or anything else that goes bump in the night. Within its confines, the real monster is humanity, specifically the cruel ways in which different institutions treated those with mental illness decades ago.
These are things that we don’t like to talk about or let cross our minds because they’re too disturbing, inhumane and generally upsetting, but we need to talk about them and continue to learn from the past. Thankfully, LKA has done a good job of handling such matters with class, respect and consideration, which deserves commendation. You can really tell that this was a passion project for them. Furthermore, this is something that started off as a modeling effort, then turned into a game afterwards, which explains some things.
At the centre of this dark tale is a young woman named Renee, who was transferred to and locked within the confines of Italy’s Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra when she was just sixteen years old. This, you see, was back in 1938, when the one hundred percent real institution was up and running, employing sadistic methods of treatment against its poor, mentally troubled patients.
In The Town of Light, Volterra’s mental hospital exists as a historical ruin that looks like it was abandoned in a hurry. Documents are spread across tables and desks, wheelchairs sit idle in dusty corners of dingy hallways, and relics of the age’s medical horrors remain stationary. The grounds, which were likely once pretty beautiful, also show this decay, with overgrown greenery, dilapidated greenhouses and the relics of abandoned construction. Simply put, it’s like something that you’d find within the pages of a Stephen King story, or used as the setting of a disturbing and psychologically focused horror movie.
It’s this familiar environment which the player must explore, as Renee ventures back to her own personal Hell in search of answers. Through this effort, the young lady is used as a vehicle for which the player gets to experience and learn about what went on inside of the institution’s walls (and those like it) during that time period. Nasty, horrible, and inhumane things, which make me glad for the more modern approach to mental illness, even if today’s treatment methods still aren’t all that helpful.
As Renee explores Volterra’s dusty rooms, dilapidated exterior and the lands surrounding it, she harkens back to the days she spent there as the equivalent of a prisoner. She does this in order to gain closure, as she still deals with delusions and other symptoms of her illness and wants to see if what she remembers actually happened as it did. Needless to say, it’s quite the premise, given that games don’t normally place you in control of a realistically mentally ill person, nor do they send such characters back to real, historically inspired locations where such horrible things occurred.
Then again, while The Town of Light deserves credit and applause for how it deals with the aforementioned material on a narrative basis, it isn’t much of a game or all that fun. Then again, creating something that is enjoyable to play likely wasn’t the goal of those who made this, given its dealings with severe mental illness, antiquated and inhumane treatments for such conditions, and the types of both physical and sexual abuse that were commonplace in this location. That is, a place where people were locked up in different wards depending on how excited they were, and where mail from home was withheld.
Still, most people tend to play video games for entertainment, and I feel that such an experience may be a hard sell, since it will only appeal to a small niche audience. A certain level of maturity is needed to play, understand and appreciate such a game, and even then it won’t be for everyone. This could have been helped if more attention had been paid to the gameplay side of things, because it feels as if that aspect was somewhat overlooked in favour of storytelling.
Walking simulators, or interactive narratives if you prefer that term, are at their best when they present an interesting storyline through intriguing gameplay. It’s not an easy balance to achieve, of course, but it’s something that is necessary to hit a proverbial home run with this type of game, and is what titles like What Remains of Edith Finch did so well. Unfortunately, The Town of Light — which bears a name that is the exact opposite of the darkness it contains — doesn’t present enough interesting gameplay to rise to the top of its genre.
Over the course of your two-and-a-half to three hour-long stay at Volterra, you will find yourself doing a lot of walking, exploring, backtracking and reading. Sure, there are a couple of light puzzles to be found, but they’re far from taxing or anywhere close to involved, and the answers are often given to you by way of mechanical instructions. Renee can also be called upon to provide a clue through the use of what was once called the select button.
As you explore the two main floors of the building, you’ll be asked to consult posted maps that numerically point to where you need to go after hearing Renee’s clues and observations. This will take you from one point to another, then back again later on, as most wings require more than one visit during the game’s fifteen short chapters. Along the way, you’ll find old photographs, patient files and Renee’s own personal records, including disturbing notes from doctors who seem to have been more interested in silencing her than actually helping her get better. There’s also the aforementioned mail, which — like the medical records — requires you to spend a lot of time staring at digitized paperwork, all the while Renee slowly reads the lengthy text that is contained within. Reading some of the material yourself (since the early bits aren’t read aloud for some reason) can be difficult if you don’t sit near your TV, because the paper-based text is in Italian shorthand, while the English (or whichever language you choose to play in) translation is located in a nearby black box. This wouldn’t be a problem if the box and its white text weren’t so tiny, but they’re both surprisingly small, as if the developer forgot that console gamers often sit several feet away from their screens, unlike PC gamers who are usually right in front of their monitors.
Every once and a while, Renee will recall a memory and question whether it was real. These memories appear as black and white motion comics, which resemble charcoal drawings. They’re pretty nice to look at, but don’t involve a lot of movement or much in the way of effects, which is understandable given the game’s subject matter and what was likely a small budget. At times, things will also shift to black and white momentarily, when a memory is triggered or the player enters an important area, like the showers. There are also several occasions where Renee will read something and the player will be tasked with choosing her response, or that of her psychosis. The answers to these quiz-like questions seem to change the game, unlocking different versions of certain chapters, which are listed in the achievement list as A, B, C and D. This promotes replay value, I guess, but I don’t know if it really helps the game’s narrative, nor do I think that people are going to feel compelled to play through this campaign more than once.
Although a lot of effort was put into researching the Volterra institution and remaking it in digital space, The Town of Light‘s dated engine, often annoying input mechanics and performance problems keep it from being as immersive as it could have been. Despite being a new-ish release, this is a game that doesn’t look or feel very modern, although its environments can be pretty detailed. Instead, it looks and feels dated, and even employs gameplay mechanics that feel both old and uninspired. The dialogue, and the voice acting, are thankfully quite a bit better than the visuals, but Renee’s narration is almost too specific and too obvious. As such, it’s hard to ever get lost or feel any sense of challenge.
Overall, The Town of Light is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s an interesting, enlightening and downright terrifying look into how mental illness was perceived and treated during the 1930s and 1940s. However, on the other hand, it’s a dated, clunky and somewhat boring gameplay experience that doesn’t demand enough of the player or perform as well as it could. Together, these two aspects combine to create a game that is tough to really score, and one that will only appeal to a certain audience. That said, those who are willing to give it a chance will learn from it and respect it for the lengths that it goes to in order to portray such difficult subject matter.
**This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.**
- Maturely handles the difficult subject that is mental illness
- Informative, interesting and disturbing
- The developers put effort into researching and recreating a real-life institution
- There's little in the way of gameplay, and what's there is both tedious and clunky
- Dated visuals and frame rate issues mar the experience
- There's not much of a game to be found here