In a world that’s still obsessed with the tired, harmful, and inaccurate trope of “crazed lunatics” in its horror stories, The Town of Light is a welcome breath of fresh air. This is ostensibly a horror game, and one set in a mental asylum no less, but there are no deranged madmen or wailing ghouls. Instead, this game’s horror comes from the protagonist’s journey to revisit a youth spent imprisoned in that asylum, and the torture and abuse she had to go through in the name of “treatment”.
It’s a harrowing tale, and made all the more so by its basis in history. The Town of Light is set in the real-life Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra (Volterra Psychiatric Hospital). The hospital was opened in 1887, and like most sanitariums in the early days of psychiatry, the intentions were good: to treat mental illness. However, like many sanitariums in the early days of psychiatry, treatments were experimental, unproven, and often dangerous, and what was meant to be a place of well-being instead became a prison. Volterra earned the nickname “The place of no return” because of how difficult it was for people to get out once committed, and it was shut down in 1978 because of how cruelly patients were treated.
The Town of Light gives players a 1:1 re-creation of the remains of Volterra asylum to explore in the shoes of Renée T., a fictitious former patient who’s revisiting the facility’s ruins in an effort to recover lost memories. As you make your way around the decrepit building, you find objects and places that spark flashbacks, helping Renée (and, by extension, the player) to piece together what happened while she was there.
And it really is quite horrifying. Committed at 16, Renée was subject to all manner of abuse and torture. Some of what she went through was done in the name of treatment, like electroconvulsive therapy and being tied to a bed for weeks at a time. Some was the result of an institution that saw its patients as sub-human and not requiring of basic care. Some came from people in power taking advantage of the helplessness of Renée and others like her.
It’s disturbing, it’s confronting, and it doesn’t pull its punches, but it also avoids sensationalising its sensitive subject matter with needless gratuitousness. The flashbacks play out in hand-drawn animated sequences that are haunting without being graphic. Renée’s hallucinations feed into these visions, making much of what you see is a sort of artistic metaphor: shadowy hands reaching out from under the bed to claw at her, a doctor abusing her favourite doll, and the like. If anything, the restrained, symbolic presentation makes it all that much more impactful and horrifying.
Most of all, Renée’s story is just tragic – to think that this is how people were treated, and not in some distant past, but mere decades ago. That’s the thing; even though The Town of Light is a work of fiction, it’s something of an amalgam of historical accounts of what happened at Volterra Psychiatric Hospital (and a great many other such facilities around the globe). There’s no exaggeration here; this is what people had to live through, simply for being different. “Different” didn’t just mean the extremes you often see depicted as “dangerous crazies” – schizophrenic symptoms, hallucinations and the like (though such people are no more deserving of cruel treatment than anyone else.) Just about anything could get one committed. In a time of world war, disagreement with Italy’s Fascist regime could be determined “political mania”, resulting in a trip to the asylum. Sexual “deviancy” and promiscuity, especially in women, was a surefire way to get committed, as seen in the multitude of accounts of “pleasuring herself” as a symptom of psychosis.
What makes Renée’s story so affecting isn’t just the specifics of what she’s put through, but how it impacts on her. Despite everything, the goal of Volterra asylum was to help, but the continued abuse just compounds her trauma. She internalises her abuse and retreats further from reality, giving her psychotic symptoms room to flourish and tearing away her grip on reality. As the game goes on, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what’s “real” and what’s not.
Because you’re playing as Renée and not just watching her, it has a similar effect on the player. You’re piecing together a story with the clues you find around all asylum, but even when you have them all, the pieces don’t quite fit. Some details are vague, contradictory, or just missing, but rather than being the result of poor storytelling, it comes across as a deliberate attempt to help the audience occupy Renée’s mind. The whole aim is to find out what happened, so when the information doesn’t line up, it gets frustrating. On top of that, there are a few narrative branches depending on how you choose to react to certain documents you find. What’s true, and what’s the result of hallucinations and distorted memories? Renée doesn’t know, and neither do you.
To create more confusion, Renée is rather dissociated from her past, to the point that she often refers to the events of her memories as though they happened to someone else. For much of the game, I wondered if I was even playing as Renée at all, or if that was just a setup for some sort of twist, even though “my” Renée’s intimate knowledge of the “other” Renée’s experience made that seem unlikely. Am I Renée? Are these memories mine? It’s – deliberately – confusing, creating some small glimpse of what psychological dissociation can be like.
It may often be labelled a horror game (not by the developers, I should note), but The Town of Light is something else. It’s certainly horrific, and the abandoned asylum setting is a creepy one, but this isn’t a game about dangerous lunatics, jump scares, existential dread, or any of the other tropes of the horror genre. No, this is a poignant, haunting look into a grim period of history that’s much more recent than most would like to think, with effects that are felt to this day. When mental illness is still so frequently stigmatised by entertainment, that’s a very welcome thing indeed.
The Town of Light is developed by LKA.it and published by Wired Productions. It’s available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.