There’s an eerie sense of stillness to an abandoned building, a certain something that doesn’t feel quite right. The Town Of Light, a first-person psychological exploration game by Italian developer LKA.it centres on the recollections of a young woman named Renée, a former patient returning to the real life (albeit now-defunct) Volterra Psychiatric Asylum in Tuscany, Italy. The asylum was once home to some 6,000 patients and permanently closed its doors in 1978. If only the walls could talk, what stories would they be able to tell? In Volterra Psychiatric Asylum’s case, Renée is able to speak for them.
Following a brief opening cutscene, the player assumes control of Renée, seeing the world from her point of view as she stands outside the gates of the asylum. Unlike most other psychological exploration games, The Town Of Light begins in broad daylight, with birds tweeting and a gentle breeze rustling through the overgrown grounds of the asylum’s outer perimeter. Renée is free to explore the environment before heading up to the main building, whereupon her recollections begin.
Renée explores at a walking pace that is brisker than most other exploration games which I found quite refreshing. Renée’s pace is neither too fast nor too slow, there’s nothing worse than plodding along at a snail’s pace, especially if there’s no way to increase the protagonist’s speed. Objects can be interacted with by hovering over them with the on-screen cursor (which is permanently centred at the middle of the screen). The cursor becomes a small bright white ring indicating that you can interact with an object, and reduces to an unobtrusive translucent grey dot at all other times.
Having entered the building, it’s instantly apparent that no-one (apart from the odd graffiti artist or two) has set foot in the asylum in decades; as the interior gives off an oppressive, unwelcoming vibe. The paintwork on the walls is cracked and peeling, most windows are broken and furniture and medical equipment lay scattered across the floor. LKA.it have done a wonderful job in creating a state of decay that gives off a sense of unease, and that something may be lurking in the shadows.
Renée carries a flashlight to illuminate the darker corners of the asylum, though it must have a 20-watt bulb inside, as it doesn’t throw out too much more light over her surroundings. The course of the game mainly takes place in daylight, though one specific segment takes part at night away from the main building, with only street lamps to guide the way – I found it incredibly hard to navigate from lamp to lamp, and ended up moving in the opposite direction from where I wanted to be as I mistook the lamp I’d just passed for the one I needed to head for!
Renée wanders the dilapidated halls and rooms, with the story progressing when she stumbles across objects that trigger past memories; her initial committal to the asylum in the late 1930s and her battles with her inner demons. Excerpts of Renée’s diary can also be found as the game progresses, which help to build a fuller picture of her backstory. The Town Of Light bravely handles some extremely taboo subjects, such as patient abuse and neglect, rape and horrific treatment methods that by today’s standards would be considered inhumane, verging on torture.
These memories are told in three different ways: Renée monologuing (all text is Italian, which Renée translates), storyboard like sepia-toned cut scenes and interactive black and white flashback cut scenes. At certain points, Renée comes across medical records which make her question her sanity. During her musings, you’re given the opportunity to choose between a number of different responses, which change her demeanour ever so slightly. There are no right or wrong answers per se, though it does provide some form of replayability once you’ve completed the game.
Whilst the interiors and exteriors in the present day are amazingly detailed, the same cannot be said of the black and white flashbacks, which completely undoes all the excellent work the dev has put into the asylum in the present day. The textures look a couple of generations old, as do the character models of all the NPCs in these sequences. It almost feels like the sections were an afterthought, or weren’t fully completed before the game went gold.
Music in-game is an orchestral score, setting an ominous tone, which is low pitched – to the point of being barely noticeable the majority of the time. Renée’s voice is a non-discernible American accent, with a slight trace of Italian from what I could tell. The voice actress does a convincing job, as Renée’s tone of voice peaks and troughs in times of anxiety, such as when she recalls a traumatic experience, whilst at other times her voice is clear and calm (although you’ll find there’s a reason for this). The majority of other in-game voices are the mumblings and wailings of NPCs – orderlies, nuns and other patients.
The Town Of Light is split into twelve chapters, so should you decide to take a break and come back to it later, the game will pick up at the beginning of the most recent chapter. The chapters are pretty fluid, though there is an objective to complete for each one, which in turn unlocks previous inaccessible parts of the asylum and its grounds, culminating with a disorientating maze puzzle set in an on-site primary school for younger patients and having accessed the asylum’s annex building, an end to Renée’s tragic tale of woe.
At its heart, The Town Of Light is a fascinating, if a little disturbing, look at the sordid history of the treatment of people with mental health issues. Renée’s story is heart-breaking, more so when you consider that the game is partially based on true events. I have a weird combination of fascination and fear of asylums and their pasts, so have read plenty of stories similar to Renée’s.
Unfortunately, The Town Of Light does little else to separate it from a rather crowded genre. If you’re looking for something that goes bump in the night, The Town Of Light may not appeal, as the skeletons in the asylum’s closet remain locked in the past. If you enjoy a more cerebral tale and can look past the ropey looking black and white flashback sequences, The Town Of Light is well worth a few hours of your time.