You’ll sometimes find that films and TV shows are sold to the public as something they are not, just in order for them to find an audience. Look at the trailer for Ryan Gosling’s film Drive, selling itself like the next chapter in the Fast and Furious franchise. The Town of Light is being sold as a survival horror, which it kind of is, if you squint really hard. The main problem is that The Town of Light is a very hard sell, because it tells the story of a horrific mental health institution and the childhood abuses that occurred there. It is very disturbing and hard to play through. Is it really a game?
The are many recent games which are not afraid to tackle some pretty tough subjects. In the last year we’ve had titles like Among The Sleep that dealt with neglect and alcoholism in parenthood, whilst That Dragon: Cancer examined cancer and the trauma affected by it on a family. In this first person adventure game you play as a woman called Renée, who was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital in Volterra, Tuscany, in Italy during the 1930’s. The Italian developers at LKA.it have made the character of Renée fictional, but the hospital itself was a real place and they have done intensive research into the building and the history of abuse that happened at that time.
So, you play as Renée, arriving at the abandoned hospital before discovering the many secrets it holds. You have a number of clues about where to go first, but after that it’s just about exploration and discovering snippets about the hospital past and Renée’s story. You have a move button and a pick up/use button. But that’s your lot. There isn’t any combat and there isn’t any hiding or running away. It’s all about the journey. That’s where the game triumphs, but also, in equal parts, that’s where it fails.
As you go through the hospital you can collect documents, old photographs and certain items that can be examined. These in turn may then trigger off the next part of the story. These items have been meticulously researched and hold an insight into those dark times of mental health treatment in Italy. There is a melancholy as you walk around the decayed hospital grounds and the game really plays on that idea, with the ghosts of the past weighing heavily on the place.
Talking of ghosts, and well, there aren’t any. It’s just not that type of game. Yes the feeling is creepy and atmospheric and there are a couple of jump scares, but it’s much more psychological than scary.
Through the voiceover you may stumble upon a clue about where to go next, and by holding a button, you can repeat this clue to work out the journey. There are no markers and no tutorials – just explore and discover. There are times when you will find yourself really lost, wandering around aimlessly trying to trigger the next cut scene or insight into the narrative.
There are puzzle elements that are very simple and sometimes a bit annoying, but, on the whole, it shouldn’t tax people too much. You end up getting snagged in areas a few too many times and the control system and movement is uneven in places. Opening doors and lockers in The Town of Light is my pet hate, as they need a lot of work to get them to open correctly. It will take you only about three hours or so to complete the walkthrough, and by then the pace of game would have started feeling very familiar and static.
Now, the story is told through voiceover and the amazing cut scenes are some of the most disturbing, depressing material ever told in a game. Its content is hard hitting, gut wrenching and ultimately very sad. The game does a great job of telling this story and it is very clearly a passion project from the developers. The Italian script sometimes gets lost in sections with its English translation, but is solid and written with authority. Some of the internal monologues, and especially a section with an old doll, feels like something from a different game and jars when you see it compared to the quality in the other areas of work.
The visual look of The Town of Light is good, with some great outdoor landscapes, mixed with some generic interior shots. The dream sequences work well and the animated cut scenes are brilliantly drawn and effective. The sound is good, with an atmospheric sound track that has moments of brilliance with a school choir in the later sections. The voiceover work isn’t as good though, as I feel that something is missing in translation and doesn’t quite fit right.
Overall, there is a lot of merit for a game that deals with a tricky heartfelt subject matter. That puts it into a very rare category of games. As a gaming experience it is frustrating, has no variation in pace and I’m not sure how successful its outcome is. There are amazing cut scenes and some good sound work, but I left wanting to find out more about this horrific case and its consequences.