Il­lu­mi­nat­ing minds

How a small Ital­ian stu­dio is tack­ling the com­plex is­sue of men­tal health with The Town Of Light


The Town Of Light is tack­ling the com­plex is­sue of men­tal health

“It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see how the men­tal health in­sti­tu­tions tried to cope with a very prim­i­tive science”

Florence-based in­die stu­dio has taken on the task of rais­ing aware­ness about men­tal ill­ness with its first­per­son psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller The Town Of Light. While the set­ting, the Volterra Psy­chi­atric Hos­pi­tal, will prove fa­mil­iar to fans of the asy­lum-rich hor­ror genre, this game aims to be much more than an­other se­ries of jump scares in di­lap­i­dated cor­ri­dors. Re­trac­ing one girl’s time in the institution af­ter her in­tern­ment in 1942, the only threats you’ll face come from within, but they’re no less dan­ger­ous for that. Here, the game’s screen­writer, art di­rec­tor and tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, Luca Dalcò, dis­cusses the think­ing be­hind the project, and how is deal­ing with a sen­si­tive topic in a medium so of­ten fo­cused on en­ter­tain­ing.

What in­spired the game?

Like many oth­ers, I’ve had the un­lucky ex­pe­ri­ence of see­ing peo­ple near me fall into the dark void of des­per­a­tion. I also ex­pe­ri­enced really hard times in my own life where I’ve been ex­posed to the suf­fer­ing that psy­chi­atric dis­ease in­volves.

What is it about this medium that makes it suit­able for con­vey­ing what you want to say about men­tal ill­ness?

A videogame, like a paint­ing, book, song or movie, is a way to ex­press some­thing you have in­side of you. As a tool [for ex­pres­sion], videogames are less direct than other me­dia, be­cause they re­quire longer work and co­or­di­na­tion with a team of peo­ple, but they’re no less ef­fec­tive in nar­rat­ing a pain that doesn’t dis­ap­pear eas­ily — some­thing that you carry with you for the rest of your life. Videogames are ma­ture enough to start tack­ling nar­ra­tives that are a bit more com­plex than what we used to see in the past. The tech­nol­ogy al­lows us to tell sto­ries in a really dif­fer­ent way than other medi­ums. I don’t be­lieve a videogame is nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter than a movie, but it of­fers a more im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence that bet­ter suits what we wanted to do.

Men­tal ill­ness is a del­i­cate sub­ject – were you wor­ried about han­dling the topic with enough sen­si­tiv­ity?

We read a lot of books – both nov­els and re­search by peo­ple who used to work in those asy­lums around Italy. The game is set in a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal in Volterra, but our re­search was broader. On top of that, we spoke with peo­ple who were in­volved in some ca­pac­ity and who have in­di­rect ac­cess to sto­ries and events [from that time]. Volterra is a small place, but even though the town only has about 6,000 in­hab­i­tants, at one point the hos­pi­tal hosted some 5,000 pa­tients. When you walk through the street to­day al­most ev­ery­one liv­ing there is con­nected di­rectly or in­di­rectly to the story we’re telling.

Did any­thing you dis­cover in the course of your re­search sur­prise you?

Cer­tainly. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see and understand how the men­tal health in­sti­tu­tions tried to cope with a very prim­i­tive science and the lack of per­son­nel avail­able — some­times there were only five nurses per 200 pa­tients.

What do your in­ter­vie­wees make of the game when they see it in ac­tion?

So far, ev­ery­one we’ve shown it to likes the idea, since our game helps to re­mem­ber the peo­ple who were for­got­ten in those places even be­fore they died.

You’ve based your set­ting on a real place – how ac­cu­rate is your take?

The real-life struc­ture con­sists of more than 20 pav­il­ions, some of them used to­day by Volterra’s [gen­eral] hos­pi­tal. We’ve recre­ated three of the big­gest ones, which en­com­pass a to­tal of 7,000 square me­tres. The struc­ture is the same as to­day, but for game­play rea­sons we’ve added fur­ni­ture and ma­chines that are ob­vi­ously not there any more.

But the pro­tag­o­nist is an amal­gam of real sto­ries and your own nar­ra­tive?

Yes. Re­nee rep­re­sents one of the many girls who were un­able to adapt to a dif­fi­cult world, one that was fast head­ing to­wards WWII and at the same time send­ing 16-year-old girls to psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tals be­cause they were ‘a dan­ger to them­selves and oth­ers’. We con­stantly tried to imag­ine what Re­nee would feel and built up her story in a hugely de­tailed way, as if she really did ex­ist. We’ve pro­duced hun­dreds of pages and drafts that show how she looks and how she acts. We’ve a real af­fec­tion for Re­nee now – it’s like she’s be­come a real per­son dur­ing de­vel­op­ment. Ul­ti­mately, what do you hope play­ers will get out of The Town Of Light? Our aim is for peo­ple to em­pathise with Re­nee and re­flect on how men­tal ill­ness is one of the most com­mon ill­nesses. At vary­ing lev­els, men­tal ill­ness af­fects a large per­cent­age of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, but it’s some­thing that’s dif­fi­cult [to talk about] and too of­ten treated with­out re­spect. Our aim is to make play­ers more aware.

Luca Dalcò, art and tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor, and screen­writer

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