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 IKA.it 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 IKA.it 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