Town Of Light
Developer/publisher LKA.it Format PC (tested), Xbox One Release Out now (PC), 2016 (Xbox One)
PC, Xbox One
A psychiatric hospital is hardly an unfamiliar setting for a videogame, though the history upon which The Town Of Light draws is the kind that has itself inspired several contemporary horrors. This is a fictional story, but one based on real-life accounts of the conditions within a now-abandoned asylum in Volterra, Tuscany. A lifeless English voiceover isn’t the only reason to switch to Italian with subtitles: the native language lends further veracity to an already authentic rendering of the institution. The cracked plaster, exposed brickwork, smashed basins and rusted bed frames at times seem a little too artfully arranged for maximum aesthetic impact. Not so, as even the most cursory research proves, it’s all disturbingly real.
There’s an eerie frisson that accompanies your first trepidatious steps through Volterra’s doors, then, and it’s one that lingers for the four-hour duration of your stay. As you explore, you’ll trigger memories of a former resident, Renée, who was committed at 16. Through documents, letters and medical notes, the fragments of her story are slowly pieced together, raising questions of whether she should’ve been admitted in the first instance, while touching upon a possibly abusive past.
Renée may be mentally ill, but it’s unclear whether an existing condition has been adversely affected by her treatment, or if she was even unwell when she arrived. Is the therapy, as she suggests, designed to instil madness rather than address it? The truth remains elusive, because Renée is an unreliable narrator, and how much you consider her to be so will inform the responses you choose while leafing through her medical history. Further questions are raised here: can she really deny what’s on the page, or is the hospital lying about her more extreme behaviour to protect itself?
We hear tales of her violence and verbal abuse towards nurses who are, we’re told, only trying to help. By stark contrast, in disturbing hand-drawn cutscenes we witness Renée being grotesquely manhandled by a corpulent guard. The harrowing potency of these images may well provoke anger, but that sense of injustice is felt equally keenly in quieter moments; a discovery of a stack of undelivered letters that might’ve brought Renée some small comfort is truly upsetting.
If the game’s refusal to deliver a narrative that follows the conventional journey from darkness to light is admirable, it’s rather less confident in its delivery. Adherence to the geography of Volterra means your journey is anything but elegant. That in itself isn’t a criticism, but retracting Renée’s steps needn’t result in quite so much confusion. True, you’ll usually have a fair idea of your destination – and on the occasions you’re not informed by the voiceover or clued in by the item in your possession, a press of the H key offers a helping hand. But occasionally the hints are cryptic, and at other times you’ll have to negotiate the asylum’s confounding layout to find the room you’re seeking. Renée’s inner monologue is only triggered at specific points, and the same applies to the ambient soundtrack.
Indeed, this unsettling medley of atonal notes and white noise is rather too suggestive of Akira Yamaoka’s work on Silent Hill. The light puzzle elements that invite you to search for specific objects and ferry them elsewhere, meanwhile, are jarringly juxtaposed with sequences where you’re simply asked to sit and listen as Renée reads out a medical document and soberly remarks upon its contents. These are interspersed with woozy monochromatic flashbacks, as a sedated Rénee is observed by impassive doctors, or strapped into a gurney and wheeled down lengthy corridors. At times, it’s like a low-budget interactive documentary; at others, it adopts a more orthodox genre narrative and the results are predictably inconsistent.
Oddly, this isn’t always a hindrance. While the game asks you to overlook some obviously rough edges, particularly in the UI and a localisation that could’ve used a couple more passes, the incongruity of these shifts adds to the sense of dislocation. The player’s own disorientation proves an uncomfortably close match to that of Renée herself, and though budgetary restrictions have much to do with Volterra’s player-unfriendliness, its inflexible nature creates a startling sense of being trapped within a system that refuses to yield to the wants and needs of the individual.
It would be generous to suggest this was entirely by design; likewise, that the simplistic character models in flashback should aptly resemble automatons, impassively carrying out their terrible duty. Technical blemishes betray the developer’s inexperience, too – on occasion resulting in an inability to extricate yourself from interactive objects. Yet there are indelibly powerful moments: a firstperson scene of shock therapy isn’t one we’d wish to revisit in a hurry, while later there’s an unflinching sequence of body horror that some players will find hard to watch.
This, and those earlier scenes of abuse, makes explicit the cruelty The Town Of Light otherwise invites you to imagine and, as such, a game that shows admirable restraint for the most part – there isn’t a single jump scare to be found – will likely face accusations of gratuitousness. Whether you consider these sequences a self-conscious wallow in depravity, or a forceful depiction of the inhuman treatment inflicted on Volterra’s patients, the disparity is especially harsh. But while this speaks volumes for the developer’s uncertainty in how to tell its story, it’s a difficult game to dismiss. During one jolting recollection, a weary Renée sighs, “These walls have become my skin.” For all its faults, there’s every chance The Town Of Light could end up getting under yours.
At times, it’s like a low-budget interactive documentary; at others, it adopts a more orthodox genre narrative
LIGHT SPLITTER Regardless of the choices you make, Renée’s story ends up in the same place, though you can make quite a difference to how certain events play out. An early choice whether or not to read an official document sees the narrative path diverge for the first time: a troubled Renée can opt not to read the ‘forbidden’ text for fear of causing trouble, but should she steel herself to uncover the truth, her relationship with a fellow patient will change. In the final act, your response to a letter represents another turning point, and this time the differences are starker. Though there’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ending per se, Renée’s subsequent actions carry a significant emotional weight. Her story is already a tragedy, but it can become bleaker still.