Town Of Light

De­vel­oper/pub­lisher 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.

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