This is the first thing you see when you boot up The Town of Light.
‘What’s happened? What is this place? Maybe I’m dead. I can’t see any light’.
It’s a beginning that sets the tone for more or less the rest of the journey you’re about to experience. The Town of Light has a story to tell which you’ve probably not prepared for and it makes it all the more unsettling the more it unravels.
The Town of Light is a story driven game – in a similar vein to Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – and as such, has little in the way of traditional gameplay – bar a few not-too-difficult puzzles, some of which are new to this console version of the game. Instead, the game is told through discoveries you make as you explore an abandoned mental asylum – Volterra, based on a very real mental asylum in Tuscany, Italy – as the voice inside the head of Renée, a former patient. As you wonder the halls – which are bleak, dark, empty corridors with several doors that holds its secrets, the sense of dread you may feel is palpable, at least it was for me. Ultimately, there’s very little to be afraid of in terms of ‘jump scares’ or the like, instead the psychological impression it leaves follows you around throughout and rarely goes away. This story doesn’t pull any punches as it piles on the wretched memories your character triggers as you explore.
That’s what for me was most compelling about The Town of Light. You’re playing a character of which this has all already happened to. Someone who is going back to try and make sense of it all, in a very Edith Finch kind of way. You don’t get to choose a happy ending for Renée as the story has already been told. You’re just picking it up for the first time as each moment is discovered with you. Through playable flashbacks or gorgeously drawn storyboards, you learn more of her story, almost becoming the medicine Renée needs to try and make sense of it all. I saw it as a way to try and gain some kind of acceptance, guiding Renée through her most sinister memories and come out clean on the other side. There are multiple endings in relation to how deep down the rabbit hole you go in the asylum – the more you uncover will determine what ending you finish on.
It’s probably worth mentioning here before we get into the technical aspects of The Town of Light, it was never meant to be a video game, rather an interactive tourist exhibit of the real asylum. Luca Dalcò, Creative Director of the game at LKA, had initially built the game for this intention, which could explain a number of choices in terms of interaction around the asylum, of which there is very little. It can sometimes be difficult to see the circular cursor to know what exactly you should be interacting with and can feel a bit off in places. You can never really get lost if you pay enough attention to the maps which are placed on either floor of the asylum so in a sense you’re looking for triggers to activate a cut-scene or a playable flashback. This is true of most walking simulators, though here it felt different. Perhaps it was I felt a sense of responsibility the character? The more you discover of Renée’s story – which is fictional but based on disturbingly real accounts of what life was like in this asylum – I wanted to do my best for her, and the very little I’m actually given to do – pick up a thing, turn on a switch – made me feel a little powerless to just be a passenger as we spiral further down into her psychosis, which at no point is a place you want to find yourself stuck in. The longer time you spend with Renée the more you want her to come out of this horrific ordeal and not make herself walk the halls where suffered so brutally. Her story is engaging and horrifying, and there’s very little you can do about it.
Visually it’s clear this game has had a nice boost for the console release. I sadly don’t have the original PC version to compare, though the UI has also had an overhaul and I found it relatively simple to navigate. It’s simplistic and doesn’t get in the way upon using it. Sadly I did spot the odd pop-up textures in various places which took me out of the experience somewhat. They’re minimal and could probably be fixed up in a patch but it was certainly a little jarring considering how little is happening on screen as you explore the asylum.
The dialogue voice-over work has also had an upgrade for this new edition, which I find surprising since I found it somewhat poor in all areas. Renée’s inner monologue isn’t performed as honestly as I was really hoping it would be, never sucking me in and at times really just sounded like a person reading a script, which is disappointing. I felt far more connected to Renée’s journey by reading her dialogue through on screen subtitles than listening. I can’t imagine the kind of psychological mindset you’d need as an actor to play a part as unflinching and relentlessly brutal as Renée, those heights are just not reached and it’s all too obvious. There’s little music but what there is sets the tone nicely and is chosen well. It’s, much like the setting and the narrative, dark and unsettling. The introductory piano segment a particular highlight. I never felt comfortable during my time with the game, you’re not supposed to, and the music was a significant component in that, undoubtedly.
The heartbreaking tale at play here does sometimes present itself through cliches. Whether it be a creepy doll that was Renée’s sole confidante at the asylum (and when I say creepy, this thing is creepy), or hallucinogenic endless corridors appearing making the asylum turn into something akin to Wonderland. The tropes of the ‘horror’ genre are ticked off, and can sometimes feel like a disservice to the story, given that it’s built around real accounts. It’s a shame they felt the need to, given that the horror was coming from the narrative itself, rather than the bells and whistles they threw on top. It seemed unnecessary, as what we were experiencing through Renée was more than unsettling enough. There’s an argument of course that the research uncovered to create this story revealed that this was what real patients experienced, if that is indeed the case then it’s still a little disconcerting that these moments could have been played out with a little more care? I’m not sure I ever really want to know what it’s like for these people that suffer so horrifically with these conditions, but I’m unsure if this is a genuine recreation.
Damn you, Charlotte. Look guys, I don’t like creepy dolls ok? I just…I just don’t like creepy dolls.
The Town of Light then isn’t designed to make you feel anything other than resolute sadness for the inmates of Volterra, working your way through the game and uncovering the disgraceful inhumanity that was suffered. It’s an eye-opening, breathess, nauseating and heart-pounding/breaking experience that I choose to not put myself through again. Not because the game is bad, not by any means, but the story told affected me in a different way to similar games from the genre such as What Remains of Edith Finch or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The was an overarching feeling of hope in those titles, a light at the end of a rainbow that was somehow just a split second out of my grasp. The Town of Light offers no real idea that everything will eventually work out ok for Renée, because deep down you know the worst has already happened and you are powerless to stop it.
It’s a tale that’s even still very serious to this day, and one that governments, for whatever reason, just don’t feel the necessary need to fund adequately. This concern has reared its head again in our current election campaigning, and The Town of Light allows you to walk in the footsteps of a human being who suffered at the hands of the very worst of our society, those who are paid to protect us but ultimately, do the exact opposite. Of course, the game makes it clear at the beginning that mental institutions and the level of care have improved drastically since the early 20th century setting of the game, but you have to wonder how we allowed it to get this bad in the first place.
The fear I felt, knowing that although this may not still be happening, the fact it even did made me want The Town of Light to have just been a bad dream. It’s very real, and for the sake of Renée and the many real patients like her across the world, perhaps we should be taking this all a bit more seriously.
I know I will be. I encourage you to play The Town of Light, just don’t say I promised you an easy ride.
Do you need to talk to someone? You’re not on your own. Call the Samaritans on 116 123 (UK and ROI) or 08457 90 90 90 (UK) 1850 60 90 90 (ROI)
Publisher: Wired Productions
Available on PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One and PC on Tuesday June 6th.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review were were provided with a review code from the publisher.
All screenshots have been taken from the PS4 build we used for review. For more information on how we review and score games, please see our review policy.