Horror takes many forms. A monster under a bed, a maniac who haunts children’s dreams, inbred cannibals picking off hapless hikers, ten foot spiders, rabid dogs, killer fishies – we’ve seen them all. But the worst horror is the kind that’s real, the stuff that actually happens and that people really do experience. Jason Voorhees just looks like a village idiot in a mask when you compare him to Hitler. Reality, real suffering, is far more frightening.
The Town of Light is the fictional story of a young girl suffering from a mental illness in Italy in the thirties. Thrown into an Asylum, Renée is stripped of everything she knows and subjected to what we can now only see as torture. She is even deprived of her doll, Charlotte, who was the only way she could communicate with the world. By exploring the asylum, you must retrace her time at the hospital and feel the fear, pain and confusion that she feels.
The Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra is a real place in Tuscany Italy and the developers have faithfully recreated a replica of this now dilapidated facility. Any asylum setting is creepy enough, but knowing this place was real changes everything. Although Renée is fictional, the events you witness have been real to so many people. As you begin your exploration of the facility and catch on that there are no ghosts, no wraiths and no screaming jump scares, your initial fears warp into something much darker and much more disturbing.
The beauty of this game is in its layers. The top layer is the setting, the long dark corridors, filthy rooms and the emptiness of it all. It feels like a lonely place but there’s also the feeling that even when it was crammed full of desperate and violent screaming people it was just as lonely and empty. The game creates this desolate feeling very early on. Renée is on her own and she always was. There’s subtext in this which relates directly to her illness and how people reacted to her over the course of her life.
The second layer is Renée’s treatment. As you explore and uncover more and more about her time at the hospital you become privy to what life was like in such a place. I won’t spoil the game by giving away any details, but there’s no doubt that it was horrific. Be warned, it’s very disturbing and very upsetting. Make sure your kiddies have gone to bed because this is absolutely not for their eyes. The Town of Light does not shy away. There are some graphic sexual images and, along with Renée’s narration, it’s uncomfortable to the extreme.
The last layer is Renée herself and her perceptions of her world, of what is real and what isn’t. Along the way, events are twisted and told from different angles. Things get a bit mixed up and you start to doubt the game’s events in the same way that Renée doubts her own existence and her place in the world. Adding to the confusion, you are at several points asked questions which you must answer as Renée, and your responses will depend on how you want her to react. Again, It feels profoundly uncomfortable, as though you’re being asked to judge her, even though you are technically playing as her. Should she be kicking up a fuss? Should she be angry? Or should she lie down quietly and take her abuse? You’re torn between wanting to protect her and wanting to stand up for her. You can’t do both and it’s that which tips the game into truly upsetting territory.
The Town of Light is told from a first person perspective. You are the unseen Renée. Or, at least, you are in her head. The asylum and the surrounding buildings are all pretty much open to explore as you wish. In theory you can go wherever you feel like, but in reality the game pulls you through the story by encouraging you to specific places. I can’t help but feel there’s some more subtext here. The outside is beautiful and it’s clearly the better place to be, but Renée is forced down a very specific path. Freedom, comfort and the light is tantalisingly close, but grasping it and holding on to it is not quite permitted. No matter what choices you make, where you go, and what memories you uncover, no matter what path you take and how you reconcile what you’ve experienced, Renée’s life feels out of your – and ultimately her – control.
The illusion of choice that both you and Renée have certainly does not dampen the experience. Knowing you’re wandering around a real asylum is morbidly fascinating and one can easily forgive the slightly slow walking pace. While I would have liked to move faster outside, the pace felt about right inside. To rush would be to spoil, I think. There’s plenty to see as you move around the facility along with diary pages to collect and Renée’s narration to listen to. In my humble opinion, the game is best played with a box of tissues and whole free day.
In addition to the beautifully realistic asylum, the game uses different art-styles as cut scenes. At times the past is presented as an unstable and sterile black and white point of view. It wavers as though the person seeing it is dizzy or drugged up and not entirely in control of her senses. These scenes feel bleak and completely devoid of anything positive. But the worst experiences are drawings, depictions of scenes that are all the more shocking because drawing and childhood usually go hand in hand.
The Town of Light is a frightening look at the common practices of mental health professionals in the thirties and forties, and proof that the Horror genre isn’t just about the heebie jeebies. With its use of various art styles and its very brave narrative, The Town of Light is a shining example of how a video game can tell a powerful and harrowing story.
SJ Hollis Rating – 8.5/10
You can read our review policy here.