The town is Volterra, a sun-dappled rustic swatch of Tuscany. The blue sky is streaked with cottony clouds, and the rolling hills, here the green of a snooker table’s felt, there the amber of a traffic light, they extend to the edge of sight, lost eventually in the shade of gnarled trees that reach and clench from the ground like arthritic hands. At the top of such a hill is Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a real-life, once understaffed and overcrowded asylum that has fallen into disuse and disrepair. Now it lies abandoned and unoccupied, rusted over and scrawled with graffiti. But it’s once again about to open its doors to a patient.
Her name is Renee. As a young girl she was committed to the asylum shortly before World War II; as an adult she has returned to revisit the now-empty rooms, hung heavy with misery and rot. Many games have been set in asylums, and we’ve been taught what to expect from them. But The Town of Light is not really that sort of game, and so we get something different from it. The beds are still fitted with thick leather straps, and the mangled wheelchairs and gurneys still screech in the quiet, but the ghosts here don’t float along the corridors – they’re suffused into every brick, and the memories of every patient who was committed to a system that, at best, profoundly misunderstood their problems.
This, then, is a miserable experience; a foray into the uninformed, horrifying and barbaric way mental health was treated scarcely a century ago, told from the unreliable perspective of a woman who was unstable to begin with and has been systematically abused, neglected and traumatised since. As Renee roams the dilapidated hallways and grounds of the asylum you’ll piece together what happened to her there, collect and study portions of her diary, thumb through her medical records, and experience all the moments of cruelty, hope and subjugation that she did.
What makes The Town of Light noteworthy is its banality, and how it resists the cheap and easy drama of having the asylum’s staff all be sadistic madmen, or the basement be home to evil experiments. This isn’t a town that casts a particularly favourable light on anyone, but the pervading sense is of cruelty that was well-meaning, medical practices – such as electroconvulsive therapy and lobotomies – which were perceived as miracle cures in the absence of superior knowledge, and people with livelihoods being buried under the weight of their workloads. Renee is a victim, certainly, but not of the asylum so much as the period in history that allowed it to exist unchecked, that refused to properly staff or fund it, and that lacked the time, space and resources necessary to diagnose and treat the various issues that afflicted Renee and many others like her.
The Town of Light is what some might smugly describe as a “walking simulator” – a nonsensical term that I dislike, but one that nonetheless gives a decent sense of how players unravel Renee’s story. The only traditional gameplay is in walking around, looking around, and examining a handful of objects which invariably trigger the next portion of the story. (All of the discoverable documents and suchlike pertain to Renee, which is odd and disappointing in a space that seems to cry out for more exploration and detail.) Early on, especially, this is maddening; Renee’s pace is excruciatingly slow, and she can’t explore the asylum at will. The story halts until the player has performed largely random tasks that have only a notional relationship to the narrative, and as so few of the asylum’s oddities can be looked at in any depth, the space begins to feel hemmed-in and gamey.
This never goes away completely, but it lessens as the game progresses and you realise, gradually, that the absence of choice and freedom is mostly the point. This isn’t to say that The Town of Light couldn’t have let the player off the leash a little more, but simply to acknowledge that the flow of the game’s narrative is very carefully considered, and designed quite nakedly to evoke feelings of frustration and powerlessness. This strikes me as the antithesis of why most people choose to play video games in their spare time, but this doesn’t make the game’s more sickening moments – which run the gamut from sexual abuse to emotional torture to the crushing tedium of loneliness – any less powerful.
What does threaten to dilute that power, though, is Renee’s internal monologue, which is often over-written to the point of absurdity, and despite moments which seemingly benefit from the style, including ones which allow you to function as the voice in her head as she tries to piece things together, it’s a grating storytelling device that doesn’t entirely work here. Odd, too, are a couple of late-game diversions which transport the player away from the asylum and into the labyrinth of Renee’s mind. Here, you’ll walk endlessly through confusingly-designed surrealist vignettes which stretch on far longer than feels necessary, before eventually being deposited, without much context, back at the asylum.
None of this is dealbreaking, but it deflates what has until that point been a relatively grounded exploration of a woman’s troubled psyche, and arriving so close to the end it leaves a sour taste in the mouth by the time the credits roll. This is all assuming that players reach those credits, as the game’s technical issues (at least on the Xbox One) will likely turn many away. Exploring outside the asylum is beset by consistent frame-rate issues, turning often results in significant screen-tearing, and the loading times are abysmal – even opening the collectibles screen can cost half a minute.
To be frank, though, listing technical grievances seems almost like a betrayal of the game’s central purpose, and I don’t feel that anyone who is captivated by its story will particularly care about petty frustrations. The Town of Light tells a harrowing story that is sliced directly from history, and it’s a story that will likely stay with you for a while. But it’s also one that might have been better suited to any medium other than video games. In the end, as with anything, you’ll either care or you won’t, but what’s most welcome about this game’s particular brand of horror is that it doesn’t lock the doors behind you.