Following a release on Steam last year, an updated version of The Town of Light returns and also comes to console from Wired Productions. The first thing to make you aware of is the games content. This game takes place in the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum and is based on a mental institution located in Tuscany, Italy. This could have been a risky venture but did the game successfully represent this sensitive subject matter without going too far?
What you may not know about our home town of Colchester, is that we once had a facility called Severalls Hospital which was also a psychiatric hospital. It opened in 1913 and closed in the 1990s when many other institutions closed. Although a small area of the site remained open until 1997 where elderly patients were cared for, the building is now being demolished after years of vandalism and nature taking over. I have always wanted to sneak into the hospital as I know people who have managed to get on the site in years gone by. Sadly, I never did, but those who have would tell of how eerie it felt and would show me pictures of the rooms decaying after years of not being used. You can’t help but imagine what went on in a place like that. Why am I telling you this? Well, it reminded me of The Town of Light in many ways and the fact that an institution such as this is being demolished a mile or so from where I am currently sitting, makes me a little giddy and glad that I had the opportunity to play this game as I will never have the opportunity to explore one very close to home.
The developers and writers have carried out extensive research and been inspired by real facts that have led to the creation of fictional character Renée, who will be your guide through the facility and tell you more about her reasons for being there. When you first enter the game, you are outside the facility next to a play area. I couldn’t help but spend a few minutes playing on the slide, swing and merry go round before heading into the derelict institution as I wasn’t sure if what I would find would be scary or just thought provoking so wanted to have a little fun beforehand. Upon making myself dizzy, I decided to head in and Renée began to tell her story, starting off with her lost doll, Charlotte. With only a flashlight and the option to look at, read or examine certain items/notes/photos, it’s down to you to follow Renée’s clues and memories in order to solve puzzles and progress to a conclusion. While you do have a certain amount of freedom after a while, this is mainly a point and click affair where your exploration will trigger the next sequence. It can be completed in a couple of hours, but if you want to spend time looking in every nook and cranny, you may find some interesting literature or a ‘scene’ may pop up depicting other patients or an experience Renée had.
This is a game where certain choices will affect the outcomes for certain chapters. Although it is unclear whether you are Renée or you are just a vessel for her to communicate through, you will choose ‘dialogue’ options that will impact what she will show you as you may go against her train of thought or sympathise with her. What you will realise is that the concept of reality can be difficult to grasp. While files state one thing, Renée may state another. This can make it difficult when making your decisions as you will come to feel quite strongly for your narrators’ experience. While the underlying story references the questionable practices that psychiatric institutions could perform, it also tells of the struggles of holding on to what is real especially when the body has been subjected to drugs and the mind may be incapable of processing traumatic experiences.
While I will not divulge too much, I found the ending poignant and quite powerful. The realisation that these experiments were being carried out on young men and women is quite frightening, especially when they suffered from a range of mental illnesses that could not be cured or managed through the practices carried out. The medical files you come across open up more questions about the difference between what might be real and what might be experienced. It’s hard to know which is which and with Renée, you almost don’t want to know as the truth is painful either way.
Artistically, the graphics and art have been polished since the previous release to provide a more immersive experience and ready it for the console release. It is quite immersive due to the first person nature of the piece and when you suddenly remember where a particular room is, you’ll probably realise how quickly you can become drawn in. The areas open up and you progress through the narrative, with more rooms to look around, experiences to encounter (no cheap jump scares in this game by the way) taking you inside and out of the premises. There are signs that this building was either to be renovated or possibly even demolished with scaffolding, wheelbarrows and abandoned bags of cement. Nature has taken over with plants covering the windows and doors, obscuring the daylight outside and making the derelict building feel dark and cold. It really reminds me of the photos of Severalls Hospital with beds, wheelchairs and abandoned equipment littering the living spaces. The doctors’ offices with medical books and diagrams that you can look at which may make your skin crawl a little unless you have a curiosity about human biology and the publications that were available in the early 20th Century. It’s all very interesting and worth taking time to look at.
I did enjoy The Town of Light and with the replay factor of alternative outcomes dependant on the choices you make, it is a game that will be worth continuing to explore to see if I can learn more about Renée’s story, even if it is fictional. For those of you who are uncomfortable with the subject matter, it is handled well in my opinion. There is a fine line between misunderstanding and misrepresenting mental illness in any type of media, but I felt that the care taken in researching and presenting the institutions findings against the patients was an interesting combination. Similarly to Journey, Abzu and more recently RiME, this could be an emotional experience for some players but one that I hope you will enjoy.
The Town of Light will be available on Steam, Playstation 4 and Xbox One from 6th June 2017. Our thanks to Wired Productions for the review copy on PS4.