The Town of Light shows what life was like in early to mid-20th century asylums – what it meant for the people admitted and how doctors were unable to understand difference between emotional disorders and mental/physical disabilities. Through the memories of 16-year-old Renée, we see the final years of her life at Volterra, a real-life asylum that operated in Tuscany, Italy until the 1970s. Using various narrative and visual devices, The Town of Light serves as an interactive historical textbook. With roughly 2-3 hours of gameplay, it covers a lot of ground in a short amount of time, yet its execution seems to cloud its intention.
The setting itself is a near-exact replication of the currently abandoned Volterra, the culmination of every urban explorers’ dreams. The developers went through painstaking efforts to put players virtually in a real location that has created so much pain and torment for thousands of people. LKA did not skimp on this aspect of the game, and it shows.
Visually, is was easy to distinguish between present day and the past. The past was either shown through drawings or through blurry, black and white gameplay, allowing the player to be an active participant in her memories. What’s unclear is why the blend of gameplay and still images are being used together. I understand that it may be more visually disturbing to see one of the male nurses sexually abuse Renée in gameplay as opposed to a still image. The black and white gameplay allows you to “live through” her experiences and most players would not want to experience that. However, it allows you to experience shock therapy, which is also disturbing. The still images are beautiful, regardless, and I would not want to see them removed.
Renée talks about herself and her memories in both the first and third person. This made it hard to decipher how many characters there actually were in the game; the modern setting – with the past told through flashbacks, triggered by entering certain rooms or interacting with objects – made it seem like her ghost was speaking through me at times.
However, chapter six is where the player is first given the option to respond to Renée‘s questions. You are not responding as a separate individual, but as a voice inside her’s head. It was at this point I realized that the switch between first and third person was functioning as a character trait as well as a narrative element. The answers you choose in response to Renées questions will change the outcome of the story. You can also track the choices that you have made in the “chapters” section in the main menu.
Even with player-choice, that mechanic doesn’t completely erase the idea that Renée is schizophrenic. All the medical records you will find throughout the asylum will suggest that she is and contrasts nearly every memory that comes back to her. This leaves the player the decide for themselves whether or not she is imagining things or if the doctors are liars. For someone that comes into this game not knowing the history behind asylums like Volterra, this could make the narrative seem unfocused and messy. If someone knows the history, it could seem more like the narrative is purposefully building confusion in an attempt to recreate an individual’s life in an asylum.
To the detriment of The Town of Light’s intention, this confusion can put players in the viewpoint of the doctors. It feels focused on the historical aspect of the game, and telling the story through Renée is a narrative device to accomplish this. Other than her medical history, the player knows very little about her – nothing about what she was like before coming to Volterra. While this does well to express that people in these asylums were not considered people much of the time, it does a disservice to narrative because it makes it hard for the player to emotionally connect to the protagonist. The character development is secondary to the history, making Renée the ultimate unreliable narrator and a generalized stand-in for everyone who was was ever admitted to an asylum during that time.
The English voice-over narration is a jarring introduction to the game. The cadence and tone sounded stilted – not completely devoid of emotion, but awkward and unnatural. Getting immersed into the game was difficult. The English voice-over accent is American, more west-coast, specifically, but her mother is referred to as “Mum,” which Americans do not say. The German and Italian narrations were much better, so I opted to listen to the rest of the game in Italian with English subtitles.
The English subtitles themselves also had a few grammatical and punctuation errors throughout – not enough to make reading them hard to understand, but enough to notice. Both the English narration and subtitles were brought up on The Town of Light’s Steam boards, revealing that a lack of native English speakers on the team and outsourcing the English voice acting were the main culprits; there is only so much that can be done with a limited budget.
The Town of Light reproduces a historical location with beauty and accuracy. It unapologetically shows many of the inhumane medical practices forced upon patients under the guise of “curing their mind.” But it lacks the necessary narrative devices to make Renée more important than the history of Volterra itself. I commend LKA for making a game about a complex topic, but the short campaign does a disservice to what it’s trying to accomplish.
Platforms: Windows PC | Developer/Publisher: LKA | ESRB: NR | Controls: Mouse/keyboard
This review copy of The Town of Light was played on PC via Steam and was provided by the developer.