It should be stated right away that The Town of Light contains some incredibly difficult subject matter. It explores situations of abuse, mental illness and the barbaric treatment of patients in asylums of the 30s and 40s. The game does not hold back in portraying these subjects and, as a result, it can be a difficult experience to bear. For all the possible conversations about the strength of the story being told and the lessons to be learned, the graphic and direct portrayal of some moments in this game will be a deciding factor for some and the balance The Town of Light has struck could easily prove to be a barrier to the game.
With the setting of a derelict asylum being swallowed up by nature and entropy, The Town of Light doesn’t have to work hard to establish the idea of the psychological horror. You are alone, wandering an impressive recreation of the ruined halls of the real life Volterra Psychiatric Asylum, armed only with a flashlight. It feels very familiar ground, echoing Outlast or the Fatal Frame series. The obvious difference being that the asylum and its gloriously rendered natural surroundings are bathed in warm, Tuscany evening sunlight. The opening moments hold an almost serene quality as you stroll along a dirt track in the warm dusk. The sight of the unassuming building, peeking through gaps in the woodland that surrounds it, barely registers a flicker on the terror scale. On the inside, things look very different indeed. The long, narrow corridors and blackout shutters in the large, barred windows begin to create that sense of foreboding and claustrophobia that is part and parcel of every good horror game. The light that absolutely drenches the grounds outside struggles to break through, with much of the building windowless and shadowed, leaving you uneasy and waiting for the things in the darkness to pounce.
Your purpose in the asylum is to explore the history of a young woman called Reneé T., admitted as a patient at Volterra at the age of 16 in 1936, and help her find some meaning for her condition and confinement to the asylum. Who you are controlling exactly is unclear, but your character is being guided by Reneé around the asylum and the memories of her experiences there eighty years on, with the institution long closed and the building in ruins. This is, in essence, all that can be said of the gameplay. The Town of Light plays out in the same mechanical way as did Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. Often described as “walking simulators”, there is no real challenge in gameplay besides finding clues to lead you to the next location and part of the story. The Town of Light offers a slight alternative twist to these other games by including a selection of dialogue options that affect how the story plays out. There is only one, utterly brutal ending, but the journey towards this is affected by Reneé’s reaction to and way of coping with information discovered in medical records and previously withheld letters from Reneé’s mother. Determining just what choice will evoke which reaction could have been much clearer, with your selection generating one of four vague pictograms that vary on a theme of how an individual reacts with a crowd. Certain combinations of choices will send Reneé down a particular emotional path - be it isolation, obsession or belief in conspiracy - and each path will offer variations on the information and revelations that you discover. It’s a clever twist on dialogue choices from the usual good and bad scale, and the diversions offer some interesting new information without necessarily changing the story.
This sacrifice of gameplay in order to focus on building a convincing narrative experience does not always go down well and relies on a compelling experience to keep players invested. The Town of Light has certainly been successful in creating an intriguing and eerie world that feels thick with anxiety and makes you worry at every dark corner. Strange, macabre murals adorn crumbling brickwork, locked doorways bar entry to long and gloomy wards, and a rusting cage elevator stands at the centre of the main corridor. Your first steps in exploring Reneé’s past are to restore power and track down Reneé’s childhood doll which is now chipped and dusty, staring back at you through cracked eyes. The early stages of the game feel a little like they have been constructed following a psychological horror checklist, borrowing from Resident Evil, Outlast and similar games that have visited old asylums and other derelict buildings. Undoubtedly, this was intentional, offering a contrast to what will eventually come.
The reality is that this game is not what it seems. The Town of Light plays with expectations in much the same way that Gone Home did. All the apprehensions and assumptions that come with the trope of the abandoned asylum are used to great effect to hide something much more sinister about human nature and its history. The slow pace and isolation keep the feeling of tension about you at all times and the piecemeal way information is presented to you ensures the uncertainty of what to expect remains for as long as possible. That uneasy atmosphere absolutely fills the game, but your expectations soon get overturned. For all the shadowy corridors, medical equipment and creepy dolls lying about the asylum, the principle horrors in the game are what fearful experiences and practices are those found in broad daylight and that the average person accepts as commonplace. The light that bathes the setting of this story for most of the game becomes a sinister backdrop. Reneé’s story comes out in bursts of dialogue as key locations are visited and in diary entries scattered around the asylum, revealing that the light is the source of her fears and traumas, the symptoms of her illness. As you progress, you begin to stop fearing the dark as it begins to become key to the progression of Reneé’s story, whilst significant revelations of the traumas experienced by Reneé are nearly always those that play out in blinding, monochrome lamplight or shine brightest in the direct sunlight through the window.
It is these revelations that are the horrors of The Town of Light. There is no supernatural monster lurking the halls. Instead, the medical notes of patients and the echoes from Reneé’s abusive past reveal the more banal evil inherent in treatment of asylum patients. The game does very well in recreating not only the physical location, but the emotional parallels of being a patient at the mercy of this asylum. You stalk the halls at a slow, ghostly pace as memories flash up at the sight of an operating table or park bench. As Reneé is reminded of the events that slowly rob her of any chance of returning to a life outside of the asylum, your perceptions get twisted to sickening levels as you try to navigate inhuman crowds of patients and blinding, cold, stone walls by the chemicals introduced to her system by both the doctors and her own fear. Many of the flashback scenes wrest almost all control from you, save the ability to slightly turn your head to watch, helplessly, as the nurses and doctors carry out the various “treatments” with alarming detail and accuracy. There are a couple of features that, on discovery, loosened the tight grip that the game takes on your mind but which, on completion, got completely drowned out by the almost traumatically accurate recreation of the setting and the scenario. As illusion-shattering as it was to find a list of the game’s backers being stuck on a wall in the asylum amongst detailed medical textbooks and cold, detached reports from doctors, it is hard to claim any lasting detrimental effect when you’re still shaking from the final scenes of the game a full day after watching them.
The story is regularly shocking, disturbing and the recreation of Reneé’s treatments can be incredibly graphic and drawn out. One scene fixes you in place as Reneé is tied to a gurney whilst nurses and doctors prepare a treatment. Time distorts from quick bursts as people move to painfully slow as it becomes evident what is about to happen and you stare at the drawn out motion of the doctor activating the device. It’s agonisingly drawn out, with only the barest head movement possible as nurses loom above you moving in cold, uncaring routine. This is not the only scene like this, and it is by no means the most harrowing. There are a number of medical books to examine containing various detailed surgical procedures. The ending is merciless. You are taken out of the first-person during this scene, but this almost makes it worse as now you can see every cruel detail. The Town of Light is heavy with literal, incredibly thorough representations of the horrors of the asylum. This can make it unnecessarily difficult to play through.
Additionally, the story takes a while to get invested in. In a short game of between 3 to 5 hours (depending on how thoroughly you search) it takes about half an hour to feel like there’s any real story to uncover. Your relationship to Reneé and just why you can communicate with her is never really explained and the early stages seem a bit disjointed as you move from room to room, wondering why you are there. Slowly, you open up new areas of the asylum and discover the basic framework of Reneé’s life in the asylum and the people around her. It’s only once you reach the first set of choices that the story really begins to take form and things start to move. Once it does, you can’t help but feel like much of it is old news. As said earlier, asylums have become a well-worn staple of the horror genre in both films and games. Outlast, The Evil Within, even Arkham Asylum to some degree, have all used mental institutions as backdrops for their horror stories and have gone into detail regarding the sinister treatment of patients. The Town of Light does offer a more empathetic look at the horrible lives lived by asylum patients as well as the difficulty faced by young women in balancing their lives with the societal expectations and brutish men they live with. But, for the most part, the revelations of Reneé’s life and the asylum’s practices were not all that world-changing and were it not for the first-person perspective during many of these revelations, there would have been little shock value.
The Town of Light does succeed in making you care for Reneé as you uncover and explore the terrible circumstances of her condition and her confinement. The message of the game is strikingly clear and hits home incredibly hard, offering a more human take on the typical story that life in asylums was horrible. The story sticks with you, helped along by cutscenes that encourage empathy like a steam train would encourage a nut to crack. It can be very hard to bear, probably too hard at times, and to some degree the story has been told before. But it is well written, the mysteries of Reneé’s life are truly intriguing to try and decipher. It is a hard and sad experience, which some might struggle with, but there are lessons to be learned, not only historical but in reflection of current perceptions as well. If you can take on the hard depictions, there’s a valuable experience in The Town of Light.