I love a good psychological story, and even more so, a game based on one. Town of Light is a “psychological horror adventure” based on a true story about a 16-year old schizophrenic girl condemned in a real location—one of the biggest (and worst) European psychiatric asylums called Volterra Psychiatric Hospital in Tuscany, Italy.
Just a little insight on the history of this hospital will unnerve you. Volterra was built in 1877, and started off as a rather humane institution until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. As the site of over 6,000 patients, the hospital was eventually labeled the “Place of No Return”, as many patients went in and never came out. Documents verified that patients were tied to their beds in straitjackets, some were prescribed ice-cold baths, but the worst treatment of wards included electroshock therapy and brain surgery. Volterra was eventually closed down in 1978 for their cruelty to patients, after laws were finally passed to treat their patrons more humanely.
So how is the game experience? Well, I was fortunate enough to get a teaser experience of the gameplay, and I do mean a teaser (it took me less than an hour to explore). I was able to test out just a snippet of the game, and I am already hankering for more. The audio really brings the player in with the surround sound and multi-levels of theatrical cues. As I explore the outdoor environment and come upon the buildings, I hear birds chirping, a swing set rocking, trees rustling in the wind. Inside the hospital, I hear ominous breathy sounds when I click a button or light switch, numerous flies buzzing near the plumbing, creepy noises like footsteps or objects falling that echo inside the empty rooms. My one complaint is the footsteps of the main character. They sound unrealistic with the pace of the movement and do not match the surrounding environment. My footsteps should sound like I am walking in the dirt or grass when I am outside, but instead, they resonate like I am in an empty room, whether I am indoors or outdoors. I am sure this flaw has already been addressed in the later stages of the game’s development.
One of the traits that is different about this horror story—do not expect jump scares or crazy creatures to come hunting after you. The horror lies within the discovery of the character’s story, reliving her confusing memories. You experience the game through first person and guided by Renee’s voice as you play through her eyes and re-live her memories as she investigates the hospital. You explore the environment freely, discovering papers to decipher and “reliving her hallucinations”. I tried it on PC and found the controls to be quite intuitive. Use the arrow keys for movement, and the mouse to open and close doors or pick up items. Press L to turn on the flashlight. One difficulty in clicking items is trying to see the target. Instead of a cross-hair, the reticle is an extremely tiny dot of light that enlarges when intersecting a clickable object. This dot does not domineer your exploration, but on the other hand, it can be quite meek and very difficult to see when outdoors or in an area where the light is not a good contrast.
After finding some photographs in my research on the interior of Volterra, I was quite impressed with the visual renderings in Town of Light of the different rooms—very accurate and realistic. Large disturbing paintings of strange figures with elongated eyeballs on the wall, the peeling paint throughout the hallways and doors, wheelchairs in random corners, and rusted metal on top of rotting wood are just some of the great interpretations from the game designers. The outdoor surrounding environment is beautifully rendered and allows the player to explore quite extensively. I am also very fond of the stylized cut scenes that are artistically illustrated and animated.
For the short snippet of the demo I was able to test out, Town of Light crawls under my skin. Even with the knowledge that there are no jump-scares or strange creatures pursuing me, I still cannot help but feel a haunting presence that is somewhat distressing. LKA*it really hit this storyline on the nail by putting the participant through a more psychological endeavor, focusing on the player’s experience through the exploration of the environment with triggers of memories to unfold and sort. I cannot wait to take part in the full experience, especially when coupled with Oculus Rift for an “incredible immersive gaming experience”. Stay tuned in the fall when The Critical Gamer can give Town of Light a full review.
Developer: LKA*it (based in Italy) founded by veteran artist Luca Dalcò
Systems: PC, Mac, Linux, compatible with Oculus Rift
Release Date: Fall 2015
Awards: Game Connection Development Awards 2014 (Excellence in Story & Storytelling), Game Connection European Games Booster 2014 (Excellence in Story & Storytelling)