The Town of Light Review — Casting Shadows for the Lost
The Town of Light on PS4, PC and Xbox One is a sympathetic take on psychological horror that finds its roots in a more historically accurate terror.
The Town of Light is a game that requires a degree of processing. For starters, developer LKA.it characterizes it as a psychological horror adventure game, a genre that may not be too established, with relatively few other titles under its umbrella. Naturally, the genre may be immediately less recognizable by a wide audience.
Although I believe LKA has appropriately classified its game, it is slightly misleading. The Town of Light is not a horror game, at least not in the traditional sense. After all, 90% of it takes place in a bunch of warm, sun-filled rooms. Most players may recognize it as simply an “adventure game.”
Like many in its genre, The Town of Light’s greatest level of difficulty is not in gameplay, but in the critical thought that it asks of its player. Since completing it, I have wrestled with my feelings toward its subject matter, and they have admittedly evolved since I watched with a furrowed brow as the credits rolled. I spent time to consider its true meaning, and I have come to the conclusion that many of The Town of Light’s mechanical flaws very likely lend to its greatest merits.
LKA’s The Town of Light is about Renée, a 16-year-old girl who is admitted to the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum in 1938 Italy. The game briefly begins at a time after she has already come to the asylum, then transitions to the present day, 2016, where most of the game is played.
In the present, the asylum has fallen into deep disrepair, and you play as an unknown woman who endeavors to discover what happened to Renée. Over the course of the game, you will explore the asylum to discover the identities of both women, as well as the startling truths about what happened to them in this place.
It should come as little surprise that in reality the early 20th Century’s psychiatric institutions were full of atrocities, especially those with large numbers of women within their walls. In case you were unaware, LKA provides a note at the beginning of the game explaining that although the precise characters and stories are fictitious, the game’s events are based on very real ones.
LKA did its homework, researching the real Volterra Psychiatric Asylum and the people within it.
Throughout The Town of Light, you will collect various artifacts: letters, newspaper clippings, even photographs that appear to be from real mental institutions of the time period. You will also find entries from Renée’s diary that lend an early representation of her state-of-mind. Through this, we learn about the experiences that landed her in the asylum and her most ardent desires. We also come to understand her greatest fear.
It seems that more than anything, Renée fears “the light.” Rather than most who traditionally fear the dark, Renée is just the opposite. In her diary, she sometimes describes moments of joy in her life, but as soon as the light returns, she is reminded that something about her is different than everyone else. It doesn’t take much more to realize that Renée was a woman dealing with mental illness and she was in need of help. By the game’s end, you witness a simulation of the greatest brutality Renée’s time and place could offer, and it becomes clear that she lived in a period that was neither willing nor prepared to provide the help she needed.
The Town of Light isn’t just about one woman’s tragedy or the injustices of the past.”
Over its four hour playtime, the game does offer points where Renée must make a decision, and although it may alter the course of the story, her ultimate outcome remains just as dim. But The Town of Light isn’t just about one woman’s tragedy or the injustices of the past. Although part of its intention is to appall us, the game serves a much more relevant purpose.
I noted before that this is not a horror game in the traditional sense. However, in many ways it is a horrific experience for the game’s protagonists. The game’s plot eventually reveals that both main characters (the past and the present) are versions of Renée, as impossible as it may seem, and that she is struggling to understand her illness and her own identity by extension. This light that she fears so feverishly is the truth that hides within the asylum of today. Although occasionally creepy, the 2016 asylum is mostly an open, airy place with the midday sun constantly filling it with light.
As part of the game’s development, LKA visited the actual Volterra Psychiatric Asylum. I can say that based on the development video that the team has since released, it did an excellent job in capturing how the establishment has aged and how it must feel to move throughout it. Certain environmental textures occasionally suffered from splotching and character models were rough, but these didn’t distract from other beautiful visual details such as the graffiti on the asylum walls or the illustrations in Renée’s diary.
As would be expected, the asylum contains a wide assortment of rooms to explore and the ground is littered with what appears to be junk. However, many rooms are completely without any items whatsoever, and others hold seemingly mundane objects that offer no insight into the story or the setting. You could pick them up and turn them over, but that pair of gardening shears was probably better left as something Renée couldn’t interact with in the first place. Or was it?
Of course not every little nothing has an answer for Renée, as disappointing as that may be.”
While I would normally consider such disparity in the level of substantive content to be a complaint, The Town of Light’s protagonist gives me pause. We have to keep in mind that Renée is the one poking and prodding the environment, picking up meaningless objects and walking into meaningless rooms. You play the game as a woman who suffers from mental illness and who desperately wants to further understand that illness and know who she is. Wouldn’t you comb over everything you could find in hopes of unlocking a clue from your past? Of course not every little nothing has an answer for Renée, as disappointing as that may be.
Similarly out of place is the game’s music. While most of the time it fits the mood of a scene, there seems to be an issue with its initial presentation. Instead of fading in or out, it can abruptly begin and end without warning, causing otherwise immersive music to feel jarring. This combined with the game’s occasionally slow performance (frame rate tends to dip), and it’s difficult to chalk up to more evidence of the protagonist’s perspective.
The Town of Light is able to place players in the mindset of someone struggling with mental illness. What some may consider to be the mistakes or half-baked mechanics of a young, independent developer, I choose to see as details that lend to a much broader message about understanding that perspective. Certainly, aspects of The Town of Light’s performance and visuals could have been improved upon.
I’m not so foolish as to ignore that some of the game’s missteps are just that. However, LKA should be commended for being one of only a few developers in recent memory who has endeavored to express this much humanity and depth for the community of the mentally ill and in a way that is so subversive. The Town of Light is an experience with the power to enlighten many to the anguish of those few still lost in the dark.