The Town of Light: A Unique Psychological Horror Video Game

We went to Italy to find out more about a one-of-a-kind indie game: The Town of Light, which deals frankly with mental health issues...

This article comes courtesy of Den of Geek UK.

The old asylum certainly looks like something from a video game. As your humble writer’s led up a winding path to a crumbling building – windows barred, glass broken, plaster and paint peeling away inside – it resembles the setting from a Silent Hill entry, or a Resident Evil sequel, or any other survival horror title you could care to name.

This is the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, located high in the Tuscan hills of Italy. Left empty for almost 40 years, the former psychiatric hospital stands as an eerie yet oddly beautiful reminder of the area’s past. The network of now derelict buildings lies nestled among trees, not far from the town of Volterra itself, an ancient town deemed remote and sinister-looking enough to be used as a location by author Stephenie Meyer in her Twilight novels.

Looking around the old psychiatric hospital, it’s a wonder why Meyer didn’t use this forbidding old place as a setting, too. Architecturally, the style is classically Tuscan – the windows are narrow and arched with little doric columns either side, the tall plastered walls are capped with the jagged remains of red roof tiles. Many of the entrances are boarded or bricked up now, or surrounded with fences to keep out the curious. It doesn’t take long, however, to realize that the notices shouting “Derelict building – keep out” haven’t exactly done their job… 

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The Volterra hospital is the setting for a video game – although not, as you might expect, your typical survival horror. The Town of Light is the brainchild of Luca Dalco, a Tuscan local who concluded that the perfect way to tell the hospital’s story would be through a video game. For the past few years, Dalco – who’s served as the game’s director, programmer, and 3D artist – has worked with a small team of designers, researching, writing. and building The Town of Light. The result is a measured, thought-provoking adventure game which, although light on action or cheap jump-scares, nevertheless has a disturbing impact all its own.

You take on the role of Renee, a woman with a close and desperately sad connection to the Tuscan asylum. In the opening moments, Renee approaches the building in the present day, much as we did when we visited, but the more she explores the network of ruins and the detritus left behind, the further the game descends into her tragic past. Viewed from a first-person viewpoint, The Town of Light puts us in Renee’s subjective reality, taking us back to the 1940s and the often horrifying treatment she suffered at the hands of the staff.

There are no Lovecraftian monsters, zombies, or ghosts in The Town of Light, but the experience is still haunting. The action moves unpredictably from past to present, from echoing, empty halls to chambers full of disturbed inmates, and occasionally into Renee’s nightmares – each moment flowing into the other, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. There’s a sense that here, in the midst of the hospital, the real and unreal carry equal weight. 

The real-life story of the hospital is a fascinating one all by itself. At its height, there were nearly 7,000 people living inside its walls. Largely cut off from the rest of Italy, the asylum was almost entirely self-sufficient. There was a butcher which supplied meat; more able patients were kept busy by making things – including coffins, we’re told – and the hospital even had its own currency. This was no utopian retreat, however. Under old Italian laws, patients of mental hospitals ceased to be regarded as citizens. In most cases, those who found themselves in the Volterra asylum would never leave. Worse still, people were often referred to asylums for reasons which might sound absurd today: depression, alcoholism, even promiscuity.

Angelo Lippi was a social worker at the asylum in its final years, and his insight into its daily workings has made him one of the prime sources of information for The Town of Lights creators.

“All kinds of people came here,” Lippi tells us, “children with Down’s Syndrome, or people with Parkinson’s Disease. Epileptics. All kinds of people that now find treatment elsewhere. There were also divorced women who came here. Because for example, maybe they were hit by the husband, so they came here to ask for asylum.”

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If all this sounds like a sensitive subject matter to make a game out of, you’d be right. Thankfully, however, The Town of Light’s creators haven’t taken on the project lightly. Indeed, creator Luca Dalco believes that, far from trivializing a difficult topic, the game brings a moment in history to an audience who probably know very little about it.

“I’ve got a personal interest in mental health, and I think games are ideal for expressing certain emotions and telling certain stories,” Dalco says. “I’m also trying to communicate something that people don’t remember – the game’s got strong content, and there’s a disclaimer at the beginning – so it’s intended for a mature audience, but a young audience at the same time. Eighteen plus, maybe twenty plus.”

The amount of research that Dalco and his team have put into the game is certainly plain to see. As we’re shown around the remains of the real asylum, Dalco’s seldom far behind, pointing out bits of architecture or explaining the history behind a certain part of the building. 

When we sit down with a couple of the mental health professionals who consulted on the game, they seem confident that The Town of Light has been created with respect for the hospital’s past and the people who lived here. Renee may be a fictional character, but the things we see her go through are all based on things that happened to real patients.

“It’s about a personal experience, in this case, Renee, the [central] character,” psychiatrist Paolo DiPiazza tells us through an interpreter. “It’s about her suffering […] It’s about personal experiences and trauma.”

One of the things that DiPiazza points out is that, although some of the things we see and learn about in The Town of Light might seem dreadful to us in the present, in many cases, the doctors and workers were simply following what they believed to be best practice. Taking patients away from their jobs, their families, and their material possessions, for example, was intended as a help rather than a punishment, even if it does sound like something from the old 60s TV show, The Prisoner.

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“The psychiatric hospital was created with the ideal of helping people,” DiPiazza says. “If they didn’t have anything, if they were isolated, they could in some way get better because they were apart from society and people, and cities and relationships. This was the first idea behind the asylum back then.” 

Similarly, some of the treatments carried out on patients may sound barbaric, even bizarre to modern ears, but in the absence of the medicine commonly taken for granted today, they were, according to DiPiazza, regular practice among doctors.

“Some of the treatments they used in those days, like lobotomies… they felt like they never had another way to treat them. Maybe you have seen the bathtubs on the tour? That’s where they took a very hot bath or very cold bath. It sounds like torture, but there was a medical reason why they did that. They believed that melancholia sufferers had a low blood temperature, so they put them in hot water; whereas the manic patients, they thought they had hot blood, so they put them in very cold water.”

Not that a lack of medical understanding can explain all the experiences Renee suffers through in The Town of Light. While DiPiazza says that outright abuses were rare, the game certainly implies that patients were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and cruelty. Some of the things that happen to Renee, although tastefully handled, aren’t for the faint of heart. 

“The aim of the game is to tell the story of mental health in the 1940s,” Dalco explains. “I want to underline the suffering in mental health, because it’s a subject that is really near to us – today there is still a strong stigma attached to mental health. People don’t want to talk about it. The stigma comes from the past, and not talking about these things. In the past, people often believed that the mentally ill were possessed by evil. Into the 60s, everyone in Italy who displayed symptoms of mental disease lost every civil right. On top of this, if I wanted to apply to work in any kind of public service, if I had a relative who suffered from a symptom of mental illness, by law I couldn’t apply. It was considered shameful.”

Later in our tour of the asylum, we’re taken inside the building itself, which has since become a kind of blank canvas for local graffiti artists. We’re led up the remains of a staircase – covered in rubble, but just about passable – and take a walk around some of the rooms where hundreds – at one time thousands – of patients would once have stayed. It’s hard to imagine now, even as sprawling as the building is, how so many people could have stayed here. We’re told that, at its peak, there were more people crammed into the asylum than were living in the town of Volterra itself. A later leg of the tour takes us to a graveyard further down the hill.

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At first glance, it looks like any other cemetery, until we notice something strange: the small gravestones don’t have names on them – only numbers. It’s further evidence of the patients’ lack of status: once a resident of the asylum, you effectively ceased to exist – you were no longer a person, you were a number. We were also surprised at how few graves there appeared to be in the place. If there were thousands of people here, we asked, why is the cemetery so empty? Because the bodies were often stacked on top of each other, we were told. 

Having opened in the late 19th century, the asylum closed in 1978, as the advent of new medicines and revised approaches to mental healthcare rendered such a remote building a thing of the past. Angelo Lippi provides another example of how the treatment of patients changed through the 70s: until the start of the decade, residents at the hospital weren’t even allowed to send and receive letters from their families. It was only towards the end of the asylum’s life that the rules began to change.

Later, we get to spend an hour or so playing through the game itself, and as you might expect, it’s an odd feeling to explore the digital version of a building you’ve approached only a few hours before. Built in Unity, The Town of Light is a measured, ambient game in the mold of Gone Home. There are light puzzles to solve here and there, but the greater bulk of the experience is given over to searching for clues, discovering bits of Renee’s past, or simply imbibing the desolate atmosphere.

The Town of Lights setting is so specific that it reminds us of a kind of game that, for a while, seemed in danger of disappearing altogether. Back in the 80s, the 8-bit computer era gave rise to the kinds of games that could only have emerged from Thatcher’s Britain: Hovver Bovver, Terrormolinos, or Hampstead.

Thanks to tools like Unity and the ease of distribution over the web, we’re seeing the return of games which can deal with more personal subjects: That Dragon, Cancer, Depression Quest, This War of Mine. It’s clear that The Town of Light is a passion project for Dalco; the product of considerable study and careful writing. The result isn’t going to be for everybody, but with a new, more polished build of the game due imminently for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, it has the chance of bringing a unique story to a wider section of the gaming public: a very personal kind of psychological horror.

“We need to assess first, what is horror? Horror is now generally perceived as zombies, monsters,” Dalco says. “So what you see in The Town of Light is an experience of suffering, and an experience of horror in terms of the reality of suffering from mental illness. That’s quite strong. So if we define horror as zombies, The Town of Light is about as far away as possible from that. If we think about horror as suffering and trauma, and what an individual experiences with mental health, then yes, The Town of Light is a horror game.”

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As the sun sets on the Volterra asylum, we ask a guide why nobody’s rescued this huge, potentially beautiful old building. The guide replies that the locals want to keep it as a monument to the past and what happened here. Maybe that’s for the best: in the 21st century, we may be more enlightened about mental health issues than before, but our modern psychiatric healthcare system is still far from perfect. More generally, there’s still a stigma attached to mental illness such as anxiety and depression, and compared to some other areas of medicine, it’s painfully under-funded in the UK.

Whether we care to admit it or not, mental illness is a subject which affects all of us, from relatively manageable phobias and anxieties to much more fundamental personality problems which need care and understanding to treat. The Volterra asylum, and The Town of Light, serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.

“Today it’s different, clearly,” Dalco concedes. “Things are much better. But I think the stigma is still there; a sense of shame.”