Off the Beaten Path: The Town of Light

Welcome to Off The Beaten Path, where we present reviews of non-AAA gaming titles and discuss issues pertinent to women in gaming.

The Town of Light is not a horror game, at least not a conventional one. There are no chase sequences, where you escape from monsters; no sequences of sneaking around, trying to avoid the line of sight of creatures from the realms beyond our understanding; no fight for survival against terrifying beings. But rest assured, this game has its share of demons.

The problem of most horror stories (video games especially) set in psychiatric hospitals is the often inevitably demonization of that setting’s patients. The mentally ill are treated as freakish monstrosities, shambling around without rhyme or reason, attacking the protagonist/player when they least expect it — more zombies than humans. The Town of Light does away with it by turning the tables, and instead of presenting the asylum patients in a terrifying light, it sheds some of it at people running it.

Set in the real life, long defunct Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, the game tells a story of one of its former patients, Renée, as she explores the long abandoned institution and her memories of her stay there, during Mussolini’s fascist regime. Her story is a composite of a number of real female patients, allowing the developer LKA to take us into every part of the asylum amd showcase its horror. Because there are demons in Volterra — demons of cruelty, abuse and imprisonment. The game presents the institution’s history without sugarcoating it, and the effect is terrifying.

And angering, though not as you play. That comes in retrospect, after each session. That’s due to following Renée’s personal unwillingness, or in fact inability to feel anger; she’s so broken by all this, so tired of it, that she’s not even sure she has a right to be angry. That’s also the attitude the game show. It presents the history of Volterra’s abuse in its ugly "glory," allowing us to make up our own mind of how we feel about it.

All this introspection takes place in faithful recreation of the hospital itself. It’s actually astounding how perfectly the ruins have remade in Unity. And you’ll visit almost every part of it, as you’ll dig deeper into Volterra’s history. The recreation is so perfect, in fact, it can be hard to tell where are you and where you need to go as most real life places don’t exactly have a logical internal geography.

This can also make it occasionally hard to tell what exactly do you need to do progress. Because you’re uncovering the secret of a real life place, instead of puzzles your challenges are of a more exploratory nature. Unlocking different parts of Volterra requires you to wander around the institution, looking for that one door that’s now open. And even when you know what to do and get to the right place, it can be pretty unclear what you need to do to progress. At one point I had to go visit Renée’s room in one of the wards, now open, but upon reaching I was stumped and had no idea what to do, and the game didn’t provide any usable clues. I finally found out (spoilers) that I had to close all window shutters.

But this isn’t a great flaw, and it certainly doesn’t detract from the game. The Town of Light is an important title, documenting how we as a society have a tendency to abuse and lock away the sick and those who we deem disturbing. As Renée says early on, "When you are mad, you are invisible." The game works hard and with care to take away that invisibility. There were and are too many places like Volterra. And that is the real horror.

The Town of Light was made by LKA and is available on Steam.

Dominik Zine is a nerdy demisexual lad from northeastern Poland and is generally found in a comfy chair with a book in hand.