Originally published on 1001Up:
After months of staying away from crowdfunding platforms, I recently became a backer for the Kickstarter campaign for Ghost Theory. The thing that attracted me to this horror-adventure was the fact that players will have the opportunity to investigate real-world haunted locations: the Dreadlocks Ltd team have been in talks with owners of private properties and convinced many of them to let them recreate their house and story, making the game that much more authentic. (If you’re interested in finding out more, take a look at our interview with CEO and Co-Founder Michal Červenka.)
Perhaps it’s for the same reason that my interest was piqued when we received a press release from Stefano Petrullo of Renaissance PR about the upcoming The Town of Light by LKA. While not based on a true story, this first-person psychological adventure is set in a place which actually existed and has been meticulously reconstructed in digital format for the title. Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a now-abandoned psychiatric hospital in Italy, was home to more than 6,000 patients and was famous for its use of electroshock therapy before being closed in 1978 when a law condemning harsh treatment in such establishments was passed.
Dilapidated mental asylums are nothing new for video games and we’re all used to creeping through dark corridors while hiding from supernatural threats. However, jump scares aren’t on the agenda here; The Town of Light shows that the most terrifying monsters aren’t those lurking in the shadows but those buried within our own minds. A big thank you to Stefano and the LKA team for providing a preview code for the beta and giving us the opportunity to play this intriguing game.
On 12 March 1938, sixteen-year-old Renèe was taken away and locked up after the police headquarters wrote that she was ‘a danger to herself and a cause of public scandal’. But what really happened back then in the disturbing rooms of the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum? Players explore the crumbling building and interact with the environment in the present day, while reliving the history of the protagonist through her confused viewpoint. As the Steam page for The Town of Light advises:
The only horror you will find in this game is the truth: a blow to the solar plexus, much more intense than any supernatural presence.
Comparisons to ‘walking simulators’ such as Dear Esther are bound to be made but there’s more to LKA’s project. The title begins in the grounds of Volterra on a hazy afternoon with sunlight streaming through the trees, dust-motes reflected on the screen and swallows darting up above. The visual style is reminiscent of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter or the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture here. The developers have added a nice touch by allowing the player to actually use the swings, slide and roundabout in the rusty playground – although it’s a little jarring when you look down and can’t see your legs!
After checking the perimeter, I managed to find a way into the asylum by means of an unlocked side door. Immediately upon entering the atmosphere changed to something more akin to Homesick: loneliness and isolation seeps out of the peeling walls, and evidence of the establishment’s previous inhabitants such as doctors’ notes and dusty garments are found within the shadows. Medical books hiding grotesque drawings and diagrams have been left within broken drawers and cupboards while rusted wheelchairs litter the hallways.
Renèe remarks that we need to turn on the power when flicking a light switch has no effect, and that the main switch can be found near the ‘calm women ward’. Consulting a faded map on a wall reveals that the ‘Tranquil ward’ is just around the corner so I head in that direction with my torch and find just what I need. Completing this task allows me turn on a projector in a nearby room to view photographs of Volterra before its closure; these appear to be real images, an excellent way of reminding the player that this shocking tale is grounded in reality.
The protagonist then tells us that the only thing she remembers clearly about her past is her doll, Charlotte, and we need to find her because she’s alone in the dark. I make my way up to the first floor and locate the cracked toy lying on a decaying bed before Renèe is subjected to a disturbing flashback presented in the style of 2D sepia drawings. The developers themselves have said that we’re witnessing the storyline through her ‘confused viewpoint’, so could it be that her memories have become blurred during the years since her internment in 1938?
While these images aren’t overly graphic, it should be noted that the game contains strong content and some of the information revealed to the player is disturbing. The material provided to us by Stefano states:
The Town of Light aims to tell a story inspired [by] real facts, some of them we are aware [will] create discomfort in people, especially in the realm of the game medium which is not [usually] used to tackle those aspects… This is the reason we have decided to inform players at the very beginning of the game that the story we are telling contains discomforting elements, elements we have not decided to put in for the sake of it but that are part of what unfortunately really happened in some instances.
It could be very easy to become lost within the building but fortunately the developers have provided a hint system of sorts: pushing the ‘back’ button on the controller reveals the protagonist’s inner monologue and this can be used in conjunction with the maps to determine the next destination. During my exploration of Volterra I come across a number of crumbling rooms featuring what could so easily be torture implements, including a large electrical unit and a table where electroshock therapy must have taken place. It’s another stark reminder that this place actually exists – and was once the home of a very young science, where experimentation into cures led to horrific therapies.
It’s hard not to feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, particularly when Renèe experiences a hallucination. Doors on either side are slammed shut by invisible hands as I walk down a shadowy corridor, at the end of which the horizon flips to create an extremely disorientating sensation. After a flashback showing her arrival at the asylum, being completely stripped and tied to a bed for days, I awake in what appears to be the protagonist’s old room with a locked exit. She reveals that it can only be unlocked from the outside; but after searching the environment for a way out, I turn back to the door to now find it standing open…
I head back into the hallway, darker this time and mist swirling under the fluorescent light-bulbs overhead, and turn on the torch to help prevent the creeps from setting back in. The next flashback I face is even more disturbing than the last and I’m grateful I only have to experience it through the sepia drawings rather than in first-person. It’s at this point that the fear of the supernatural and monsters lurking in the shadows fades away: the real demons are those within Renèe’s mind, and unfortunately they’re not so easy to escape.
The way she talks about herself in third-person when she finds a letter that triggers a memory makes it clear she has attempted to distance herself from traumatic memories over the past decades. She remembers a doctor who tried to help her and ‘wrote things down’ so I head to his clinic to see if I can find anything further about the protagonist’s past. A medical record on the desk causes an extreme amount of discomfort for Renèe and she tells us that we mustn’t read it; but presented with several choices, I decide to press on. I need to find out what happened to her.
LKA has revealed the story will develop in different ways depending on the choices you make. But it isn’t that easy, as you’ll need to sort fact from false memory and make decisions when faced with contradictory evidence. Creative Director Luca Dalcó said in an interview with the Metro:
One of the key methods for portraying symptoms of mental illness in the game is that you’ll see something that suggests a particular situation and at the beginning it seems very clear. But going through the game you start to realise that they’re not so straightforward and so you begin to question your own mind and the reality around you. That is a common problem for someone in Renèe’s situation.
At the end of this scene, I’m left with the task of finding ‘Amara’ along with the full medical record. It’s here that Stefano asked us to stop recording the gameplay video above but there are so many questions left unanswered. What caused the protagonist to be admitted to Volterra back in 1938? What happened to her there in its terrifying rooms? Why is she now, all these years later (and presumably in her nineties if the dates match up), alone and wandering the corridors of an abandoned asylum? I dread to consider the reason but I won’t be able to stop myself from finding out.
There has been an increase in the number of narrative-driven titles on the market recently and they’re proof that video games can be more than just blood and violence. The medium is unique in that it can put the player in the shoes of someone entirely different from themselves and give an insight into what life is like. The Town of Light is highly ambitious in its aim to show how it would feel to be a person beset by mental illness and depression – but with several honours under its belt already, including the award for Excellence in Story & Story Telling at the Paris Game Connection 2014, it’s clearly going about it in the right way.
LKA’s project is due to be released on PC, Mac and Linux on 26 February 2016 and you’ll receive an 11% discount on the standard $19.99 price if you pre-order before this date. If you’re interested in finding out more about the title or Renèe’s story, head over to the official website where you can read her diary and view further screenshots.