The Town of Light: A Different Look into Mental Health in Horror
I have always had a morbid fascination with horror games, but am too much of a scaredy-cat to play many of them – Resident Evil and Bioshock are the exceptions to rule and even those I have to play with my housemate so not to cry. When I was told I could have a go on The Town of Light, a European horror game by Wired Productions, I couldn’t help but say yes. Maybe this would be a horror that I could play and enjoy without having to beg someone else to sit in the room with me! I was over the moon to give it a go and find out about it.
The game is set in a mental asylum that you’re character, Renee, was interned in as a teenager. The game opens as Renee returned to the asylum, long since abandoned, in present day to try and uncover what happened to her there, unpicking the mysteries of her past. So far, so scary.
The opening of the game is somewhat disorientating. You find yourself on an abandoned road, random bits of building and an old play park are the only things to be seen, but as you make your way down the road you soon come across the asylum, looming up in front of you. To add to the discomfort, it’s sunny. A beautiful summer’s day, birds singing, wind in the trees, but not much else can be hear. It’s a very strange juxtaposition. The bright sun, twinned with eerie silence puts you much more on edge than a dark and stormy night. It enforces how alone Renee, and you, are, keeping you on edge from the get go.
I did find myself assuming that I was going to be randomly attacked, after all that’s pretty much a stable of horror games. It was a rather pleasant surprised to find I could simply walk around the abandoned asylum, exploring and investigating without anyone, or thing, jumping out on me. Talking to the creators, it was clear that they wanted to create something that didn’t rely on the easy reach that plagues the horror genre.
Lorenzo Conticelli: There are no typical horror elements inside the game, it is not a survival game. It is more of a physiological thriller based on creating this anxiety, and this link between you, the player, and the character, Renee.
Holly Swinyard: It doesn’t really have the jump scare elements that horror games usually have, which is quite a welcome change.
LC: It’s quite a peaceful environment. Jump scares are a cheaper way of creating a [horror] atmosphere, which we didn’t want to do in building the atmosphere of this game.
Mental illness and asylums have been used over and over in horror, from films like the Shinning and Psycho, to games such as Amnesia: Dark Descent and Eternal Darkness, where you have to play to keep your sanity, and it’s almost always demonised. “Crazy people are scary!” is a trope that get used so flippantly, without thinking of what it actually means when you have to hurt or attack the “crazies”. However, The Town of Light has taken a very different road with this trope and turned it on its head.
LC: It is based on extensive research of mental illness and mental institutions, because our goal as a team is to face these controversial topics with the deserved sensitivity. So we did extensive research before facing that topic.
[The Town of Light] comes from a personal interest of our creative Director [find name]. In the circle around him, there some people who suffer from mental illness and it’s really common, because mental illness, for example depression and anxiety, are too often hidden from society.
Playing the game, this sensitivity towards the topic of mental illness is very clear. As much as your surroundings, and the knowledge of what happened in the asylum, keeps you on edge, never once is Renee or the other patients made to seem anything other than human, and, actually they are shown as humans in distress. Even in the more disturbing levels, you empathize with Renee, and start to feel the deep pain of mental illness through her. The most interesting part of this is the fact that the asylum is real.
LC: You can see that [the asylum in The Town of Light] is a real existing asylum in Tuscany, in Voltera, and it was one of the biggest in Europe. It could hold 6000 patients inside; it was really huge, like a small town. As you see you will play as Renee as she comes back to Voltera, in the present day, to discover what happened to her.
The slowly dawning realization that what you are seeing happened, that it was a real place, where real people suffered, ups the scare factor. Acknowledging the truth of the situation hits a cord that no chainsaw wielding plot device or mutant zombie can. After all, real life is scary than fiction.
You spend the first level tentatively finding your way round the asylum, or at least the entrance and the first few wards, untangling the small bits of information that Renee gives you. It feels very much like someone who has repressed a lot of memories, and is struggling to open up about them. Renee has clearly suffered a great deal and the triggering of memories is disturbing and upsetting for her and the player. Finding items, photographs, medical records and the like, allows you to start gaining access to Renee’s memories, and you can start piecing together her life.
The some of these memories are shown to you in the form of her “diary”, half remembered pieces of information, with uncertain meanings. Visually the game throws a real curve ball at you with these cut scenes. The main game play switches from more standard 3D, first person, into these sketchy, almost childlike drawings. It gives you a real sense of how Renee’s mind has been dealing with the trauma (possibly traumas) that have happened to her.
HS: I love the cut scenes, how they are very sketchy, like drawings. It feels very much like recalled memories, which is really interesting, you don’t just have the whole picture. I’m assuming by the end of the game you get answers to lot of your questions, but…
LC: They made lots of iterations before arriving at this kind of art style. There are two amazing artists in the studios, who were responsible for the art, one for the diary of Renee and one for all the cut scenes.
However, the diary memories are nowhere near as disturbing as those memories that you play.
Very quickly you realise that you are going to be playing in two time zones, the present day and Renee’s memories. Entering her memories, you travel done an inescapable tunnel into an uncertain world that you know will hold, not only horrors that should never have been suffered, but also keys to a past that you must unlock for your own wellbeing.
HS: I like the fact that you also have two time zones that you’re playing in, you’re kind of playing in her memories and then in the present day. As you’re playing with both storylines, I’m assuming that they interact with each other and you get more and more opening up to you.
LC: As you move on you will see more and more of what happened and you will find some notes and records to understand the story line. These will trigger memories.
Playing in the memories is deeply unsettling. You feel very weak, with no control of your circumstances, emulating the feelings that Renee, or any of the patients, would feel in this place. I found myself instantly wanting to get out of this nightmarish place, but knowing that this was not going to possible, I could only imagine how it would have felt for those who experienced this. Visually the world becomes dull, almost black and white; colour and life do not seem to be part of this experience for Renee. The people around you become shapeless and shadowy, as they aren’t real, that they made very little impact on Renee other than existing in the same space as her. The whole space around you seems only half in focus, and all of these things help embed the feeling of Renee’s mental illness.
Many people who suffer with mental illnesses do experience the feeling that the world isn’t real, that it’s dull and shadowy, and that the team behind The Town of Light tried to represent this is a brilliant step to bringing understanding. However it still feels a bit like “this is scary, look how scary” which is a shame. There is still a lingering idea of the standard horror asylum, with the ghostly patients and scary doctors, but that may come from a socialized view of asylums as well the fact that they were genuinely horrific places.
The really interesting thing about playing through the memories is that you have to decide what you think Renee’s illness is. The choices you make through the game, and each choice takes you down a certain path.
LC: The story of Renee has a certain mental illness and as you move in the story, for example you seen the other guy, where he has to answer some questions in the game, because Renee told you the story in first person, you have only her side of the story. But sometimes you see the opposite side of that, so you see what the doctors thought about you, [Renee]. So you might see this medical record and have to answer, what you think based on that record, and what you explore, what you think Renee’s illness is. And you can change the story line, well, no the story line is the same, you can change the point of view of some elements. For example you can get a depressive story, or a more anxious one, or more schizophrenic story, based on what you think about the game. There are no good or bad choices when you answer. We have four different paths through the game, but the story starts and ends in the same place, but you can reload a chapter, give another answer and unlock another path.
The Town of Light is very much a new breed of horror game, to the point that I wouldn’t label it as horror. It’s psychological, it’s mystery, it’s thriller, but to call a game that strives to demystify mental illness and open up the way understand the experiences of people who have mental illnesses horror is not only insulting to the game, but also to the people it is trying to give a voice to. Whether or not The Town of Light succeeds in truthfully presenting these experiences is up for debate, but to try is a goal worth aiming at.
Beautifully presented and lovingly created, I think that The Town of Light will give the gaming industry something to think about when it comes to its use of the “crazy” trope in the future.
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Written by Holly Rose Swinyard