The Town of Light is a game that seems undone by the scope of its own ambition. When you play The Town of Light you’re exploring a real place, the psychiatric hospital at Volterra in Italy. The game has recreated it in it’s current, falling-down state; abandoned in the 70s, the real place still contains wire bed frames and wheelchairs. In The Town of Light it also contains memories.
You explore the present day Volterra as Renée, a (fictional) patient who was treated there in the 40s. Exploring different parts of the hospital triggers different memories in Renée, a jumble of events from her time there that don’t appear in chronological order. But she’s confused and dissociated from her own, traumatic life, often referring to ‘Renée’ in the third person. Renée’s story can end in four ways depending on what you find and how you react: reading through another person’s diary contradicts Renée’s own recollections, and may upset her. She questions herself, and you can choose answers that direct her confusion and anger to different people. How this mechanic works is never really explained in game, though, you have to figure out what the symbol ‘single person next to group of people with a red cross through them’ means for Renée’s mental health.
The story touches upon many upsetting subjects: child abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and mental abuse. The tragedy that befalls Renée in Volterra sometimes seems so terrible as to be unrealistic, though it’s sadly based in fact. Nurses at Volterra were not obligated to speak to patients, or deliver correspondence between them and their families. Patients were restrained and kept sedated, subjected to electroshock therapy, or lobotomised. Renée put up with these things and more from the time she was committed, at the age of 16.
Because of this, The Town of Light isn’t a thriller, or a horror — at least in the traditional sense. I kept expecting it to be scarier than it actually was, because it’s set in a falling down old asylum and I have come to expect jump scares in that setting. Instead, the story is upsetting, and a worthy one to tell, but it’s told in an unfortunately mixed way. You float through Volterra in a dizzying mélange of voice over, flashbacks, hallucinations and cinematics.
One could charitably say that this speaks to how confused Renée is, but in practise it just makes for an experience that’s just too fractured for the player. For example: Renée has a doll who is incredibly significant at the start of the game, and then not mentioned again for hours until she suddenly becomes part of a symbolic ritual involving the graveyard. Story beats drift in and out like this with no measurable rhythm.
Despite this version being updated for console, there are still performance issues. Load times are long and there was frequent freezing. While the interiors are carefully dilapidated, painted walls peeling as badly as I do after the first sunny day of the year, when you move outside the textures suffer in the clear light of a pretend day. Moving between different buildings also adds to the disconnection, slightly: staying in one building and retracing your steps to find different things can be interesting, but when it reaches that point the game suddenly shoves you out onto the road to explore other places (I only found out later these were still part of the hospital: it had been intended to function as an entirely self contained town, with it’s own currency, which would have been an interesting thing to address more in the game itself).
The Town of Light has an interesting premise, but its execution doesn’t manage to live up to its intentions. Renée is an engaging character, and is voice acted very well. She provides some interesting moments. But retracing her life, however worthy an enterprise it is, is just too confused an experience to be really impactful.
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release date: June 6 2017 (February 26 2016 for PC)