What would you do to find the missing pieces in your life, the fragments of your memory you thought lost forever? Would you return to the place where you lost them, to The Town of Light?
Release Date: Feb 2016 | Enhanced Edition: June 2017
Played Main Story
Purchase At: Steam
Bad: Nothing whatsoever
I’ll preface this review by saying that The Town of Light is not a game for everyone. If you’re uncomfortable with the subject of mental illnesses and the frankly barbaric treatment the mentally ill suffered in asylums in the past, then this is not the game for you. These subjects are what The Town of Light is about at its core and it’s a powerful view into such horrifying circumstances.
In The Town of Light you control a former patient of an Italian asylum, Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, returning to the place of her treatment many years after the institute’s closure. It seems she lost something in there, and has come back to retrieve it. And as you explore the derelict hallways, you find more fragments of the past, each more harrowing than the last.
Worse still is that because of her illness, the truth about the past isn’t clear, muddled behind false memories and confused recollections. But what is clear is how the asylum and its medical staff responded to our protagonist and other patients, the things they put them through.
By the time I had finished The Town of Light I was furious, not at the game itself, but at the realisation that many people went through these kinds of horrific experiences, where instead of being treated in a humane way, barbaric treatments further broke them. It made me sad to think of the many asylums like this that existed across the world—or forbid, still exist—where people went in but never left, where lives were discarded instead of improved.
The Town of Light’s treatment of its subject matter is brilliant, presenting its history through document fragments, old medical records, notes to and from doctors and even letters from the patients’ family. These hit you harder than the rough-sketch animated cutscenes, as you can see the injustice of the situation, how the staff drove the patients to extreme behaviours and then punished them for it. If a patient expressed sexual desires, they were punished, but no one lifted a finger when the staff themselves assaulted them for their own gratification.
In sound and visuals, The Town of Light can only be described as oppressive. The derelict building, phantom sounds and echoes all contribute to the pressure you feel as you explore the hallways and asylum grounds. It’s not a horror game, it’s an exploration title, but befitting its subject matter, every step is taken with apprehension of what you’ll find after tracking the next clue, as you’ll see yet another step in the breaking of the character’s spirit, if not their already fragile psyche.
The cruellest of course are the flashback scenes where everything turns black & white and you can see the patients the character shared her life with, even in some private and intimate situations. But there is a certainty even in these scenes that things won’t go well, that whatever comfort the patients found, often with each other, was promptly squashed by the staff, and once again, their behaviour would earn them a harsher punishment…sorry, treatment.
As I said, The Town of Light isn’t a game for everyone and even as I type this I can’t help but feel the same disgust and anger I did when I finished the game, or the shock and horror during the Lobotomy sequence, the point that got the closest to breaking me.
But if you’re willing to go through to the end, The Town of Light will show you a story worth knowing, and a reality we shouldn’t forget or ignore.
6/5 – Highlander!