The Town of Light Review
Players would be excused for expecting The Town of Light to be a Horror game – it’s got the abandoned, creepy building, the dim lighting, and haunting music, all of which usually signify impending jump-scares to today’s jaded gamer. And it does indeed horrify – but not because of anything supernatural. This is the terror of human cruelty, of extreme loneliness, and of the tragedy of a promising young life wasted by mental illness and cold bureaucracy. The Town of Light might be a flawed game, but it is a truly compelling story.
For some, The Town of Light will invite comparisons to Gone Home, but its style also reminded me of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. You take the first-person view of Renée, a fictional former patient at Ospedele Psichiatrico di Voltera, a real asylum in Tuscany, Italy that housed over 5,000 patients until being closed in the 1970s. Returning many years after her stay in the 1940s, Renée walks the dilapidated corridors and rooms (painstakingly reproduced from the actual building) once more to piece together the fragments of her story. The Town of Light is not a horror game so much as an interactive narrative; you walk around slowly, finding artifacts such as letters, photographs or other items related to Renée, after which you will be able to read them, hear Renée’s voice explain them, or even see an animated sequence.
“The Town of Light is not so much a horror game as it is an interactive narrative.”
There are some light puzzles in a way – for example, you might have to place an object somewhere specific to trigger the continuation of the narrative – but even these situations are strongly hinted at; the challenge is not really in solving brain-teasers but in absorbing a very dark and sad tale that pulls you in right away and drives you forward, wanting to know more but dreading where it might take you.
Suffice it to say that poor young Renée had to endure things that no human being, much less a child, should have to. Confused, abused, and isolated, she reached out for help and found none. The institution in whose care she found herself was a mix of individuals who failed Renée each in their own ways – some deliberately and cruelly, others out of misguided good intentions. Together, they made up a mental health system that had few ideas and too often resorted to torture and even barbaric procedures like a lobotomy.
“Suffice it to say that poor young Renée had to endure things that no human being, much less a child, should have to.”
Renée’s story in The Town of Light is not “scary,” so if you’re looking for a fright-fest this isn’t your game. But it is heart-breaking, it is profoundly disturbing and real in a way that stands out from other games. Developers LKA do a great job of avoiding the usual caricatures of mental illness, and wisely resist the lure of artificial plot twists and other devices. This is a mature, unflinching look inside a world that few of us will ever see, and a rare case where the first-person view afforded by a game brings a sense of immediacy that no movie or book could ever match.
As decent a job as LKA does telling their story, it could have been even better. The graphics let the game down at times, particularly in the crude, almost unfinished-looking character models that act out some scenes. And some scenes are not even acted out at all – they are read out, or conveyed in hand-drawn illustrations. As good as the drawings are, having fully acted-out cut-scenes with detailed character models would have made the game even better and more coherent. LKA is an indie developer after all, but still, the uneven presentation lessens The Town of Light’s impact at times.
“After you finish it, and put down the controller, Renée’s sad life story will haunt you in ways that no feral ghoul or shuffling zombie ever could.”
As a player, you might also find that there could be more to do. Despite the half-hearted puzzle elements, the experience is often a passive one in which you go to a place, find something, get sent to another place, and so on in what could fairly be called a walking simulator. While the story is luckily strong enough to keep you floating along, some might feel too bored to see its 4-5 hour length through to conclusion – and that would be a shame because trust me, The Town of Light’s gut-punching ending is worth the time.
The Town of Light is not perfect, and it defies the usual categories in many ways – frankly, given its lack of player agency, it’s even hard to call it a game. But it is a narrative experience every gamer should try. After you finish it, and put down the controller, Renée’s sad life story will haunt you in ways that no feral ghoul or shuffling zombie ever could.
** A PS4 code was provided by the publisher **
- Engaging, emotional story
- Important, mature subject
- Lack of gameplay elements might be boring for some
- Uneven presentation