Call me skeptical, but I have a hard time believing that a frightening game about an abandoned psychiatric hospital could effectively normalize mental health issues. According to its creators, however, that’s just what The Town of Light is trying to achieve.
Arriving on PC next week and Xbox One later this year, the game tells the story of Renee, a fictional girl who found herself in the very real Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra in 1938. Volterra is the very model of a horror game locale: once a humane treatment center that became known for abusive treatment of its patients, until it was finally shut down in 1978. Now it stands abandoned, neglected for decades.
But the point of The Town of Light isn’t to wander the halls and be scared out of your wits, as its developers at LKA explained to Gamasutra. At its core is Renee’s story as she explores the place she lived from the age of 16. The player guides her, working through puzzles to help complete her understanding of her own experience.
In researching the story, Dalco and the team read scores of historical documents and research publications. “We had access to a huge number of videos, documents, interviews and direct witness accounts from former doctors, nurses and patients,” he says. “But beyond the historical research, we spent a lot of time imagining what the protagonist could feel in this place. We built up her story in a detailed way, producing hundreds of pages of background material as part of our design process. We wanted to create empathy within the team for her. Renee became like a real person during the development of the game. It became moving, working on the story of a girl whom we knew that we couldn’t save.”
Verisimilitude was crucial for Dalco and the team, who collaborated with Gilberto di Petta, a psychiatrist and president of the Italian society of phenomenological psychopathology. “In literature and movies ‘madness’ is often portrayed as a genius deeply rooted with criminality,” says di Petta. “Psychiatrists, meanwhile, are depicted as sick and strange. Almost all movies contribute to the stigma that mental health patients and practitioners face daily. While The Town of Light is a game, it has an incredible and valuable historic fidelity. The atmosphere, the architecture and the historical practices are recreated with both respect and tremendous attention to detail. It could help normalize the topic, and make it easier to talk about.”
Dalco goes on to argue that setting the game in a real location grounds the experience, helping the team communicate that mental illness is also a real thing, impacting the real world. In some ways, that raises the stakes even further–if the game turns out to reinforce stigma rather than break it down, grounding it in reality won’t help.
But if Dalco and his team at LKA succeed, The Town of Light may be a powerful look back at a dark time in the history of mental health treatment, one that could help show us just how far we’ve come in the last eighty years.