FBT is committed.
In 1938, a young girl, Renée is sectioned in Italy’s Volterra Psychiatric Hospital, infamous for its cruel treatment and extreme practices. Years later, Renee returns to the now decrepit building to discover what really happened to her – and why she suffered.
What makes this haunting is Renée’s story is accurate to the hospital’s real-world reputation. We’ve played games that adapt historical events into entertainment, but there’s nothing entertaining here, instead Town of Light deserves praise for how constantly sickened, angry, and helpless you feel. Problem is, it’s the helpless bit that drags it down.
ToL is more of a hidden object game than a walking sim; there’s not much in the way of direction, just a hint to find an area and then an object which triggers a cut-scene. And rather than a linear experience, the whole, vast hospital is open to you, so you’re nosing around room after room, ward after ward, floor after floor, just looking. When you do get a cut-scene it’s a relief – which is the wrong reaction to whatever horror Renee subjected to, but at least it’s progression; for the most part we’re not building toward anything, and it distances you from her story when we do relive her experiences,
That sounds nit-picky, but the game is aimless, despite what we’re facing and uncovering – I want to experience what Renee did, expose what horrors they put her under, but it’s just spread too thin. It would have been a truly affecting, tough game if it had been linear or more focused, but images of her experiences, her childhood, her memories and the events she witnesses unfold in a dream-like way, and there’s just too much plodding to keep up a momentum. It all comes together brilliantly (and horribly) but it drags so much you become somewhat immune to the sheer amount of horror she suffers.
As Renee recalls the events, and reasons for being there, we realise nothing can be trusted – some of the memories might have been invented by her mental condition, others by the stress of her treatments, or fantasies she sank into to survive – but what’s worse is the hospital covering up events or impressing their own moral virtues that made her condition worse, creating a vicious circle where they intensify her treatments due to her reactions to their acts. The hospital records detail a ‘stranger’ broke into the grounds and she seduced them, but we see memories of her being raped by an orderly. She finds records of a ‘spontaneous self-abortion’ when it’s clear they performed it illegally to cover up the assault. It makes you so angry, but once I’m back to wandering the halls, that feeling dissipates.
Added to which are some supernatural-like elements. It could be in Renee’s mind, but occasionally doors lock or unlock, lights go on or off, and there’s Layers of Fear style sequences where areas shift and change. The game’s horror was in the stark reality of it, it doesn’t need this.
There’s 14 chapters to get through, and by the time you’ve reached 7 or 8, it feels like it’s ending, but it just keeps going. Sequences like a return to a warped memory of her school, and several wanders through the hospital’s grounds feel like padding. It only took me 3 hours, but I’d swear it was 10. Had it tapped out at 2 hours and stayed on course, it would have had way more impact and stayed with me for longer.
As with most walking sims, it’s not really a game as such, more an experience, and in this at least, ToL excels. It seems more of a statement on the horrors of institutions like Volterra than an actual game, and they chose the medium as a way for us to see and feel it first-hand. It doesn’t shy away from what people were put through in the name of ‘care’; off-hand references to her being tied to a bed for 15 days, being left next to a girl who was choking to death on her own vomit, the electro-shock ‘therapy’, and I could barely stand to watch the final treatment they perform; the game even pauses to give a full medical description just so you know exactly what’s happening. Its horrible because it happened, and the reveal about Renee's original reason for being admitted was just heart-breaking and rage-inducing.
It’s an incredibly brave, contentious hate-letter to the era of ‘asylums’, basically Nellie Bly’s exposé in game form and as such, can’t be criticised. It’s a horror in the worst way – this isn’t zombies, this is people turned into zombies so they’re easier for society to deal with. But as a game, it lays it on so thick, but then stretches it so thin, you disconnect from it all.