Jumping into The Town of Light, you could be forgiven for thinking it's a fairly by-the-books psychological thriller. It's set in a disused asylum – all chipped paint and rusted doorways – and sees you meandering through its corridors in search of clues as to what happened to the protagonist Renèe, who was once an inmate. It's a game about her inner-turmoil having suffered gross mistreatment by the staff, and often will switch between first-person exploration and hand-drawn cutscenes that slowly peel back the curtain on what she was put through.
On the face of it, there's nothing beyond what has been seen before in similar horror games. In our short demo, we played through a segment of the game in which you can freely explore one decrepit building. Narration creeps in to guide you towards story touchstones, while a subtle, almost non-existent soundtrack plays underneath, keeping things nicely atmospheric. We found an old doll that used to belong to Renèe, and then had to figure out what to do with her. In the corner of the same room was a wheelchair, so we sat the doll down and then had to wheel her to a specific location
Until we figured this little puzzle out, we weren't able to progress further into the building. It seems as though the game is fairly linear, then, although the initial area still had plenty of rooms to poke around in. We eventually did figure out where the protagonist's doll needed to be, and we pushed on. This led to the beginning of a trippy segment in which corridors stretched out and away from us, and the walls became the floor, and a bright light gradually grew more intense, as did the music. It was all building to a new cutscene depicting her incarceration, and a couple of minutes later, the demo was over.
It was a decent and suitably chilling experience that aims to bring to light the horrors of mental health issues. This would be enough, but here's the kicker: the setting, the protagonist, and the events that took place are all based on true events.
The abandoned asylum is a recreation of a real facility in Italy named Volterra that was shut down in the 1970s due to cruel practices. The game takes place in the present day as Renèe returns as an adult having spent some of her teenage years in Volterra in the 40s. She and her story are fictitious, but everything within her story is based on the terrible things that occurred there in real life.
This is what makes The Town of Light unique. On the surface, it appears to be a bog-standard first-person horror game, but the thrills don't come courtesy of jump scares, or monsters, or buckets of blood. Instead, the game's chilling atmosphere and quiet halls come from the knowledge that you're walking around a real place with an extremely sinister background. The asylum has been painstakingly rebuilt; the developer showed us a reference photo, then flipped it over, depicting an in-game shot that was uncannily similar. The interiors, too, have been fully mapped out to precisely match the real deal, from some graffiti on the inside of a fuse box to the documentation found strewn across a desk.
Even the creepy doll, a tried and tested horror trope in a lot of similar games, is based on fact. The developer told us that the patients were actually given dolls as companions, which is why Renèe speaks about her as if she was alive. The game doesn't shy away from mental illness, and the developer tells us that they wanted to talk about it, as there aren't many games dealing with this kind of subject.
Once the idea that we were exploring a real place set in, everything felt much creepier. This has an appeal that goes beyond your typical psychological horror game. The fact that every inch of the game has its roots in reality gives the quiet exploration a truly haunting air, and makes the actions of the staff that much more harrowing. It isn't scary in the traditional sense, but the truth in the setting and in Renèe's story will send shivers down your spine. It's releasing soon, and based on our brief playtime, we think it's one to keep an eye out for.
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