The Town Of Light: Horror Tropes Or Genuine Humanity?

Horror games have an asylum level: them’s the rules. No, no arguing, it’s statistically proven to be the only environment human beings can be scared by. Well, fun fairs and orphanages too, but the quintessential horror asylum always has aspects of those anyway. Italian-made ‘psychological-thriller’ The Town Of Light is set in an asylum, therefore I presumed it was a straight-up horror game – but I might be wrong. It’s truly about an asylum, it seems, rather than simply using one as a shortcut for scary things. It’s recreating some 7,000 square metres of the real-life Italian asylum Volterra (which was closed in 1978), includes ‘real clinical documents’ and reckons itself to be concerned with ‘the true meaning of mental illness.’

I’m quite a bit concerned that this seems to involve creepy dolls and squeaky doors, but maybe it’s just trailers doing what trailers need to do?

Here’s the trailer I mean, which seems to imply jump scares and lazy ‘mad people are monsters’ horror shorthand, though I think some of that may just be in the melodramatic editing:

Rather more reassuring is this slightly less glossy footage from last year, which is slower, more emotionally haunting, offers more of the seeming effective, Italian-accented voicever and has me making potentially positive Gone Home comparisons:

It’s very hard to say, at this stage, quite what The Town Of Light is going to be, but I really do hope it’s not going to squander its purported historical accuracy and potential emotional punch with too many over-used and unsympathetic horror tropes. I remain somewhat wary that, even if it does side-step stereotype, it’s being based on ‘real events’ – i.e. real people’s suffering – holds a frightful degree potential for inadvertent crassness in the name of entertainment. It won Best Story And Storytelling Award at last year’s Paris Game Connection, which hopefully suggests there is something rather more substantial going on that LOOK SCARY PSYCOPATHS, but I’ll get in touch with the devs and try to find out more.

The Town Of Light is due for release this Autumn/Fall. More here.


  1. Det. Bullock says:

    Okay, so an italian videogame is being developed and I ddin’t happen to read about it in on any italian videogame site but in this madhouse of brits, yanks and other english-speaking rabble?

    Jokes aside (probably I just missed it, it happens): my home country has been a victim of the anti-psychiatric movement in the ’70s and ’80s, while our “madhouses” were indeed unkempt, badly managed and often looked like a crackhouse the clever solution our government came up with was closing them down instead of, you know, make them better which caused a lot of trouble as many patients had to return to the care of their families or were just left to themselves because nobody thought of planning alternatives to the old madhouses, only in the subsequent decades they managed to cobble toghether new (and arguably better) psychiatric institutions.

    It’s kind of surprinsing they are making a game like this in Italy as it is still a sore spot and here we have a political class that is overall older and more prone to the “videogames are ruining our children” mentality mixed with a mainstream journalism that is still hilariously misinformed.

    • GameCat says:

      It’s kind of surprinsing they are making a game like this in Italy as it is still a sore spot

      Well, it’s not that suprising at all. Most of horror stories are based on our current fears and/or sore things we want to pretend they doesn’t exist. That’s why 50’s and 60’s American horror movies are mostly about atomic bomb and radiation and what it can create (answer: huge mutated animals and insects) etc.

      Madhouse/asylum is rather universal theme, but in this case it’s additionally boosted by fact that in Italy asylums are Things You Don’t Mention.

      That trailer and gameplay looks like combination of tropes, but I have a feeling that this game will be (or at least tries to be) something above that.

    • gkathellar says:

      To be fair, that arc of history isn’t a uniquely Italian one. Deinstitutionalisation (that is to say, ending the use of psychiatric institutions and shifting to a largely outpatient care model) began in the 60s in the United States, where public revelations about the horrific nature of asylum care and the development of new psychiatric drugs propelled a belief that mental illness would be better managed from home. It spread throughout the world over the course of the next several decades.

      It’s encouraging that Town of Light doesn’t seems like it’ll fall into the Cuckoo’s Nest trap of pretending that insanity doesn’t exist. Part of the tragedy of the old asylums is that they did their job so poorly and so cruelly, when for those burdened with truly severe mental illness, inpatient treatment is a necessity. They took people who needed help, often very badly, gathered them together, and let them stew. The trailers at least seem to suggest that this is something to that will be reflected on.

      On the other hand, phrases like the “true meaning of mental illness” make me wary, because they seem to play into the stigma we put on the mentally ill. There’s no more meaning to mental illness than there is to cancer, or to any other chronic sickness. Disease is horrifying partly because it doesn’t have a meaning. You can tell a story about how people respond in the face of that horror, but I don’t know how much there is to say about the source itself.

    • Dorga says:

      Worst still is the fact that places like this still exist in Italy, only under a different name. The current mayor of Rome, Ignazio Marino, did an investigation about it.

  2. Eddy9000 says:

    I work as a psychologist in a secure forensic psychiatric hospital, so the nearest thing to an asylum that you’ll get. Inside it looks like a cross between a general hospital and a Travelodge. We have charity car washes, gardening programmes, a shop run by the residents and therapy groups where we sit together and support each other. The residents started feeding a cat on the grounds and looked after it when it gave birth to kittens behind a shed. The scariest thing about my job is reading the histories of the residents and realising the incredible social adversity, abuse and trauma they’ve had to survive from others, and quite how common this is in society, but it makes me feel sad and melancholic rather than scared.

    • Geebs says:

      I would have thought a game set in the average psychiatric institution would be 45% organising supervision for smoke breaks and 55% explaining that they’ve only just been and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

      • Eddy9000 says:

        That’s so accurate that I both laughed and sighed at the same time.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      Hopefully this game will have a core like that? Reading the comments from Italians up there as well as the weird tones of both trailers (it’s scary… but then again it’s not…), it seems like it could still be non-horror focused, maybe setting an ironic distance from the trope to show it for what it is: oppressive tripe. I guess until we have more info, we won’t know.

  3. Dilapinated says:

    Awful asylum tropes in games are a known quantity. Using real people’s medical records is a new and worrying idea. :/ 1978 is hardly ‘oh they’d all be dead now’ territory anyway, and even if it were families would still be a thing. Unless they’re using only the base templates for questionairres/documents/etc, then I don’t see this ending well. Medical, especially psychiatric/psychological records, aren’t the sort of thing where just swapping the name to John Videogame is enough.

    I have entirely the wrong kind of foreboding dread & nausea about this game.

    • Luca says:

      You’ll not find any real medical records inside the game!
      The medical records inside the game are not real, are work of fantasy, but they are written in a realistic way.
      To achieve this the developers have studied real old medical records that are accessible (70 years after the death of the person) only for research purpose.