The Asylum Horror Game That Isn’t A Horror Game

I took a look at the trailers for this Italian-made ‘psychological’ thriller a couple of weeks ago, and worried aloud about whether they’d be able to achieve their stated aim of helping people understand “the true meaning of mental illness” given that The Town Of Light seemed to include many ‘spooky asylum’ tropes.

I played a small section of the game and spoke (via translator) to the Italian team behind The Town Of Light at last week’s Develop conference, and now at least have a clearer idea of what it is.

Gone Home is a far more accurate touchstone than something like Silent Hill or Amnesia, despite some degree of aesthetic commonality with horror games. There is no combat and there are no monsters. From a first-person perspective, you explore notorious psychiatric hospital Volterra, now long-abandoned and settling into a sort of bleakly beautiful ruin. The exterior reminds me of STALKER’s Pripyat, but interior could be a sequence from Condemned.

Architecturally at least, there is no dramatic license. The degradation, darkness and emptiness of its asylum setting is a replication of how Volterra appears now, having been abandoned in 1978 after mounting controversy about the cruelty of Italy’s psychiatric hospitals resulted in their closure.

These institutions are something of a national scar, having been brutal, dehumanising places whose treatment of patients could even go so far as medically-induced comas or forcibly applying pressure to the eyeballs to bring about an epileptic fit. I’d considered asking if, in terms of national shame, the Italian asylums were now analogous to German concentration camps, but feared an invocation of Godwin’s law. It wasn’t long until Luca Dalcò, art and technical director, plus writer, offered up the comparison himself. “They were at that level of atrocity, the experiments on people, with things that maybe work, maybe not. They used to have 200 patients with 5 nurses.” Horrendous techniques were employed as an attempt to cope with the load. “There were no psychotropic drugs, not tablets, it was all about ‘what are we going to do with this?’”

The last six decades have not yet eradicated the controversy. “There are psychiatric hospitals for criminals which haven’t been affected by the law that closed all the others back in the 80s,” explains Luca Dalcò. They’re just shutting them now, like they forgot. There is a lot of difficulty around the topic at the moment.” Making a videogame about it is not something to be undertaken lightly.

One of the methods they’ve employed in the hope of preventing The Town Of Light from spinning off into exploitation is extensive research. “It’s not common to have a game with a huge bibliography of documents and research books, speaking with psychologists…” Many written artefacts from the real-life Volterra will appear in the game, with names redacted where necessary. These are found and examined in the manner of Deus Ex or BioShock diary, but rather than writing sub-plots around the margins they provide context on how the institution was run, how the staff talked about and dehumanised their patients, the icy bureaucracy pasted over the top of Volterra’s atrocities.

Nonetheless, they’re at pains to point at that “it’s still a game, it’s not a documentary, you still play.” It’s no walking simulator either, though some of that genre’s more story-led, less ambient offshots are evidently in its DNA. Luca nods when I ask about Gone Home. “There are differences, but it’s probably one of the most near comparisons you can get.” Gentle puzzles are promised, as are dialogue-based decisions which lead to one of four possible outcomes, reflecting whether your own sympathies lie with the patient, the system or somewhere in between.

The Town Of Light has dual goals, ostensibly. One is to be a painstaking recreation of the Volterra asylum. This extends from a working playground on its outskirts to the labyrinthine corridors and brutalist machines of its interior. It’s eerie, and perhaps a little sad, how familiar it all feels. I fear that assorted visits to Silent Hill and City 17 have inoculated me against this kind of shock. Though this one might be ostensibly real, I have been to so many fictional game spaces which work to evoke tragedy and human horror; I have seen so much flaking paint and rusting machinery. The images of the real-life Volterra may well be seared onto the Italian national consciousness, but as a complete outsider it’s the many medical records and psychiatrists notes which are the real tell that all this is based on something existent.

A forlorn female voice sporadically narrates her return to Volterra, years after her forced incarceration there was a young woman. The words lapse in and out of coherence, and she skittishly fixates on objects real and imagined. If she recognises that Volterra is crumbling rather than still functional, she does not say so.

She – I – is seeking a doll, and when we find it, it has the cracked face and menacing middle-distance stare of any horror movie doll. Its purpose is tragedy rather than horror despite these tropes – the narrator expresses worry, in a shrill, childlike voice, that the doll is too cold, and then wants to place it in a wheelchair and push it through the halls. A grim simulacrum of what she herself had experienced when incarcerated here years earlier, and it triggers a flashback. Waking from enforced unconsciousness, strapped to a bed, immobile bodies crammed in all around her, and only one woman who looks at her with anything like sympathy.

This is The Town Of Light’s second goal. “The aim is to make people aware of things that no-one talks about really.” Partly this means shining a more international light on the cruelty of Volterra and institutions like it, and partly it’s to try and bring about more understanding of mental illness. Luca is reticent to pin a specific label on Renèe, the narrator, as “It’s really difficult to get diagnosed 100%. You have symptoms of schizophrenia and bi-polar and things like that. The main goal of the game is not to let the player experience the full symptoms of schizophrenia but to describe the drama of the symptoms.”

These symptoms are evidenced both purely in spoken form as with Renèe’s response to the doll, and somewhat more literally. A later sequence sees a lower floor of Volterra twist into an Escherian nightmare of looping stairs and rotating tunnels. It’s a disorientating, helpless stagger through an oppressive place which seems as though it might never end, which I imagine is the intention, but it also feels like something out a Hellraiser film. The devs are excited when they talk about how overwhelming this sequence is on an Oculus Rift, and the website blares that VR “adds a new dimension to the fear!”

You must know there are horror tropes, I say. “50% is how the actual structure is and the atmosphere is when visiting. It can be a bit disturbing. This dark atmosphere, if you think about what happened there, and now it’s really falling apart. It’s got these echoes of the past. On the other hand, because you see the world through the eyes of the protagonist, there is a bit of an effect added, which is a reflection of their psyche.”

They’re determined that the scary movie aspects are there to serve a higher cause. “At the beginning there is some typical horror elements which are introduced, but this is just a tool to discover later that the real horror is not these elements, it’s the effect of mental illness and the way the institution used to work.”

It’s too early to call, and I haven’t played enough, but the confused, maudlin voice of the narrator did do much to convey that the Town Of Light is striving to be about the horror of being her, a suffering and vulnerable 16-year-old-girl who was thrown into a situation which did the very opposite of helping her, rather than quite so much about external horrors. The only ghosts are in Renee’s mind, but her mind is fractured enough that we may find ourselves in territory we know from other, shlockier concepts.

It’s treading a fine line of course, particularly because we’ve played so many games with psychiatric hospital sequences that we simply respond a certain way whether the developers wanted us to or not. “We were aware that it could be a potential association, but at the same we are well aware that our game is different enough. It doesn’t have one level in an asylum. The location is the protagonist. It’s not collateral like in other games, this is where the game is fully based.”

I make it clear that I’m worried The Town Of Light risks losing its humanity if it goes too far into familiar darkness, and the developers make it clear that they’re well aware of this, that marketing places certain demands upon them but that they want to make a game with meaning rather than mere melodrama. “We want to be very, very sensitive.”

The Town Of Light is due for release later this year.

9 Comments

  1. hypocritelecteur says:

    Hate to nit and pick but the machines are not brutalist. The building is brutalist. The machines are just brutal.

  2. Det. Bullock says:

    “Aslyum” instead of “asylum” in the title.

  3. Dorga says:

    Actually these asylums are worse then a national scar, they are forgotten, all but left out of the public eye.

  4. MrBehemoth says:

    To me, the statement that this is not a horror game seems to be based on a misconception of what horror is. Horror doesn’t have to be supernatural. It doesn’t have to be jumpscares. It doesn’t even have to be about the real or perceived threat of violence or death.

    These clichés are often welcome, but if you strip them away then what makes it horror is a creeping apprehension of the atrocious or perverse, and the realisation of their proximity. It’s looking into the abyss and the abyss looking back. For example, it’s not the blood pouring out of the elevator, it’s watching Jack go mad and how it affects his wife and son. It’s not that Dracula bits you, it’s that it’s an unpleasant sexual metaphor that get’s under your skin whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s not the spooky asylum, it’s the real lives destroyed by it and the understanding you gain of the human elements of that tragedy.

    Based on second-hand first impressions, this game is 100% pure distilled horror.

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      Angstsmurf says:

      Yeah, horror movies don’t need supernatural elements. Many slasher films don’t have any. That is why Spec Ops: The Line is one of the best and most misunderstood horror games. It is not really a good meditation on war or free will, but it has got a great horror atmosphere.

      • wcq says:

        I agree, but I don’t think the primary focus of the story in Spec Ops was to meditate on either of those. I think the main idea was to highlight the wrongness of heroic fantasy stories set in real world crisis zones.

    • jellydonut says:

      These days ‘horror game’ means ‘game with jump scares and running from monsters that can get you many viewers if you stream it on Twitch’.

  5. drucifer says:

    The developer’s input has sold me on this title. I’ve followed on Twitter & look forward to it’s release, although I will base my purchase on reviews.

  6. Nest says:

    There are enough Walking Simulators now that they kind of deserve their own sub genres. Games like this one, and Gone Home, are pretty different from true walking simulators like Proteus and Dear Esther. They’re more like Rummaging Simulators or Snooping-Into-Other-People’s-Business simulators.