The Town of Light: using video games to illuminate the human mind

The Town of Light: using video games to illuminate the human mind

0 comments 📅24 June 2017, 06:52

As PC game The Town of Light was released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, MyM’s video games editor James Pickard travelled to Volterra, Italy to meet the developers and discover how they’re using the format to explore the issue of mental health…

Nestled within a small town in the Italian region of Tuscany sits the dilapidated ruins of the Volterra Asylum. Opened in 1888, the hospital grew over 90 years into a vast and near-autonomous institution. Shops and services popped up inside, patients took on jobs such as carpentry and sewing, and there was even a currency established for use within the asylum. However, like many institutions of its time, it failed to properly provide the right care for those who were admitted.

Patients were submitted to electroshock therapy or a mysterious concoction of pills and potions in misguided attempts to seek a cure, without any considerations for the terrible consequences. Cruelty and abuse were common and the facilities weren’t sufficient enough to accommodate all the patients, leading to severe overcrowding. Meanwhile, the staff who had every intention of helping those inside couldn’t dedicate enough time to provide adequate care.

Angelo Lippi came to work in the Volterra Asylum out of necessity rather than choice. He initially took the job as a social care worker in order to earn a little extra money for his family. However, from day one, he was unprepared for what the role involved.

“The first day I was shocked, completely shocked. I couldn’t see people, just moving things. They didn’t look like people. You just saw a figure, a black and white figure, who didn’t express anything. You couldn’t see from these people that they had a past, they loved their mother or that they were able to do something.”

That jolt propelled Lippi into action. Though reluctant at first, he took on the challenge of trying to find a way to treat the asylum’s patients and transform the system that had failed them so far.

“I was part of the group who tried to change the way of treating the people here. Where before they were just an illness, we tried to show they were a person,” he explains. “We tried to bring out their personality. We tried to make them remember who they were before, what they had done, what they had liked, where they had lived in the past. That was our job.”

Despite their collective efforts, the asylum was shut down in 1978. Today it lies still, a chilly and haunting place that has been reclaimed by nature, where greenery weaves through the cracks in the crumbling walls and the shattered windows. Graffiti now adorns almost every surface, the floors are covered with dust and debris, and what fixtures and fittings remain have been smashed or ripped from their place. Still, you sense the many stories it has to tell.

An unforgettable visit

“The first time I visited the asylum, I fell in love with the place. There was this, ‘Wow!’ moment,” says Luca Dalco, creative director at developer LKA. Though not from the area, Dalco knew a lot about Volterra and the asylum, but it wasn’t until after his first visit that a project based on the facility and the history of mental health treatment started to evolve. Despite his background in theatre production, he realised the story he wanted to tell would not fit that form. What emerged was the game The Town of Light.

Popular media has conditioned us to believe that something set in a creepy, old asylum will fit the horror genre but that’s not the case with The Town of Light. It is, unequivocally, not a horror game, though it does deal with some horrific subject matter as it tells the story of an imagined former patient named Renée, who is sent there as a child.

Dalco explains: “I researched Volterra and mental health treatment around the world to create this massive paper that described Renée. After a while and having spoken to various people about what we wanted to achieve, they started opening up about their experiences and collaborated to help create Renée. So while she doesn’t exist in reality, she’s a combination of real experiences and real events.”

What is a game?

In The Town of Light, Renée revisits the modern-day Volterra asylum, wandering its abandoned halls, reliving the memories of her time there as a patient and uncovering information about its past. If you’re looking for a point of comparison, it’s more akin to other story-based exploratory adventures such as Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Dear Esther – ‘walking simulators’ as they are sometimes termed.

“[Making the game] was very difficult in the beginning,” explains Dalco. “The history of Volterra is very sad, so when you say you are creating a game it’s not easy for people to understand. They think it’s about achievements and so on, so at the beginning it was very difficult to express. And that was the challenge of communicating externally what the game was about. In a way, the word ‘game’ contradicts what it is.”

The whole question of ‘what is a game?’ has been raised multiple times in the past, especially in reference to those examples above. And while some players have no interest in that sort of gaming experience, there is a significant audience who find the emphasis on storytelling, unguided exploration and a more pensive attitude a welcome change of pace.

The Town of Light features all three of those elements. You piece the overarching narrative together by gathering clues that have been left behind or finding triggers that remind Renée of the events from her past. These are often unpleasant, including violent and degrading acts she was forced to endure. But there is some sweetness, too.

The game doesn’t rush you through these events, instead encouraging you to steadily navigate your way through the asylum, opening doors and drawers or prodding at the objects left behind. You can even take a moment to rest on the swings in the playground or hurtle down the slide. What’s most uncanny is the effort that’s gone into recreating the layout and structure of the Volterra asylum in the game.

Elsewhere, there is some light puzzle-solving, but nothing that could be considered taxing. The intention is to allow the story to flow effortlessly as you explore at your own speed.

Mental health is an area that is often misunderstood or ignored and The Town of Light takes a unique approach to draw attention to the situation. Mistakes of the past cannot be corrected, but there is still much progress to be made in the field today in terms of awareness and treatment. Though there has been difficultly conveying the developer’s message and its reasons for wanting to tell the story of Renée, it is not something Dalco would change. “I’m strongly convinced that games are one of the most powerful and strongest media we have today,” he enthuses.

“I think it’s a good way to talk about the psychiatric world because, first of all, it’s a way to make people aware about our history,” adds psychiatrist Paolo DiPiazza. “Second of all, the research behind the game in some way gives sense to the character and also to the people she represents. A video game can make the person that is playing feel like he’s inside. Feel like he’s first-person, watching and living this situation, so it’s really impressive. Also, because they respect the patient and what they have been through, everything is treated with respect.”

When we ask Lippi, the social care worker who strove to improve the lives of those in the Volterra asylum, what he hopes the lasting impression of the game will be, he echoes DiPiazza’s sentiments: “I would like people to learn to recognise the person not the illness.” With the game’s upcoming launch on consoles, through Renée, more players will have the opportunity to do so.

The Town of Light was released for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on 6 June 2017 and is available for PC on Steam.

This interview first appeared in MyM magazine Issue 62. Issue 63 is on sale now and can be found in WHSmiths or by finding your local stockist.

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