VICE vs Video games

‘The Town of Light’ Is a Scary Game with a Serious Message About Mental Health

New Italian studio LKA is tackling issues of depression with its debut video game, due out in early 2016.

by Mike Diver
03 November 2015, 6:35pm

The Town of Light is the debut game from a new Italian studio, LKA.IT, based in Florence. Scheduled for release through Steam in February 2016, and aiming for Oculus compatibility, the game is a first-person exploration of a decrepit rural asylum, the player cast as a former resident of the institution returning to the scene of some of her greatest horrors. The location is the very real-life Volterra, a place where up to 6,000 psychiatric patients were suffering at any given time from the 1930s to the late 1970s, when it was closed down for practices considered cruel. Some of its patients remained within its walls for ten years at a time, and never returned home.

Renee—the player character in The Town of Light—first went to Volterra as a teenager in 1938, as records discovered as I play through a demo of its early stages reveal. In a brief hands-on with unfinished code I get a feel for the game's heavy atmosphere, for Renee's reactions to being back where she was once so brutally tortured. As you play, I hesitate to say presumably in the present day but certainly some years after the asylum has been abandoned, you find objects which bring back memories, presented in a more cartoon-like style—haunted recollections of time spent strapped into various contraptions, of improper staff behavior, of utterly terrifying circumstances. Renee is crippled by depression, her mind constantly clouded by confusion, by a sense of low self-worth and what others will think of (and do to) her, and her decisions through the game have an impact on how it will end. It's a game very explicitly designed to highlight how those who live through mental health issues see the world, how they file away the past and compartmentalize anguish.

It's not a fast game by any means, and it's not going to be a Twitch hit given its complete lack of jump scares—but it's certainly a game of horrors, and ones that not so many years ago were incredibly, crushingly real. It's also far from finished in the build I sit down with, but I still came away moved by what I'd seen. Enough that I wanted to fire a few questions off to Italy, to LKA's creative director Luca Dalcó, to learn more about this intriguing, discomforting game.

VICE: What inspired you to make this game about revisiting an institution for sufferers of mental health issues? Something about the place itself, the time, or today's attitudes towards mental health?
Luca Dalcó: The inspiration came from studying the history of Italian mental health institutions, which are culturally very different from today's practices despite the last asylum being shut in 1995 and the criminal ones only this year. It is a story full of pain and controversy that is never mentioned enough, but one I believe is really important to not forget.

To various levels, mental illness affects a large percentage of the worldwide population. It is something difficult and too often treated without respect. Our aim is making the player more aware towards those themes, allowing them to live, in first person, through a story of discomfort and internment. We tried to avoid representing mental illness like something distant or too oneiric, but like something that we own, that is near us.

Do you see video games increasingly as the medium that can best address, for example, depression? As it can put the player, the participant, in the virtual shoes of a sufferer?
I believe games have reached a stage of complexity, acceptance, and maturity that it's only normal that these kinds of themes are appearing. The indie scene helped and will keep helping people to express themselves about topics that big studios are not comfortable to cover, for various reasons.

We are in another golden era of creativity: triple-A games are pushing the boundaries their way and smaller studios are experimenting with new gameplay mechanics, taking routes that don't require huge budgets. Talking about the specific subject of depression, I believe we're making the player acknowledge that those [who are] suffering exist, and they are more near to us than what we might think.

Vittorni Andreoli, a famous Italian writer and psychiatrist, explains very well that mental illness is not a matter of "quality," but instead is a matter of "quantity." He means that all the defense mechanisms that the affected use against discomfort are the same, but what changes is the level of severity affecting them, and that creates the difference between being ill or not.

Anxiety and fear, for example, are good reactions that help to face difficulty and make us aware of dangers. It's when the intensity of those reactions gets to excessive levels that they become a pathological concern capable of destroying the life of an individual.

Article continues after the video below

It's clearly quite a creepy game, atmospherically. I mean, it has a freaky doll in it—enough to get some people crying. But I'm guessing the intention is not to scare the player, but to make them appreciate the scars that the protagonist, Renee, is carrying?
That is correct. Our intention is not to scare the player, but to explore the protagonist experience contextualized in an historic context. I have been asked many times if this is a horror game or not. I believe it all depends on the definition you give to horror. If it's jump scares and zombies, definitely not. But mental illness is one of the most atrocious illnesses a human being can experience, and in The Town of Light we are trying to make people aware of that through the eyes of Renee.

As a new company, making this kind of ambitious game, what would you say the biggest challenges so far have been?
I believe researching and tackling the topic with respect is a big challenge we are facing daily. As a new company, as a small team, there are also a lot of production challenges with timeline, delivering assets, and debug. Every day, of course, we discover something new we want to add, but obviously at some point you have to decide to stop adding features and focus on delivering the best possible experience within the time you have.

The Town of Light will be released in February 2016. More information at the game's official website.

Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.