Washed we were and buried,
Of incense did we smell.
And after, when we loved
They gave us electroshocks
For, they said, a touched
Can never love.
(The Holy Land, Alda Merini - 1984)
One of the saddest and at the same time most shameful pages of Italian history from the last century was the lawfull regulation of the psychiatric hospitals which started in 1904, when more and more hospitals started to proliferate at an alarming speed in the country. More like prisons and places of torture - where the so-called "crazy people", often political opponents, homosexuals or simple rebels, were hidden from the eyes of respectable society - the psychiatric hospitals, otherwise known as asylums, were places where the most unspeakable violence was inflicted, where humanity was forgotten, giving way to an unexpected brutality.
The Town of Light is the first work of the Florence-based independent Italian studio LKA.it, and it has the ambitious and difficult task to trace, through the fictional story of a sixteen-year-old girl called Reneé (a fictitious patient of Volterra's asylum - a place that very much existed), the atrocities that took place within those circles of hell. Electroshock treatment, cold showers, untold violence: The Town of Light opens the player up to a dark, sick and terrible world, where the horror isn't generated by jump-scares or other recurring elements that we see in contemporary horror games, but that depends on the tragic reality of these historic events. Because the great merit of this explorative adventure by LKA.it lies in painstaking historical research, thanks to the careful consultation of the files and medical records of Volterra's patients, offering a cruel look on the brutal reality of the Italian psychiatric system during the '30s and '40s.
A first-person psychological adventure (as defined by the developers themselves), The Town of Light accompanies the player inside the ruins of Volterra's asylum, closed - like all the other Italian psychiatric buildings - following the enactment of Basaglia's Law in 1978 (called this because of an important Italian psychiatrist and neurologist, Franco Basaglia, who supported a major revision of the psychiatric system). Exploring the ruins of this old hospital - still open and rebuilt in the game with great fidelity - the player traces Reneé's memories in an attempt to reconstruct the chronology of events and the causes that put the teenager inside the asylum.
From a gameplay perspective, the game is mainly focused on two mechanics: the exploration of the environments in order to collect medical records, and solving some simple puzzles. Later, in the second part of the game we're introduced to a choice mechanic which allows the story to follow one of many different aspects of Reneé's life. About an hour and a half from the game's start, the story begins to branch via a number of choices, and these allow the player to delve into aspects of the plot that he or she thinks are the most interesting (it also offers some replay value of the experience).
One element that we really appreciated from this mechanic is the fact that the game doesn't seem to ask the player to take a firm position on the events as told, but rather offers insight into a very complex period in Italian history that was characterised by great poverty, ignorance and the oppressive presence of Fascism. As we said, the historical reconstruction is really commendable, and it all flows through the use of newspaper articles, posters and so on, and with great simplicity it allows the player to discover some facts regarding Italian history in the first half of the 20th Century.
Another aspect that we really enjoyed, besides the meticulous reconstruction of the interior and exterior of Volterra's hospital, is the graphical style used during the cutscenes, which reminded us a lot of contemporary Italian graphic novels. Thanks also to the contribution of an excellent performance by the actors, these sequences elegantly direct the player into Reneé's memories - sometimes confused or sometimes imagined, who can be sure? - in an attempt to reconstruct the logical thread of thought and to better understand the fierce reality that existed in those places.
However, The Town of Light is not perfect in all its areas. The exceptional and striking nature of the plot, accompanied by an extraordinary historical reconstruction, is somewhat overshadowed by several technical issues that we encountered in the game. Leaving aside a couple of annoying but rather serious bugs - in one case we even had to restart a chapter as a scripted sequence wasn't activated and we couldn't move forward in the game - one of the most significant defects lies in a continuous frame-rate drop, along with pop-ins, and a general lack of definition, probably also due to the choice of graphics engine (Unity - we understand they used an older version) that fails to offer a satisfying experience, at least from a technical perspective.
That said, we recognise the good work done by LKA.it as a whole. Since this is their first game, we want to be more forgiving. Although the experience was tainted by an unsatisfying technical element, The Town of Light is a unique offering in the gaming scene, which exploits interaction and mechanics in order to explore one of the most dramatic periods of Italian history. Well narrated and emotionally engaging, The Town of Light is a good starting point for the Italian studio, even if technically speaking there is still a lot of work to do.