The Town of Light allows you to play through the eyes of Renée, a 16-year-old girl who suffers from the symptoms of mental illness. She is searching for answers to the many questions from her past, whilst exploring the place where she spent most of her youth, the Volterra Psychiatric Asylum, based in Tuscany, Italy
In the game, the player guides Renée through a dark and emotional journey where the lines between entertainment, storytelling and reality blur.
Based at the gates of Florence, in the middle of the Chianti Shire, the studio was founded by Luca after a long experience working in computer graphics and real time applied to various fields like stage design for theatrical representation, documentaries and cultural heritage.
Here Lee talks to Luca about how they tackled these difficult subjects and how The Town of Light came to fruition and more about a game based on extensive research and one which was actually inspired by real events.
For the Men Tell Health community, could you please briefly summarise what type of game experience is The Town of Light?
The Town of Light is a first-person, psychological adventure in which the player seeks to recover the memories of a girl who suffered from severe symptoms of schizophrenia, she was hospitalized at the age of 16 and spent the rest of her life in an asylum.
What was your motivation for making this type of game, with these specific themes?
Mainly two; firstly the memory. Making people aware of a dark chapter in our recent history is important because forgetting is the first step towards history repeating itself, to allowing the same mistakes to happen again even with a more modern guise.
Secondly, the stigma. We wanted to create empathy with the main character of the game in a way which would work against stigma. You will know Renée intimately, and you will experience and understand her problems, you will feel with her and understand, in my opinion, this is the strongest opponent to stigmatisation.
I delude myself if I think that The Town of Light can fully accomplish these two tasks, but if some people, after experiencing The Town of Light, feel the need to look deeper into the matter, then this is a great success in my opinion.
There are some moments in the game that feel truly authentic, such as when Renée finds kinship with a fellow patient, the mischief they engage in like stealing food from the pantry, and the rumours of that one scary ward that you never want to be sent to. Beyond the inspiration from physical records and archives and the ruins of the Volterra building itself, how did you research the human experience of staying in an asylum?
The first point is to understand the suffering that mental illness brings. I had a bad time and I experienced, at least a little, how devastating this kind of suffering could be. These people were thrown away into the middle of a nightmare, ignoring their suffering, not even to be considered humans any longer.
I feel this has been one of the cruellest expressions of human kind. It is again a matter of empathy.
A sizeable donation of profits was made via the game’s publisher to support mental health charities. Since release, what are your own thoughts and reflections upon the game’s impact publicly, regarding deepening the discussion of mental health, its perceived stigma and its depiction in media?
I think it’s important that video games, movies and literature, do their part to face up to mental health in a realistic and respectful way.
Too often the “madness”, due to its strange appeal, is exploited to tell unrealistic stories in which the “madness” itself is depicted as something fascinating, or something that transforms people into cruel killers. Through this the stigma surrounding mental health is reinforced, despite the great advances that have been made in both psychiatry and culture.
There is an uncomfortable sequence showing a medical procedure presented toward the end of the game that is very difficult to sit through. Could you say something about your motivation to depict this in the way you did without spoilers?
The treatment you are speaking about was in use in Italy and was very common before it came to also be used routinely in the USA and other European nations. I decided that we should use a raw representation of it to demonstrate the extreme violence of such a therapy, especially from an ethical point of view. This was a therapy which has been used in an extensive way all around the world, until the invention of Chlorpromazine and other psychotropic drugs in the 1950s.
Renée’s sexuality is an important component to the unfolding narrative; do you think the game would have received the same level of press, consumer and publisher support if the protagonist was male, and the game dealt with male homosexuality as one of its themes?
I chose a female character because it is more easy for me to handle. I feel more comfortable studying, analyzing and depicting female psychology and sexuality rather than male ones.
That said, I think that if the protagonist was a 16 years old boy, yes, it could have been the same, and maybe the story could have been even stronger.
Who was your role model as a child?
I think I would have to say Cattivik, a clumsy character in an Italian comic that tries to be wicked but always ends up being just funny and awkward. I hated heroes; I felt them misleading, false. Cattivik always failed, but he always went on.
What was the first and last gig you went to?
I can’t remember the first one, but most likely it was Dire Straits, the last one I really wanted to attend was Agnes Obel ... but I didn’t make it! :(
What’s your guilty pleasure?
My guilty pleasure is food! I do not feel guilty about my passion for movies and video games.
When you’re feeling low (for any reason), what do you turn to make you feel better and why?
I like to listen to music with my eyes closed because music allows me to forget, at least for a while, my worries.
What are you most proud of with The Town of Light? What are your strongest lingering feelings when you look back at the development of the game and its public reception?
First of all, I’m proud to have been stubborn enough to end this work as I had imagined it, without external influences, without lightening anything.
I must thanks all the team behind The Town of Light for this achievement, all the guys have believed in the project as it was: raw, cruel... real.
I’m also proud because the game has been perceived and understood in a better way than I expected. I do not mean that I expected people would not understand, I do not want to sound presumptuous, exactly the opposite; I was scared to not be able to express my feelings adequately.
Why do you feel it is important to talk about our mental health?
There are a lot of reasons to talk about our mental health: to help other people to know us better, to prevent serious problems and risks, to fight against the stigma that still exists and to help other people who don’t have enough strength to talk about it.
That’s it! Phew. Thank you for taking the time out to answer these questions. For what it’s worth I think you’ve created something really special. As a mental health survivor and as someone who has stayed in a couple of UK pysch units, parts of playing through the game were uncomfortable and parts of it were familiar, and playing Renée’s story has left me with things to reflect upon and consider in a positive and useful way to my own experience – thank you!
Thank you for your interest in our work, for your questions and your opinion that is really very valuable for me.
A massive thank you to Lee Skittrell for conducting the interview and Luca for sharing his own experiences and the diligence he and his team went into to create such a fantastic game. Since the game was released, The Town of Light has gone on to win, or be shortlisted, for a multitude of awards including:
- "Best Artistic Achievement" Premio Dragod Oro Awards 2017
- "Game Of The Year finalist" TIGA 2017 Awards
- "Recommended" Eurogamer.net
- "Finalist Gamer's Voice Award" SXSW
- "Selection Indie Arcade 2016" Smithsonian American Art Museum
- "Editor Choice" IndieDB
- "Game of the week" Famitsu
- "Excellence in Story and Storytelling" Game Connection Europe Development Awards 2014
- "Excellence in Story and Storytelling" Game Connection - European Games Booster
You can follow Luca on Twitter where he's @LucaDalco or via the Town of Light account which is @thetownoflight. You can also find out more about Luca's studio on their website over at lka.it and the game, published by Wired Productions, has more about the creation of The Town of Light on their website.
If you want to buy the game, it's available as a physical release for PS4, Nintendo Switch and X-BOX One, all linked below.