Entry #1 for our month-long showcase of Horror titles, dubbed “Spooktober Special”. Next Entry: Resident Evil 6
Oh yeah. It’s Spook Season, baby. Halloween.
My favourite month of the year, because all month I get to play the finest horror games known to man, including some that you may not have heard of! And that’s what we’re dedicating this to month to, here at Sick Critic. For the next 31 days, you’re going to see showcases of the best horror games you can play right now. The first spooky dish of the day is more of the horror of reality than big ol’ monsters, it’s The Town of Light.
This harrowing insight of mental health is a walking simulator that comes to us from Italian-based developers LKA. These spaghetti lovers have been focusing on surreal and hard-hitting productions of the horrors of man you rarely hear about, with The Town of Light being their debut. Originally conceived as a GMod creation (Like most walking sims), it was released with an enhanced graphical boost in 2016, following with an Xbox One//PS4 port being made and released in June of 2017.
The Town of Light is another entry into the “Mental Health Awareness” movement that’s been prominent in video games for a while now, with other examples being The Beginner’s Guide, Second Sight and most recently, Hellblade. It’s a fair cause, as mental health is no laughing matter, and anyone with a few screws loose (myself included) should be taken just as seriously as any other normal human being, within reason. When it comes to pitting Hellblade against The Town of Light in a completely unfair fight, I’d say it’s the latter edging out a victory.
You follow Renée, a 16 year old girl who is admitted to an Italian asylum amidst World War II ravaging Italy itself. It’s here that she stays throughout the entire course of the game.. or does she? Cut forward [REDACTED] years later and the asylum is now a rundown testament to old practices, the kind of practices that I personally hope are never used again.
The game may not look like much at first, with you in the middle of what could just be a scrapped area from Half Life 2, but there’s a lot more to it than perceived at first. Renée relives her past in graphic detail, with it not sounding too bad at first. She talks of her induction into the asylum and how she feels, ultimately confused as to why her mother would betray her by leaving her here with people she barely feels any connection to.
The game overall has a lot less interactivity than your average walking simulator, but it’s not quite on the level of something like Dear Esther, where all you’re doing is hearing Nigel Carrington recite a BBC Radio 4 show. Renée’s journey through the abandoned asylum takes different perspectives and all of it needs certain ways to unlock. It feels just as rail-roaded and linear as many other walking sims, but it repays its negative debt with multiple ways to approach the story.
It’s a very unorthodox horror game. The scares don’t come from monsters that symbolize Renée’s fears, like in Silent Hill, or from jumpscares. It’s more of a case of trying to connect to anybody playing who has an issue with their mental health, and I think that’s why it resonated with me, more so than other horror games recently.
[SPOILER WARNING: If you are planning to play The Town of Light and would like the experience to be in full, please refrain from reading further.]
Renée talks of the doctors and nurses with a stammer to her voice, as if she’s afraid they are still present in her life. It certainly adds a lot to exploration, despite the obvious outcome of nothing. Corners and rooms with noise emanating from them bring a sense of fear to the player, and when it goes, you feel a part of you gone as well, snatched by the nightmares.
The horror also mostly comes from the history behind early 20th century medicinal practices. Mental health back then was still a huge cultural taboo and anyone who even showed the slightest symptom of not being ‘normal’ was sent to some form of institution. Sadly still the case in some places around the world, but it was a much more grotesque and awful experience back then in comparison to how it is now.
Even though I am against the use of concept art as cutscenes, the way LKA approach it works somewhat, with pages from Renée’s diary and images in cutscenes portraying the doctors and orderlies as black masses, determined to let these patients suffer. It’s horrific in all honesty, and it sends shivers down your spine as you think about what happened to mental health patients in the past.
As you progress through the asylum, the nightmares become more vivid, the voices growing louder as you notice that Renée doesn’t seem as connected to the world as she or even the player thought. It all ends in a cacophony of emotional fire, as she scampers for some form of release, the happiness that her mother gave her, despite her mother being the one who subjected her to this long-term torture.
In the end, it’s all for nothing. Renée stands defeated as she finally accepts the truth of her actual life. And what follows is one of the most painful, heartbreaking and downright horrific sequences in video gaming, as we are subject to watch the frontal-lobe lobotomy being performed on Renée, and here we stand. Her spirit watching every movement. The hammer making a soft metal ping against the tools. This is where she spent her life from there on. Forgotten. Uninvolved. Lifeless.
It all ends as YouTuber Cryaotic adds one final monologue, detailing what might happen to Renée in the future which we never see. You hear regret in his voice, as it’s possible it was him who performed the lobotomy and he wonders if Renée is still there in some form. Maybe she’ll return and become better? She’ll rise up and become something she aspired to be beforehand? It’s hoping against hope.
It ends with a physical whimper, but a distinct emotional bang. The Town of Light plays almost all their cards right throughout and it evolves into a nightmare all too real for most people. If you really want to see mental health portrayed in a mature, and mostly elegant manner, I severely recommend The Town of Light.
I end this review uttering the words repeated a thousand times in many different countries, but they need to be reinstated. If you know someone with mental health issues, or are a person who suffers from said issues, you’re not in the dark. You never will be. Support is anywhere you can see, be it through a hobby, friends or family, or even a hospital.
The times have changed, and so have the people. Reach out.
A moving and haunting tale that still happens today, and sustains accurate portrayal throughout.