I wasn't entirely sure how to approach The Town of Light. The game is billed as a 'psychological horror' game set in the ruins of a real-life psychiatric hospital. This description conjures up certain images, especially when combined with such a potentially unpleasant environment and I wasn't particularly looking forward to experiencing jump scares, shadowy images and blood writing on walls.
The opening thirty minutes of the game did little to allay my fears. Similarly to 'The Chinese Room's' Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
, The Town of Light
is what is now described rather pejoratively as a 'walking simulator.' This added to my unease. Being unable to run, how would I be able to escape what I was certain would be the horror waiting in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital.
Prior to entering the hospital I spent some time walking around the abandoned grounds, examining discarded notes and pushing the creaking and rusted toys in the children's playground. The scene appeared set, the environment had induced a real feeling of dread in me. I was not particularly looking forward to entering the hospital - I already felt uncomfortable outside, where I could turn around and walk away at any time.
I need not have worried so much. The more time I spent in The Town of Light
's main location, the abandoned psychiatric hospital, the more I found feelings of reactive fear dissipated. Although the game is billed as a psychological horror game I found this to be rather wide of the mark. Instead of fear and dread I found the experience of playing the game to be desperately sad.
The player follows the protagonist who has returned to the hospital to try to piece together what happened to her when she was incarcerated. Because of the treatment she received she is unable to remember clearly and one of the gameplay mechanics focuses on the player choosing what they wish to believe happened. The game consequently provides a branching story of sorts with alternative endings dependent on choices made by the player at key points during the game.
Although the location within which the game has been set is real, the protagonist is a composite of notes and records that the developers were able to access. This does make the story rather problematic as although it is clear that dreadful things were indeed being done in the hospital I did begin to wonder the extent to which this composite was an amalgam of all the worst the system had to offer.
However, this line of criticism is perhaps unfair as the game does a very good job of exploring issues related to mental health. As I played the game it generated for me feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and the feeling of grim inevitability similar to the excellent Actual Sunlight
. The horror came from the realisation that the people who had been committed to the hospital were essentially unable to ever be released as the system not only misinterpreted their problems, but created new ones that trapped them and took them further into a spiral of despair.
The protagonist's journey towards a final understanding of the past is very well paced, each chapter lasting around 20-30 minutes which usually involves investigation of a new part of the hospital with a revelation at the end that points towards the next place to search.
However, although the story is well paced, The Town of Light
is not without some significant problems that rather impair the experience. The hospital and its surrounding grounds are exceptionally big and it can be quite easy to get lost. The map system is not terribly well developed and I found myself relying, the majority of the time, on memory to navigate the area. Although this is generally not a problem, the character's walking pace is rather slow and having to backtrack to another area on the other side of the complex can be a little irritating.
In addition, although the player is given hints towards where to go next, these can sometimes be quite cryptic or in some cases very vague. Pathfinding was also a problem towards the end of the game as I knew where I needed to go, but it was not at all clear how to get there. However, although The Town of Light
does require patience to navigate it is well worth the effort. Visually, although not exactly stunning, the developers have done an excellent job of recreating the environment. The use of drawings to depict events, drawn from graffiti drawn on the walls, is extremely effective and unsettling.
Categorising The Town of Light
as a 'psychological horror' game may rather miss the mark, but scenes towards the end of the game have stayed with me since I finished the story. I don't think I have ever felt quite so unsettled by a game, perhaps because of the way in which the suffering of the protagonist is caused, not just by the cruelty of others, but also by misunderstandings and poorly developed medical techniques. The game pulls no punches as it details the ultimate fate of individuals who were unable to be 'reformed' by the system. Nevertheless, the visual horror the player witnesses, although extremely disturbing, is temporary. Overall it was the sense of powerlessness that stayed with me and unsettled me.
The Town of Light
succeeds precisely because it is not a traditional horror game. It explores the ways in which individuals try to understand reality when power is stripped away from them and their freedom to make decisions is removed. Even the conclusions that the player may come to by the end cannot be considered to be a definitive account of events because, as the protagonist admits and the branching paths indicate, this is a reconstruction of reality, not the truth. This is something that fits in with the overall theme of the game. Although the theme is occasionally rather clumsily presented, largely because of problems with navigation and brief puzzles that feel rather tacked on, the overall effect is extremely memorable.
Similarly to Actual Sunlight
, I will not forget The Town of Light
. The themes it deals with deserve to be explored
and although patience is required to overlook some of the game's problems the end result is worth the effort.
+ Atmospheric without feeling overwhelming.
+ Well thought out exploration of themes.
+ Excellent presentation.
- Navigation is often problematic.
- Puzzles feel rather out of place.
- Hints are often too cryptic/vague.
SPOnG Score: 8/10