What was it?
A 30-minute hands-on demo.
What did we learn?
— This game has truly shocking moments.
— From a technical side, it really needs to improve its waypointing to guide the player.
— It’s a bit clunky, but that doesn’t interfere with the story.
— The (English) voice acting is terrible, but the developer knows this.
— The subject matter, and indeed discussing it, is like treading on eggshells.
How was it?
In an industry where the only thing people love more than games is (often needless) controversy, The Town of Light is an interesting proposition. Investigating the treatment of mental health patients in the 1940s, players take control of a former patient of an asylum, returning to the now decrepit facility still traumatised by the experience and clearly still suffering, as she retraces her steps and memories to discover the truth.
Renee was 16 when admitted to the asylum. As you wander through the halls, interacting with objects in the environment will lead her to talk through her experiences, some of which trigger flashbacks. At times, Renee is calm and coherent, but more often than not, she’s erratic, juggling multiple thoughts and clashes of consciousness in a desperate attempt to satisfy an unknown "him" and calm the noise in her head.
The first object you find is Renee’s doll, which she talks to, concerned by the fact this inanimate object is cold. We place the doll in a wheelchair, and must find somewhere to keep her warm. This is where the game’s first issue crops up: waypointing. I was sat next to the game’s art and technical director and screenwriter, Luca Dalco, who showed me the way once he could tell I was lost. The trouble is, I have no doubt that everyone playing it will struggle to find the way, but won’t have Luca sat beside them. Long-stretching corridors presenting many similar-looking doors make it almost impossible to know where to go next. I was consistently told by the developer where the next objective was, but never by the game.
I eventually found a room with several intense surgical lamps to place the doll beneath and warm her. I then moved on to find Renee’s medical records. This triggered a black-and-white flashback. Renee is on a hospital bed, surrounded by other patients on a ward. At the doorway stands a male nurse, holding her doll. What follows is a scene that will, no doubt, shock the vast majority that see it. Renee is led to a bathtub, then begins a series of 2D sepia stills displaying her being sexually assaulted in graphic detail. The team pulls no punches in its portrayal of the ill-treatment patients of this asylum endure.
We then jump back to the present, and Renee’s search for more memories. At times you will have to play the role of one her consciences as she struggles to cope with the information she uncovers. Keeping her calm and choosing the right dialogue choice will allow you to continue reading medical entries and find out more about what she went through. At one point we stumble across what appears to be a happy memory. A flashback of comfort. Renee awakens to find a woman at the end of her bed: she notes that, without her, she wouldn’t have survived. But as the memory unfolds, we discover an experience as haunting as the first.
In tackling such a delicate issue, The Town of Light has to get everything spot-on in order to avoid being thrown into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Right now, it’s too soon to tell which side it will fall. One thing’s for certain, and that’s the voice actor playing Renee isn’t up to snuff. The developers were quick to acknowledge the voice actor wasn’t final, and likely to change. It didn’t take long to discover why. For a character tasked with delicately portraying the torment of mental illness, it comes across as a poor am-dram performance of a woman performing rather than portraying the condition, and there’s a big difference between the two.
With the huge amount of research that’s gone into the project (the list of studies for the game can be found here), one would hope that it will resonate with those affected by the subject matter. But with such strong, no holds barred representation of the story, it’s a mighty tough task.