The Town of Light is a ‘first-person-walker’ game based primarily on exploring a disused mental institution and in doing so revealing the history of the protagonist and ex-patient, Renee. As Renee you walk the crumbling halls and overgrown gardens of the institution and connecting to her story by finding documents, medical notes and experiencing flashbacks to the ‘bad old days’.
The Town of Light quite rightly won indieDB Editor’s Choice for Best Visuals in December 2015 and you can immediately see why. Right from the get-go you’re surrounded by gorgeous visuals of an abandoned park and the surrounding woodland. Even before you’ve had even a fraction of the background story, this really helps immerse you deeply in Renee’s world.
In any game so heavily driven by a strong narrative, the questions I always have to ask are ‘How much agency does the player have in this story? Can I affect the outcome? How do I go about doing that?’ The truth is The Town of Light story is mostly quite linear and even through repeated playthroughs the experience I had was quite similar. There were other narrative arcs available but I wasn’t able to trigger them which brings me to one of the main issues.
The player does have a limited ability to affect the scenario and this is done via choices made whilst poring over the longer medical records. This comes either as dialogue options that are chosen as part of an internal discussion Renee has with herself or by selecting portions of correspondence as they are put together. How these actions actually affect the story is really rather unclear and there seems little way to directly influence the story one way or another. Some choices appear more inflammatory or depressive than others but I couldn’t wilfully try to get a particular ending by choosing one over another.
The Town of Light is quite a lonely experience. There’s a rich lore available but it is delivered mostly through Renee’s own thoughts and discoveries. Although you do encounter other people in the story these occurrences are minimal and you are more often than not left in your own company with the sole voice guiding you through being that of Renee. This makes perfect sense thematically but a monologue wears thin where dialogue may have been somewhat more engaging.
This is all the more pronounced when, during Renee’s infrequent flashbacks, we get to see the hospital environment back in its prime. The contrast is stark and effective at showing how far the place has been allowed to fall apart.
Renee’s monologue is pleasant enough if somewhat lacking in the mortal terror the script appears to convey. Instead it is mostly the musings of a perpetually puzzled young woman who seems unable to grasp all the threads of her own broken past. The tense used is often confusing, switching between past and present and often speaking about herself in the third person and having conversations with herself. This is certainly in-keeping with the thought patterns of someone experiencing the aftermath of mental illness but does make it difficult to follow the conversation.
I found the choice of an American accent to be quite odd given that the game is set in Italy. One thing that stood out was when translating various notes from Italian into English the word ‘Mum’ was used repeatedly when referring to her mother which is a uniquely British term for an Italian to use (would mama not have been more suitable?) and seemed out of place being spoken by an American voice. I can only assume there’s a very good reason for these differences or they’ve sprung up between script and final delivery.
As I mentioned earlier, the hospital exterior is visually stunning and the environments inside are equally polished, if all the more grungy and dishevelled. Maniacal graffiti adorns numerous walls giving the impression that Renee may not be the first patient to return to her former home. Debris and clutter is scattered throughout and you get a very real sense that this is a working hospital that was just abandoned, perhaps in a hurry, leaving a lot of equipment in-situ to rust and degrade. This is all the more pronounced when, during Renee’s infrequent flashbacks, we get to see the hospital environment back in its prime. The contrast is stark and effective at showing how far the place has been allowed to fall apart.
It’s not just the environment that is visually impressive. There’s a wealth of lovely sketchwork and drawn art that helps build up a rich visual experience overall. When encountering a room for the first time you will likely get a visual echo of something untoward that used to happen in that place. Renee’s narration of key moments in her past is also accompanied by a sort of ‘motion comic’ style sequence that adds to the overall impression of reliving the scrawlings of a fevered mind.
For all its visual complexity, the environment offers disappointingly limited opportunities for interactivity. Some objects are useable but seemingly to no purpose. Cupboards can be opened but are almost exclusively empty, windows and shutters open and close but the story only utilises this once. You encounter machines but their dials spin uselessly in place.
I often found switches that looked useable but did nothing, giving the impression that there may have been a greater scope of interactivity intended but that was perhaps pulled back due to restraints of time or resource. One portion of the story allows you to push a wheel chair but then you never again really push anything else in this way so that particular mechanic becomes somewhat redundant.
Something else that was initially very encouraging was the physical shifting of the environment as Renee’s perception had a literal impact on the architecture. Sadly, that too is very underused which was disappointing as I hoped this might open up the environment to hidden areas that existed only in Renee’s mind.
Although this is not a game of completing meaningless fetch quests, there are a few collectibles available as you make your way around the environment. These are primarily letters and documents relating to your stay at the institution (letters regarding literally anyone else are curiously absent). These can be (disturbingly graphic) books, blank scraps of paper or small notes but occasionally the player is taken through quite long medical histories. This can be a little much at times and is a lot of exposition to take in all at once. It’s often just not punchy enough and personally my attention drifted towards getting back to exploring the building.
Renee’s story is a very engaging one and it has to be appreciated that The Town of Light chooses so many mediums through which to tell it. Other games may stick to notes or voice-over but it’s the combination of all these things layering on top of each other that builds the experience up so well.
My most prominent issue with The Town of Light was unfortunately one of navigation. Signposting in The Town of Light is particularly poor. If you’re not sure of what’s expected of you the narrative can often be punctuated by long periods of hunting around for the next area or clickable object to progress the story, this really starts to affect the pace of the game.
There is a function that allows you to request a prompt or hint of where to go next and although this was sometimes useful, it was often missing when I needed it the most. Also, if the initial clue doesn’t help you, more specific pointers are not forthcoming and you’re left hunting around. I was once stuck clicking around in what I thought was the archive for a good fifteen minutes before I realised it was in a different room that had been mis-labeled on a map as a toilet…
The Town of Light is a very pretty journey but it is marred by poor pacing and the lack of significant interactivity and secondary characters ultimately leaves it feeling quite hollow. I’d still recommend The Town of Light to fans of quiet exploration but warn that it feels like there should be so much more inside this pretty container. Re-playability is also pretty minimal.