Horror is one of those genres that somehow manages to get away with murder when it comes to negative conventions and unimaginative design. The worst perpetrator of all being the jump scare. The fact that a loud, sudden noise and a flash on screen makes me jump is not a surprise to me. It’s also something anyone can easily do given the right conditions. To me it’s all about atmosphere. Clever use of music, lighting and pacing can become so much more than a short lived scare. I’m also a total sucker for a good story. Town of Light has no jump scares and a story to tell.
In fact there isn’t a single enemy, health bar or weapon in the entire thing. Anything like that would only be a distraction because Town of Light has a serious story to tell you. You play the part of Renée exploring her emotions and feelings through her life in an Italian asylum set in the early 20th century. Renée was institutionalised after an incident which made her “A danger to herself and others and a cause of public scandal”. As you progress you will complete self set objectives as you discover more about her life and experiences.
Your interaction is kept to a simple flashlight for those dark corners, a collection of the memories and experiences you have discovered and the ability for Renée to repeat her last thoughts pointing you in the right direction. The environment is absolutely at the core of Town of Light and is the main way you are able to explore Renée’s thoughts by triggering memories. There’s a wonderful moment when you first enter a room and inspect the old equipment to figure out what the room was for. Looking in medical journals and documents referring to procedures often makes it clear and on every occasion you wish you’d never looked.
Working at the back of your mind to enforce Town of Light’s darkness is it’s realism. You won’t be coming across a machine for reading thoughts or anything else from fiction so the initial horror when you realise what events took place is immediately proceeded by an emotional response from the thought that real people experienced this.
I want so much to talk about everything that happened to Renée in this story because her story really hit me hard. The desperation and solitude that your character experiences while dealing with the barbaric practices performed by the hospital and the staff are terrifying. To think of someone needing help but instead being driven mad by the people who should have helped her. The more help she needed the further the ‘cures’ send her into madness and the vicious circle fuels itself.
Some of Renée’s experiences really touched me and to hear her inner monologue expressed from a perspective that mimics the player is incredibly immersive. I was regularly playing with a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat thinking about the horrors that Renée, and many other real people, went through. It’s been a long time since I have been this upset playing a game and certainly never from anything based on real events.
Town of Light has a rather serious message to tell and it does so through an intelligent and adult story. It’s a joy to see a game that treats doesn’t censor or feel that games are for children. That is not the case and Town of Light proves that the medium is in fact perfectly suited at telling this kind of story.
Because you have only simple interactions available pacing is key in Town of Light. There are a few simple puzzles and moments of thought but nothing that will tax your mind or hold you up, unless you miss out on an object you need to interact with. It’s so common with a game like this or Amnesia that you know what to do but just miss that final click. The worst case of this was when I didn’t turn a valve and spent around 30 minutes looking for how to progress. Turns out it was a wall coloured valve I had to turn in a room I had been in plenty of times.
If an object happens to be the same colour as the wall and is difficult to see Town of Light provides little way to find it. Having no HUD to ensure emersion is a noble objective and 90% of the time I didn’t need any help. After around 5 or 10 minutes some help like highlighting the object would have really improved my experience. Spending 30 minutes looking around destroys the immersion far worse than giving me a little pointer and worse still it leaves you aggravated that you missed something. It’s a trap many games of this style fall into and one that Town of Light actually avoids extremely well for the most part. The reason it was such a problem was that it ruined the atmosphere that is so hard to achieve.
Town of Light is a disturbing game that holds nothing back. The story elements are the darkest imaginable – and then some. It’s hard to believe that some of the procedures that were supposed to help people aren’t actually elaborate and sadistic physiological tortures. If you really let yourself share the experiences of Renée and imagine them happening to a real person Town of Light will leave you with a permanent memory. It’s grown up, emotional, sad and wonderfully horrifying. It doesn’t patronise or imply that you can’t handle it even once.
Mechanically everything is kept very simple to let the strongest elements run the show which they do brilliantly. The pacing is lost when you miss a task and have to go hunting but aside from that is perfect. The gaps between progressing the plot give you just enough time to take in and process what happened but never wait too long. Town of Light is a beautifully told story dealing with the increasing madness of a young girl and the cruelty she and other patients experienced from the people supposed to help her. It creates atmosphere with finesse and precision which delivers a unique addition to the horror genre and one of my favourite, most poignant, narrative experiences ever.