Following the forested Tuscan road up to the crest of the hill, I get my first look at Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, the Town of Light. The buildings are now overgrown with vines, the windows hold broken glass, and the doors hang rusted off their hinges. It's hard to believe the psychiatric hospital used to hold 5,000 patients, nearly matching the population of the nearest village.
It's 37 years since Italy passed Law 180, known as Basaglia Law, thus ending its abhorrent treatment of the mentally ill. Town of Light is a game about remembering what the country once was, that the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra was, as developer Luca Dalcò tells me, "a place to send people society didn't want to save”.
Before Law 180, anyone diagnosed with a mental illness could be sent to a state-run mental institution where the aim wasn't to treat but to detain. Once you entered a facility you were stripped of your civic rights and could be subjected to the treatments that stemmed from over population: problem patients would be strapped to their beds for days, sedatives were prescribed to dull patients' minds, and patients had no say in aggressive treatments like electric shock therapy.
This was a time where alcoholism and homosexuality were considered mental illnesses.
In Town of Light you'll play as Renee, a woman who first entered the Volterra hospital in 1942 when she was just 16. For six years she stayed at the facility, the memories of which still haunt her in the present day. You take control of her as she returns to the now long-closed institution to explore its overgrown halls.
I've played through a demo build of Town of Light that saw me picking through the facility's treatment rooms. As I went from room to room I'd be interrupted by flashbacks to Renee's first days in the hospital.
"I was 16 and I was afraid," Renee says. "I stopped living in there. It wasn’t fear anymore. It was madness and when you’re mad life as you know cease to exist."
The orderlies strapped her to a bed in the observation ward and then left her there for days. I was told by the developers that as you play through Town of Light, exploring more of its wards, and hearing more from Renee, you will get a better grasp of her illness. The team doesn't want to fall into the stereotypes of mental illness; Renee isn't a caricature madness but someone suffering from an anxiety disorder. However, the pressure of her environment made her mental problems worse, not better.
The trailer for Town of Light pitches the game as a horror but that wasn't my experience of the preview build at all. The old buildings are hauntingly beautiful. The developer, LKA.IT, has done an almost like for like rebuild of what the hospital looks like today: the forest around the institution has creeped up to its walls and eaten away at what once must have been an imposing facade. Even inside, its once cream walls are emblazoned with the most bizarre and wonderful artwork, such as graffiti that was carved onto its walls by real patients.
What I saw of Town of Light has me itching to see more. I want to learn more about the history or the hospital and its patients. I also want to see how the developers keep players engaged with the environment. I played a couple of simple puzzles in the demo, like finding an old power switch to restart an ancient elevator, but it's otherwise just an area to explore while listening to a narrator. I hope that the pace and tone of the game vary, a one-note game, even with a great backstory, can drag.