Facts and Fear: How The Town of Light reveals all about the asylum system

Facts and Fear: How The Town of Light reveals all about the asylum system
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

November 4th 2015 at 1:04PM

We speak to LKA.it's Luca Dalcó about his team's title and their attempts to convey the realities of past mental health care

More and more indies today are cutting their teeth on ambitious and unusual games, and Italian studio LKA.it is no exception.

The team has already made a name for itself with The Town of Light, a first-person title that explores the realities of mental illness. Unlike Ninja Theory's Hellblade – which we took an in-depth look at last month – the focus in this case is the asylums and mental health institutions of the past.

Designed to raise awareness rather than entertain or frighten players, the game explores the conditions in which patients were detained and treated, as well as the effects this had on already troubled minds. We spoke to the studio's Luca Dalcó to find out more.

You can read more about developers and serious games in our Special Feature here.

Why choose to make a game on the topic of asylums, madness and depression?
To various levels, mental illness affects a large percentage of the worldwide population. It is something difficult and too often treated without respect. Our aim is making the player more aware towards those themes, allowing to live in first-person a story of discomfort and internment.

We tried to avoid to represent mental illness like something distant or too oneiric, but like something that we own, that is near us.

V. Andreoli – a famous Italian writer and psychiatrist – explains very well that mental illness is not a matter of “quality”, instead is a matter of “quantity”. By this, he means that all the defence mechanisms that the affected people use against the discomfort are the same. What changes is the level of severity of those that creates the difference between being ill or not.

Anxiety and fear, for example, are good reactions that helps to face difficulty and make us aware of dangers. It’s when the intensity of those reactions got to excessive levels that they become a pathology capable to destroy the life of an individual.

The asylums were a place more oriented to detention than to cure, where society dumped everything that disliked.

What sensitivities were you aware of when handling this topic, and how did you account for them during the game’s development?

The Town of Light aims to tell a story inspired to real facts. Some of them, we are aware, will create discomfort in people – especially within the realm of the game medium, which is not used to tackle those aspects.

Inevitably for our game we have decided to stick with things that we found in our research, some of them positive, some of them are not. This is the reason we have decided to inform the players at the very beginning of the game that the story we are telling contains discomforting element, elements that we have not decided to put in for the sake of it, but that are part of what unfortunately really happened in some instances.

Between a past dominated by superstitions and ignorance and a present where mental illness is treated with a great deal of humanity and medical attention, the asylums were a place more oriented to detention than to cure, where society dumped everything that disliked. Whoever had been admitted there lost every form of civil right, like a man that is not a man anymore for the society.

The lack of personnel and overcrowding forced the use of method that are nowadays considered inhuman: people end up being tied to their bed for months.

But the asylum also tried to cure patients with the methods of a very young science which experimented a lot, unfortunately finding as only solution horrific therapies. People got infected with malaria, put in a diabetic coma, lobotomy, electroshock and more: all without aid of anaesthetic or painkiller of any sort. They were the only known method to try to contain the most severe patients suffering.

Should more developers be tackling serious/sensitive issues like this? Why/why not?
I believe games reached a maturity that will lead to see more and more projects like that, especially in the indie space. The key consideration should be the reason you want to tackle those issues. In our case we want to explore the history of mental health institution and mental health with the aim to make people aware of those themes.

Some events in the game are disturbing. We kept them because those are part of what’s happened, but we did not want to use them to promote the game or create sensationalism.

What must developers be aware of when tackling subjects like this?
I believe extensive research is the first step to take when tackling anything that can be sensitive. We do not aim to judge or express any opinion on what happened in those times. We have created a story that tells you, the player, what’s happened.

To understand the whole story, the players have to play the whole game: like in a movie, what’s happening at the beginning is not necessarily what we understand at the end when the perspective of the story changes. There are actually four different way you can read the story when the game ends, all depending on your choices.

The second step is respect for the topic and been careful on how you represent it using the graphics, the narrative and the audio. Some events in the game are disturbing, we kept them because those are part of what’s happened but we did not want to use them to promote the game or create sensationalism, this is not our aim.

Image of Luca Dalcó by Giacomo Saviozzi