In the crumbling bathrooms of an abandoned asylum, on a hilltop in rural Italy, I feel a strange sense of déjà vu.
I'm being taken on a tour of the former Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a sprawling asylum complex that, at one point, held 6,000 inmates, and was closed in 1978 after reforms to mental healthcare in Italy. I say tour, but we've dipped under chicken-wire fences and snuck into a building laced with broken glass. Using the light from our phones, we work our way through a warren of ruined wards, up a stairway choked by collapsed doorways, into communal showers and solitary baths.
I have been here before, on the screen of a monitor with a controller in my hand. The buildings of this ruined hospital form the basis of The Town of Light, an interactive psychological drama developed by Italian studio LKA. Setting a first-person game in a ruined asylum may sound like a recipe for survival horror, but LKA's project is very much grounded in reality. The Town of Light is a detailed mimic of the Volterra asylum's remains, a digital simulacrum, from the peeling architecture of the institution's Charcot pavilion, to the graffiti that has accrued across generations of squatters.
In The Town of Light players trace the story of Renée – a 16-year-old woman stalking the remains of Volterra asylum, segueing into memories of her internment during the 1930s. She's part ghost, part urban explorer, following a route between memories of institutional brutality. Although the game's environments have been lifted from real life, LKA's Luca Dalcò tells me that Renée is a composite, of hundreds of hours of research into the lives of patients from Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra.
“I read a lot of psychiatric profiles,” saysDalcò. “Read a lot of books. Talked with witnesses. I decided the ethical question was: should I recreate the history of someone or should I create something completely new. If I create something completely new, it needs to be real enough otherwise the whole idea of the game doesn't make sense.”
Dalcò tells me his project is intended as a game, not a documentary, but there's undeniably an attempt to document the history of Volterra's asylum through Renée and her experiences. With a weight of real lives on its back, can The Town of Light find its feet?
“If you talk about a movie, it could be a comedy, it could be a drama,” Dalcò says. “When you talk about the word 'game' it is automatically self-limiting.” Indeed, the link between games, fun and play is a tricky one to negotiate if you're aiming to tell a story that encompasses sexual abuse at the hands of a real-life institution.
“When you talk about the word 'game' it is automatically self-limiting"
What I've played of The Town of Light is ambitious, but flawed. The environments are richly detailed but inert. There is little to interact with away from the developer's path, running between animated cutscenes that, while harrowing, veer dangerously close to the 'horror asylum game' tropes its developers want to distance themselves from.
The fact Renée's world is a replica of reality is also an issue when it comes to level design. While comparable exploration games, such as Dear Esther or Gone Home, can weave a narrative through spaces specifically authored to tell a story, the real-life architecture of Volterra's asylum isn't made for the player's purpose, and can therefore feel directionless; especially in comparison to the developer's prescribed paths. Dalcò has a background in theatre, and The Town of Light could be seen as a site-specific play of sorts, but there were times whilst playing when I wished LKA had abandoned the pretence of objectives and taken a looser approach to exploration, turning these virtual spaces into archaeological sites, full of documents and records from the real Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra.
“There were two stones of the region: alabaster and the mad,” Angelo Lippi tells me, referring to the Volterra's twin reputation for mining alabaster rock, and for housing the mentally ill. Lippi worked as a social worker at the asylum in its final years, up until Law 180 (known as Basaglia Law after its main proponent, psychiatrist Franco Basaglia) reformed Italy's psychiatric system. He talks about the difficulties facing a town after the institution closed, about how it came to terms with its own history. It is a fascinating, dark history, and one that The Town of Light – despite the roughness of its execution – is dedicated to keeping.
This intention makes The Town of Light infinitely more interesting than the majority of cookie-cutter shooters and brawlers. While it doesn't quite settle on a balance between game design and documentary-making, it's a sober piece of work that wants to tackle serious questions about Italy's historical attitude to mental health.
More generally, it is a record of a building. The actual ruins of the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra may be mostly abandoned, stuck in development limbo and cordoned off from visitors, but the virtual imitation is open to all. It raises intriguing questions about how games can be used to document real, inaccessible spaces, or to serve as records for both personal and national histories. “To not repeat mistakes, we should remember these stories,” says Di Piazza, when I ask him what he'd like to happen to the asylum ruins.
“I really think this building should become something else, not be abandoned, but become a museum or cultural institution. It's a way to respect the humans that were here – to not leave it abandoned.”
With the help of an Italian game studio, the buildings of the Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra have indeed become “something else”.
The Town of Light is currently available for PC, and will be out on PS4 and Xbox One sometime in Q2 2017.