Occasionally games come around that seek to not only entertain, but to provide a new lens in which to perceive the world. This seems to be the intent of LKA.it, an independent game development studio based in Florence, Italy. LKA.it’s newest project, The Town of Light runs players through a psychological thriller, heavily inspired by the true stories and accounts of one of Europe’s most infamous and largest asylums located in Volterra, Italy.
According to LKA.it’s Game Director Luca Dalcò, many knew the Volterra Asylum by the nickname, “the place of no return.” In The Town of Light, players explore the abandoned ruins of the ancient asylum in the present day. The voice of Renee, a 16 year old girl and former patient, guides players through the institution as they live through her blurred memories of the fear and suffering she endured. Players will walk the halls of the institution that LKA.it has attempted to faithfully recreate, and slowly uncover the hidden truths of Volterra. We had the opportunity to sit down with Dalcò to learn just how much of the game will be based on fact, and why he wanted to develop this kind of psychological experience.
Jesse Tannous: Describe some of the real history behind the Volterra asylum your game takes place in?
Luca Dalcò: The story we will tell in The Town of Light is not only exclusively inspired from the Volterra asylum, but more generally from the whole of mental health institutions in Italy, for which we found and researched a lot of material. One very peculiar thing about Volterra is discovering how this really huge structure was literally a little town (which at some point had over 5000 patients), a parallel reality with its own mechanics, carpentries, and tailors where the patients used to work. Those patients used to earn some special coins, coined by the institution, as a salary which they could use to buy cigarettes or a glass of wine.
Factories were used to produce goods used by the asylum: patients were making their own clothes, shoes, and even the coffins used for when they inevitably died and were buried at their own cemetery near South Finocchi. Not even at the time of death did they have the right to leave the hospital, like they were not part of mankind. Thanks to this self-sufficient economy, the province running costs were extremely low, which explains why this huge structure could survive away from big cities and had been placed in the little town of Volterra (6000 inhabitants).
Patients were usually extremely ill individuals, people with no one, sent to end their lives without inflicting an excessive cost for other provinces in Italy. This is the reason for the Volterra asylum gaining the nickname “The place of no return.” Back then you could be sent to the asylum not just for mental illness related issues but also for alcoholism, public scandals, or even for being gay.
There are a lot of books about that, among these: Amilcare Marescalchi wrote his experience as a patient of Volterra Asylum in “Cinque anni di manicomio”, Mario Tobino, former director of the Maggiano’s asylum, narrates the experiences of many of the female patients in his book “Le donne di Maggiano.” What connects all those stories is the suffering and the desperation, mental illness put people in an incredible suffering condition, and if this were not enough, mental institutions contributed to making patients even less acceptable and inhuman.
JT: Tell me a bit about how you conducted your research into this location. How did you get your information?
LD: We did not conduct any formal interviews, however we had access to many videos, documents and publications that reported interviews and direct witnesses from former doctors, nurses and patients. All those documents cover both Volterra and other Italian structures.The work we conducted mostly involved studying different books and research publications, on top of my mind I can quote “La fabbrica della follia” from Vinzia Fiorino, an extremely deep study on the history of the Volterra’s asylum from its origin to its closure.
“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 was admitted there lost every form of civil right, like a man that is not a man anymore for society.”
“The lack of personnel and overcrowding forced the use of method that are nowadays considered inhuman: people end up been tied at 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 anesthetic or pain killer of any sort! They were the only known method to try to contain the most severe patients suffering. Not only the therapies, but the way they were applied that was completely inhuman.”
JT: This project seems part game, part documentary. Why choose this real life location and situation to design a game around? Is it simply a gimmick to hook an audience, or is there a bigger message?
LD: I would like to underline that we are talking about a game, we do not want to create a documentary, but we spent a lot of time researching everything possible to make sure that what is in the game is credible and coherent. The Town of Light was born as a game that wants to tell a story as well as make people more aware about mental illness. The choice of using a real location is used to increase the immersion in the game. Being in a place that you can find pictures of on the internet and books contribute to the feeling of being part of something real, something that exists. This is coherent with the message we want to transmit with the game. Mental illness issues are tragically real and their dimensions are bigger than what people normally think. As an example 1% of worldwide population suffers of Schizophrenia, which translates to around 750,000 people just in Europe.
JT: You describe this as a psychological game. What does that actually mean to you and your team? What kind of experience are you hoping players walk away with?
LD: With a psychological game we mean a game where we go deep inside the mind of the protagonist, her personality and all the mechanisms that determine her emotional state and the way she reacts. This is a necessity for us since we are talking about the protagonist’s psychological discomfort and how this became a real mental illness once she got inside the structure. Again, this is not a documentary or an academic exercise about psychology or psychiatry: we are making a game to tell a story, not a real one, but a realistic and contextualized experience with a focus on the mind of the protagonist.
Recently The Town of Light has been recognized by a number of organizations including the Boston Festival of Indie Games, the Insomnia Gaming Festival, and even the Strasbourg European Film Festival as one of the most interesting virtual reality projects. For additional updates and information make sure to stop by the official website.