A little light playing: A critical review of “The Town of Light” (2016)

I know what you’re thinking. What is this? Snow ostriches and lever pulling? Crappy indie espionage games? I thought Idols and Realities was a horror blog. All right smart guy, you want some horror? Here’s “The Town of Light.” It’s another adventure game, but one with a heavy emphasis on story instead of puzzles, where the environment is a character and there are heaping helpings of psychological horror. That all sounds exactly like what this blog is about. This should be easy review, right? Not so fast, tonstant weader.

There’s a certain class of online games. The usual suspects were found on sites like Newgrounds, Armor Games and Kongregate, and you can bet that they’d get a write-up on Jay Is Games. These were dialogue heavy or simple puzzle-based games that were often stylish, atmospheric, thoughtful and unsettling. Also, they were short. They were flash games, after all. They didn’t have time to mess around. “Town of Light” feels very much like a long version of one of those, and that’s both a positive and a negative.

“Town of Light” seemingly sets us in the head of Renee T., a young woman who has returned to the now ruined asylum in the Italian countryside where she was once committed (look, there’s a picture of Mussolini). The asylum is devoid of patients or staff now, but it might house fragments of Renee’s identity. She doesn’t quite know who she is, and she has no connection to who she was. As night slowly falls, she will have to ask herself if the ghosts of the asylum are telling her the truth, or if she’s been lying to herself all this time.

And that really is it, people. In some ways, the game is very simple. Walk here. Pick up a thing. Walk back. Rinse and repeat. No quick time events or enemies to flee from. If we are to call “The Town of Light” an adventure game–and it certainly ain’t an RPG, hack ‘n’ slash or shooter–then we can return to our triad of atmosphere, story and puzzles to gauge how quality it is.

As far as atmosphere goes, “Town” does pretty good. Abandoned insane asylums should be spooky, and this one fits the bill. I’ve heard people rave about the environments in this game, and for the most part I’ll agree. The indoor environments are good. The lighting is appropriate–never bright enough to fully orient but always dark enough so one doesn’t know immediately what’s going on–and the rooms are filled to the brim with detail. There is unquestionably a sense of unease even if there isn’t any urgency. Despite the lack of environmental threats, you might feel yourself dreading looking around every corner

There are two problems. The first is the outdoor environments. Yes, that light is still pretty, and I adore that the game begins with access to a swing set you can genuinely use, but the trees in “Town of Light” suck. That is not an opinion. That is a fact. The first time I encountered them, I thought the foliage around the asylum was coming to life in an expression of utter Gothic horror. Nope. This was no haunting or hallucination. It was just the game acting up.

The interiors come with a caveat as well. They are well designed and one is able to interact with many things, but there is seldom a reason to do so. This is not just from a lack of jump scares (despite its tremendous sense of unease, “Town” resists the urge to do any kind of jump scares, and depending on your temperament that can range from admirable to annoying).

In order to advance, the game, you have to interact with very little of that deeply detailed environment. Also, although you can examine almost anything in the rooms, very little is gained from doing so. A box of syringes? Whatever. A phrenology bust? Old news. Some photographs? Vacation pics, I guess. Aside from a couple of documents that give one some hints at the running of the asylum, there is nothing to be learned from looking at anything.

Which brings us to the story. “Town of Light’s” is sensitively done, which is high praise. Reliable or not, Renee is our protagonist, and it’s not always that a game drags a character through so much crap and makes it believable. It helps that the topic of her mental illness is seriously handled. Mental illness is a topic that’s easy to screw up in any genre or medium, let alone horror video games.

“Town” replicates auditory and visual hallucinations in a way that is both frightening and real. When utilizing reality-warping sights and sounds, the game is surprisingly restrained. Not only does that ramp up the realism, it makes the moments when everything goes nuts all the more impactful. This is not a game that beats you over the head with weird noises or gooey visuals. It’s a cooler customer than that. Even if I felt like I didn’t know Renee–or could never know Renee, given how certain narrative elements are left unsaid–I never felt like I didn’t want to keep playing.

The final consideration is the puzzles, and that is the weakest part of “Town” because it doesn’t care about puzzles. In fact, it doesn’t seem to care that it’s a video game. It advances mostly by itself, with players no more than observers to see the plot along. It was a bad sign when the game told me, almost proudly, that I could press a button to get help at any time. I made a point of never pressing that button, so I don’t know how helpful it would have been.

Searching for clues felt as natural as blundering through hedge mazes, and the cues for triggering events were narrative, not environmental. They typically made more sense to Renee than they did to me. Once she was pressuring me to look at every pot in the kitchen. That urgency didn’t make sense, but I get that she’s of a nervous disposition. Worse was a set of documents that were hyped up like they’d be somewhere official, like patient records. They weren’t. They were in a random surgery ward.

In short, this was a game that got everything right but the game part. Solid atmosphere and an intriguing story are what “Town” has going for it, without much room left for interaction. Large passages were almost lacking player input, and their psychological impact felt accordingly diminished. That leaves this blog wondering why it had to be a video game. It might be important story, but not necessarily right for this medium.

This blog often asks: Why is this a movie instead of book? In the case of “The Town of Light,” this blog asks: Why is this a video game? We could not come up with a satisfactory answer. If I might be permitted a paraphrase, as Mark Twain (allegedly) said, it’s a good story spoiled by a game.

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