Despite how common mental health problems can be, it is a modern invention to understand them, or even discuss them without prejudice. Unsurprisingly, then, as a relatively young medium, video games don’t have the best track record of dealing with such complex issues. Games like Far cry 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (to name a few) have used insanity as a cheap tool and catch-all term to explain away the actions of a murderous villain, doing a great injustice to those suffering from real, treatable ailments.
That’s not to say some games haven’t tried, though. 2013 Depression quest successfully achieved empathy through perspective, while Square Enix’s Life is strange treated the delicate matter of mental health with the utmost care. (To say more would be entering spoiler territory.) British studio Ninja Theory, makers of Dmc devil may cry and enslavedeven tries to tackle sanity in the action genre with the forthcoming swordsmanship epic Hellblade. However, few games have dared to take the horror genre – the worst offender of all when it comes to cheapening mental health issues – into such brave new territory.
Screenwriter Luca Dalcò hopes to change that. His new game The city of light, due out on Steam in February, is undeniably a horror experience, and one that at first glance seems to follow the same clichéd path as others in the genre. It takes place in an abandoned insane asylum, players assume the role of a former patient and many scary things happen due to that patient’s psychological problems.
But… The city of light don’t bombard you with jump scares, or hide monsters in dark corners so you can mow them down with a shotgun. Like the great ghost stories of yesteryear, psychological horror is rather bloody murder The city of light‘s strong point.
Although not based on a true story, The city of light is a first-person adventure set in the real-life Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, a now-abandoned psychiatric hospital in Tuscany, Italy. Volterra certainly has a history: home to more than 6,000 patients, it was nicknamed “the place of no return” and was notorious for using electroshock therapy. The hospital closed in 1978 after the Italian government passed a law condemning harsh treatment in mental hospitals, leaving behind a fleet of abandoned wheelchairs and eerie carvings of a particularly hurt ten-year-old patient.
Many urban explorers have ventured into Volterra, and it’s surprising how close Dalcò and his team have come to recreating the hospital’s foreboding feel. The stuffy rooms littered with broken mirrors, ragged beds and forgotten wheelchairs contrast sharply with the bright and sunny courtyard where the game opens, creating a fantastic sense of foreboding as you wander through the crumbling rooms. There’s a sense that something terrible has happened within those walls, even if you’re not quite sure what it is.
That’s part of the The city of light‘s charm. There’s no backstory to lead you in the right direction, or over-the-top exposition to detract from the exploration. What happened to this patient, how she ended up in the asylum and why she came back again determines the game. Simple puzzles, such as finding a way to reach an upper floor while pushing a wheelchair, also help. Sketchy cutscenes break up your adventure and help to highlight some of the misunderstandings and cruelties people with mental health issues have faced in the past.
finally, City of light‘s success depends on how well it treats its subject. It’s certainly not shy about tackling strong issues like childhood trauma and abuse. Such restraint will be difficult, especially when cheap shock absorbers are easier to come by. But this is another brave step in the right direction for a medium that often prefers stubborn violence to anything substantial.
The Town of Light will be released on Steam in February. Initially, the game will only be available for Windows.