Preview: The Town of Light on the Oculus Rift

The Town of Light has a premise that immediately grabs you. This is a videogame that explores a real mental asylum that was shut down in 1978 for its cruel practises, starring a former patient that relives her personal traumas. This unique mix of fact and interaction is made all the more enticing by the promise of support for the Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display (HMD), putting players in the disused Volterra Psychiatric Asylum in Italy for themselves. As you might expect, this makes for an atmospheric and harrowing experience, though one that perhaps needs a little more polish before its ready for release.

The Town of Light screenshot

A mental asylum might seem like a clichéd setting for a videogame, but The Town of Light is kept fresh in its authenticity and intentions. Don’t mistake this for a horror experience in the traditional sense; that’s absolutely not developer what developer LKA is aiming for. Rather than jump scares, The Town of Light’s dread comes from its draining, bleak setting and plodding, methodical pacing.

Players control Renèe as her haunting past is brought back to her while she tours the peeling corridors and rusted rooms, occasionally interacting with certain objects or pausing to re-experience certain events. It’s a deeply psychological experience; light in the way of puzzles but all the more engrossing as you delve deeper into it, discovering rooms in which you can piece together what horrific events transpired for yourself. What challenges the title does present are never too taxing but do ask the player to almost understand Renèe’s fragile state of mind and make sense of her often unsettling narration.

That tone is also consistent in the suitably morbid approach to storytelling. Renèe’s voice wails and squeaks as she struggles to come to terms with what happened to her, while her past is retold through murkily sketched cutscenes and playable flashbacks that surround the player in all the more depressing shades of grey. Some truly despicable actions unfold in front of your eyes and, although Renèe’s story is fictional, it’s made all the more shocking by the title’s real life context. The Town of Light is certainly a powerful example of just how VR can amplify an experience in this regard.

The Town of Light screenshot

Admittedly the sheer dankness of the title can also take its toll on a VR user. Touring the asylum can leave you feeling more grim that the experience probably intends after half an hour or so of travelling from one disturbing room to another. Taking the HMD off comes as something of a relief after a while. This is ultimately proof that The Town of Light is on track to achieve its goals, but it’s also a warning that it might be doing so a little too well for some users to handle. For both better and worse, this certainly isn’t an Oculus Rift experience that everyone should try.

That VR support does need a little work, too. A lot of The Town of Light compliments the Oculus Rift; using a projector to view images of the asylum in one room is an entirely immersive experience, but not everything works so well. In the first area, for example, players find themselves at the start of the path leading up to the building. To one side of the patchy, overgrown environment is a playground that has long been without use. It’s possible to interact with any item in that playground, and the solemn loneliness of doing so sets the tone for things to come. Unfortunately, riding the swings or using a turning platform prove to be immensely uncomfortable in VR and are quick to incite simulation sickness. Perhaps this is an option best left for non-VR users for now.

For those that do think they can stomach The Town of Light’s brave, unflinching and uncompromising experience, there’s a lot to look forward to here. This is a mix of entertainment and education not yet seen within VR, taking the engaging, immersive qualities of a videogame and giving them a context relevant to our own world. That’s a hugely promising thought and could make this an early indicator of one of the most promising areas that the technology is set to explore in the years to come.