Virtual reality (VR) is being used to take players to some truly fantastic places, leaving our world and reaching into the depths of the universe or travelling to entirely new ones. But some of the most interesting projects to utilise the tech are grounded in reality. Take The Town of Light, for example. This fascinating project from Italian developer LKA allows players to explore a real disused mental asylum following its closure in 1978. VRFocus recently got the chance to chat with the title’s screenwriter and creative director, Luca Dalcò.
In the interview below, spoken via a translator, Dalcò talks about the project’s origins as a simple experiment in visualisation, and how that grew into a full videogame. He also touches upon The Town of Light’s support for the Oculus Rift head-mounted display (HMD) and what it brings to an already harrowing experience. VRFocus will continue to follow The Town of Light leading up to its release, reporting back with any further updates on it.
VRFocus: So what is The Town of Light and where did the idea for the project come from?
Luca Dalcò (LD): It was a very experimental project in the way we started. We started it as an experiment. It was initially started to experiment in the way of visualisation and graphic rendering and stuff. So it started like a prototype, basically. And then, slowly, it started growing organically. People that were involved saw that there is something more here than just a prototype. So then it started evolving, evolving and evolving and it became the idea for the game.
The project started with 2 people only and now we are 12. So it’s like a dream that became reality. It’s mainly come from my personal interest in my life experience, basically. It’s something that I’m still interested in and something that I decided to explore within the context of a game.
VRFocus: And this is based on a real asylum?
LD: Yes, definitely. It’s in a building that actually still exists but is of course falling apart because it’s really old, but it’s all there. It was originally shut in the 70’s, so it’s falling apart at the moment. The only slight difference is some of the rooms that are in the structure have been slightly changed to function within a game environment. So, for example, some rooms are actually empty, but for gameplay reasons they need to take some furniture to put in there to implement some puzzles and stuff.
So the structure is basically really, really similar to the one that actually exists now.
VRFocus: The name The Town of Light contrasts the game itself, where did that name come from?
LD: That’s a very interesting question. The history is inspired by a real patient. So the title is inspired by this patient that when she starts seeing stuff and getting excited, she’s seeing it overcompensated with light, hence the title The Town of Light. She had always feared to end up in an asylum. She always thought that everyone with mental illness was seeing this light in their field of vision.
So, because of that, because she thinks everyone has the same symptom of seeing this stuff in light, this is why she calls the asylum The Town of Light. When I found this information in the research that I made, I was really impressed about it, so I decided to mould the game and the story about The Town of Light and this particular patient.
And, also, I wanted to underline the fact that, in mental illness, the light sometimes is more scary than the dark because you cannot hide when you are in the light but you can hide when you’re in the dark. So, again, there is another meaning.
VRFocus: When did VR become a part of the project?
Quite early. Not really at the beginning but quite early. It was kept tested and exploring the potential of Oculus. Then, after that testing, we decided to stop until the DK2 came out. When it came out we started up again and continued from where they we and turned to optimisation and other processes.
VRFocus: What does VR add to the experience? Personally, it gave a powerful sense of presence.
It’s obviously the immersion factor that is the main plus. Considering that it’s a real place, you are immersed in a real place and there should be that kind of bonding. And you’re receiving a better sense of space when you’re going around and the building is actually in real scale. So in some games they scale it down so you have a building but it’s not the real building for gameplay reasons. When you use Oculus and when you play this game, this is the size of the actual building.
Sometimes when you don’t play with Oculus the rooms look quite tiny. But this is the real size of how the room was. Normally in games when you have this kind of problem you shrink the height and stand the width, which is not the case of The Town of Light.
Also when you experience the flashback and when you experience the therapies, I think the fact you see in in first-person view with Oculus is quite– not shocking, but it’s quite real. These things happened, they used to happen, and again that’s an immersion thing.
VRFocus: What about the art direction behind those cutscenes and flashbacks, where did they come from?
The idea was to draw the cutscenes in 2D. They tell a part of the story but telling those kind of moments in 3D could have been very complicated and it wouldn’t deliver, in my mind, what should be part of the story. So it wouldn’t be clear when it isn’t in first-person view. So it’s a mix between quality and being functional to tell the story in the right way.
VRFocus: Do you have an idea for a release date?
We’re aiming to release towards the end of 2015, a date for which we’ll announce sometime after Gamescom because we want to make sure everything is in place.
VRFocus: Will VR support be included in that first release or implemented after?
It’s something that is still in discussion and it also kind of depends on the official Oculus release and see how the 2 dates go together. So the idea is adding the VR when the VR is ready and when, of course, the market is ready. So it’s already there, it’s just making a call.