Volterra in Northern Italy has a population of ten thousand and a history spanning two millennia. Once a city whose resume included stints as an ally of ancient Rome and time as a bishop’s residence, the walled mountain town is the very picture of a Mediterranean country town, quiet, parochial, even sleepy. Despite being almost forgotten by the world at large, it has appeared repeatedly in fiction, from the Twilight series of novels to the upcoming live-action film based on the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.
On a hill in a forested area near the center of town lies a darker side of the picturesque, the perfect inspiration for a horror game. L’Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra once held six thousand souls whose torments existed not only in the flesh, but within their very minds. The Town of Light, a game developed by LKA.it, places players in the body of Renée, a teenage girl sent to the hospital during the 1940s.
In order to help gamers better relate to the experience, the game’s publisher, Wired Productions, commissioned creative mind, London South Bank University student, and gamer Alexandra Furssedonn Howard to explore the long-abandoned hospital complex and capture the essence of the place for a new website specifically created as a companion guide for fans of the game and the occasional urban explorer.
“The location is absolutely haunting,” said Ms. Howard. “To know at one time each room was filled with people whose issues ranged from severe mental illness to those who had nowhere else to go due to poverty. There is certainly an atmosphere that comes with the place, and I hope that translates within my work – it certainly comes across in the game.”
Ms. Howard conducted extensive research before making the journey to Volttera. Her research ranged from examination of images captured by other artists to the layout of the hospital and beyond. “I took care to find out about the history of the town and community, not just the hospital, in order to do the location justice and help to tell its story.”
Having played the game herself, Ms. Howard was impressed by the attention to detail LKA.it demonstrated in the creation of The Town of Light, but was also quite pleased with the story’s narrative. “What struck me about The Town of Light was its honesty. There are no sides to be taken, no ‘big bad’, you’re free to consider the story within the context of its time period, and the present. It’s a true testament to using video games as a narrative art form, not just as a vehicle of entertainment,” she said.
“Being based on true accounts, that kind of impartiality is vital – it helped me recognize how far the mental health care system has come, and how lucky we are to live in the modern world where something like wanting a divorce isn’t likely to result in you spending your years under lock and key. Video games are a powerful tool, they are accessible, they allow players to become the character, to experience true empathy, and to maybe learn something about themselves in the process.”
Which is not to say that The Town of Light is the only star in the show. Ms. Howard’s work to capture the spirit of L’Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra has received public acknowledgement and praise. Ricardo Domizio, Film Studies Course Director at London South Bank University, said, “Getting out into the field is something that is highly encouraged at LSBU and no doubt this will be a great launch pad for greater things for Alexandra. We are very proud of her achievement.”
But for Ms. Howard, it all comes back to the art. “I say that anyone who creates has the right to call themselves an artist, and anything you use to create can be a medium, there are no rules in art. Developments in tech are leading to a very exciting time for digital art, like video games, the possibilities are endless, and I can’t wait for the medium to become as respected as film, music, or painting.”