Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in Sociology at the City University of New York who studies online harassment. She is also a widely published social critic. Her work has appeared in The Baffler, Rolling Stone, Bitch Magazine, The Daily Beast, Time, and many others. She writes a weekly-ish column at Gamasutra.
Content/Trigger Warning: Discussion of trauma and sexual assault.
Darkness is often synonymous with fear; where things go bump in the night, where monsters live. But what could make someone fear the light?
For Renée T., the protagonist of the LKA’s The Town of Light, the light bathed her with hellish attention, turning her inside-out. The game’s title, which initially strikes one as pious and placid, is actually a description of terror. The town is a mental asylum where young Renée is confined, in an Italian village at the height of the Second World War. Women couldn’t vote in Italy; lobotomies were all the rage; ‘hysteria’ was a diagnosis.
There are no pretensions to Town; it speaks for itself in subtle registers about being a woman in a world that treats it as a pre-existing condition. Gender politics is never hinted at; even the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy fades into the background in the form of occasional propaganda. What we get is one woman’s personal experience, without any filter, speaking for herself in a way that makes no claim upon our judgement but whose truth feels inescapably relentless.
It’s an authentic story, a composite character made up of the experiences of real women. The Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra does exist, and the developers took pains to get the details right, from the floor plan of its ruined buildings to the minutiae of the torturous treatments and regimens imposed on patients. “With a character of this kind, you can tell the uncensored truth of many lives, respecting the anonymity of those who lived through it,” said LKA writer and studio head Luca Dalcò in an interview with me for this piece. “We had a clear objective in mind: to talk about mental health and to tell the stories of those who have suffered in the past,” he added. “We always had Renée in mind as our protagonist.”
“The Town of Light” is the title she gave to her lavishly illustrated diary, a tableau of cursive and kohl telling the story of how she came to be interred in the asylum. It ends at the beginning, when she was taken away by police after an ear-splitting fight with her mother. “They would be better off without me,” she said of her mother and her neighbours, “cleansed of shame, with something to talk about for a while.” The nature of that “shame” and how it came to be is essential to Renée’s story.
Implied to be the effect of PTSD, The “Light” first came to Renée as the result of a car accident; the last moments of the car’s headlights mercilessly driving headlong at her. It became the metaphor of her terror. Her fears were The Light, her pain was The Light. But most of all, social stigma was The Light; being mocked by her peers, being judged by parents, church, and community were The Light.
The Light could be dispelled by only one thing: genuine love and friendship outside the confines of power and obligation—particularly from feminine figures. A whole section of her diary is devoted to, first, her doll Charlotte— “when the light came she would stay beside me and her presence would not disturb me”—and a friend from school named Bruna. Renée “felt almost normal,” she writes, ecstatic at her undemanding affection. ‘“The light isn’t coming, the dreams have gone, and I have a real friend…one who speaks to me!’ I would repeat this to myself proudly while looking in the mirror, where I no longer saw an embarrassing reflection.”
This is a clear theme in the game: “light” equals shame, but the sincere love of women drives it away into a peaceful darkness.
Why, then, did Renée’s mother cause her such grief, even to the point of her being “terrorised” by her affection? To answer that question we have to get a bit Freudian. In my interview with Luca Dalcò, he demurred on any connection to psychoanalysis: “I am not a psychiatrist, nor a psychologist or social worker. I consulted with many professionals to ensure the story was coherent but what I set out to do is tell an emotional story.” But that emotional story also happens to surface the most uncomfortable, deep, visceral, even sexual truths about our gendered lives in a way psychoanalysis elucidates quite well.
Though the Freudian canon places more weight on the relationship between parents and sons, as Simone de Beauvoir first noted in The Second Sex, there is a deep ambivalence at work between mothers and daughters as well. In her words, ‘Mother’ appears
“as the one who waits, endures, complains, cries, and makes scenes: and in daily reality this thankless role does not lead to any apotheosis; victim, she is corned; shrew, she is detested […] blocked in her housewifely role, she stops the expansion of her existence, she is obstacle and negation. Her daughter wants not to take after her.”
The daughter often apprehends “the maternal circle” as a “narrow and stultifying” place, she says. It is where you see that older, head to toe portrait of yourself as a woman, trapped in a hell that she cannot escape. Will not escape, you think resentfully. In de Beauvoir’s terms, there is no transcendence there.
This could be why The Light shone so brightly on Renée, even when her mother exhibited tenderness. Perhaps she blamed her for her situation, one where they had to depend on strange men who came and went, and who allowed them to turn a sliver of hallway light from a cracked bedroom door into a harbinger of abuse. So many of us resent our mothers for “allowing” abuse; even if they had no choice or no strength to intervene, our bitterness often overpowers our empathy. We despise them for not fighting back, for leaving us vulnerable. That hatred waxes and wanes between rage and desperation, and the latter becomes more prominent in Renée’s recollections of Volterra as time goes on.
“Why is that man here?” she asks of the looming Mr. Onofrio, the man from the doorway, despatched by her poverty-stricken mother to check on Renée in the hospital, “Why didn’t she come to see me?”
Patriarchy makes us all traitors to one another.
Literary scholar Noah Berlatsky provides a neat summary of Freud’s thinking, useful for understanding Renée: “For Freud, you do not experience trauma and then experience symptoms. Rather, you experience trauma, and that trauma spreads throughout your life, not just as a single memory but as a web of memories.” He might’ve been describing the narrative structure of Town of Light when he added, “as a result, the future often occurs before the past—A then B then C then A gain and then C then B—so time is constantly tying itself into a knot of trauma.”
Renée might well relate to that. Though her diary tells a relatively straightforward story, the game does not. It beautifully leaps through time and memory, disparate and conflicting strands braiding together, both trauma and Renée’s rebellion against it, filling in haphazardly across the course of the game. It’s a ludic mosaic of Freud’s approach.
But equally central to Freud’s understanding of trauma was its connection to the unconscious. It was the repression of trauma or memory that led to the eruption of neurosis and psychosis, in this view. Amnesia was psychoanalysis’ fertile country. “Its task is to fill up all the gaps in the patient’s memory,” Freud argues in his eighteenth introductory lecture. Hysteria in particular, he adds, was “marked by amnesias on a really large scale,” connected to “a whole chain of impressions of events.”
The Town of Light is about the “impressions” left on Renée. Though there is no evading the misogyny inherent to “hysteria” as a diagnosis, psychoanalysts were the first in the medical establishment to realise that what was commonly called “hysteria” was a sign of something far deeper, repressed to the outside observer.
We learn that Renée has been raped by men who visited her home in the days before she was committed. Her diary describes her memory of this as a “dream” but we know it’s all too real from the game’s slowly braiding narrative; the “symptoms” that led to Renée being institutionalised were psychic eruptions resulting from a trauma she could give no voice to. This in turn gave more coherence to The Light and what it represented.
A medical report in the game seems to confirm the story of another rape.
“[Renée says she] met a man who made her get into a car and took her for a ride. He made her smoke cigarettes and drink liquor, and the man showed her certain…things. He tried to hurt her and made her go crazy. She says he promised to marry her and made her swear to keep what happened a secret.”
The psychiatrist’s report goes on, “after that she became arrogant, impatient, and hostile towards her family, especially her mother. She started taking off her clothes in public, her moods would swing from laughter to tears. She rants, she pleasures herself.”
The luridness of the report is striking when it comes to describing Renée as a pathological patient, but equally striking for its modesty,using the word “things” to stand in for all that goes into a rape. If nothing else, the game’s writing captures the hypocrisies of sexism.
A different doctor notes, “the abnormality of her psychic state has induced her to lead a life which is irregular and tends towards delinquency… she regularly discards her household duties and engages in occasional prostitution.” Of enormous concern to these doctors was Renée’s sexuality, far less is accorded to the trauma she suffered.
The terrors of men redoubled with a vengeance at Volterra. There, a male nurse repeatedly assaulted Renée in the baths; her descriptions of the trauma are acute and vivid. This was no dream, but something mercilessly illuminated. “He laughed,” she said, “he panted and slobbered over me, it hurt when he touched me, I thought I’d suddenly split open with a loud crack, and I would be shattered to pieces… He was the master in the realm of light!” No clearer statement of The Light’s meaning could possibly be made. What began as a tragic post-traumatic episode from a car accident ends coloured by all the social terrors of patriarchy itself.
Speaking of 1940s Italy, Dalcò notes, “It was not uncommon for women in this type of environment to be driven to madness, placed in facilities like Volterra, with their abusers never brought to justice.”
Needless to say, throughout the game you uncover evidence that the hospital was trying to cover up the nurse’s abuse, and displacing all blame for Renée’s deepening trauma onto the girl and her sexuality.
But there was something that dispelled The Light.
Female companionship was always the cure for Renée. While at Volterra, she got close to another patient, a young woman named Amara, who protected and accompanied her. Hers are the warmest parts of the game, the moments bathed in sunshine on old stone benches where two young women would laugh the afternoon away, stealing food from the kitchens. In some of the branching and conflicting memories, Amara and Renée fall in love and express it vividly. “In the shower I felt her body against mine for the first time. It was a shiver that warmed my soul; eyes closed, the light slipped away.”
This occurs in a part of the game where the narrative forks based on dialogue choices, each of which interprets or responds to Renée’s memories. According to Dalcò, each choice is an homage to the psychiatric theories of Vittorino Andreoli, representing one of his four psychological defence mechanisms: Rationalism, Disassociation, Depression, or Obsession, each representing Renée’s “me” against the “others” of the world. Depending on your choices, Renée’s memories may unfold in a particular way—and this beautiful lesbian love story is one possibility.
But, chaste or no, Amara was there as a companion. And if the love story is mere fantasy, it is no less powerful for what it symbolises. It is not trivial that Renée fantasises about true love blossoming in the very showers where her world was shattered anew daily. The Light was dispelled by the love she found in the feminine other, first Charlotte, then Bruna, now Amara. Each was also, in her way, the key to freeing Renée from the self-loathing inculcated by The Light’s burning shame. Of her time with Bruna, she writes: “I no longer considered my body disgusting and ill, far from it, I began to look at myself, to caress myself and smell my own skin. I began to explore and experiment, finding physical pleasure.”
This is behaviour that would be deemed hysterical by her doctors. But where The Light was shame—Mother, male rapist, judging community, scornful psychiatrists—the shadow is feminine and defined by self-love.
It is also defined by taking Renée seriously. Amara knew about Mr. Onofrio, “What worries me,” she says in a recollected memory, “is that I’m sure that terrible man is watching her. He was the one who brought her here, and of all the good people, why did it have to be him?”
Renée confirms this, “She knew. I told her everything. She knew about that man.” The memory had come back, and she diminished a bit of its fell power by investing it in a loving woman who, above all else, believed her and didn’t blame her for what befell her.
Sisterhood remains powerful. Dalcò and LKA are at pains to note that they don’t feel Volterra represents modern psychiatry, but the game still has much to say about our present. Women are no longer quite as wretchedly silenced as Renée and her mother, yet there’s too much here that’s familiar to dismiss it purely as a historical drama. It is nothing short of a triumph that this game has delivered such a painfully braided narrative as this. But it’s more than a fillip for our medium. It is is a warning.
As both Freud and de Beauvoir might agree, the past never stays buried.
Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Shelia Malovany-Chevallier. London: Vintage Classic, 1949. Print.
Berlatsky, Noah. Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948. New Brunswick: Rutgers U Press, 2015. Print.
Dalcò, Luca. Personal Interview. June 30, 2017.
Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
Mitchell, Juliet. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. New York: Vintage , 1975. Print.