Games have grown up.
It's hard to imagine someone deconstructing the psychological processes behind Mario's Goomba-squishing habits (probably an Oedipus complex) 30 years ago, but in 2015 there are countless articles, YouTube videos and even books about the deeper meaning behind titles, their characters and environments.
This has led to many developers venturing further into a virtual exploration of complex issues – from Papa & Yo's allegory for childhood abuse to Never Alone's existential examination.
Like many of its contemporaries, Italian studio LKA.it is turning to real life for inspiration. The outlet's upcoming psychological thriller The Town of Light sees players explore a faithful recreation of the Volterra Psychiatric Hospital in Italy, with the main character going through events based on the real experiences of mental health patients during the 20th century.
Mental illness affects a large percentage of the worldwide population,” says LKA.it founder Luca Dalco.
It is a real problem that affects so many lives, yet is carried with a stigma. Our aim is to make the player more aware of those themes, and allow them to experience a story of discomfort and internment. We have chosen to bring mental illness closer to home for the player, to make them realise it's an issue that is more widespread than they may think.”
"The release of more high-quality, story-driven games is a clear signal of market maturity."
Luca Dalco, LKA.it
Town of Light is far from the first game to be set in a mental institution; from Outlast to Batman Arkham Asylum, padded cells and echoing corridors are a horror staple.
The main differentiation between Town of Light and the rest is that the location is not just a place to fill with paranormal activities or zombies – on the contrary, it's a sad place where players will live through a credible story involving our main character,” explains Dalco.
Attention to detail is key to the game's impact – everything, from the documents scattered on tables to the placement of each window and door, has been meticulously researched for more than two years.
The building is near to our office so we had the chance to research everything very deeply,” reveals Dalco.
The stories in Town of Light are the outcome of long research work into mental illness and the history of institutions that treated it at the time. They are works of fantasy, but built with the aim to recreate the recurring themes connected to psychological discomfort.
Attention to details increases the immersion; even if the smaller details are not consciously noted, they contribute equally to provide a real environment, credible and lifelike to the player's eyes. In the game you will not find real files or real documents, but what you will find has been created to appear as credible as possible, to immerse the player in something true and real – like the reality of mental illness.”
As you might expect with a title dedicated to making its virtual world come to life, LKA.it is also considering bringing Town of Light to a different kind of headspace.
VR makes a big difference when the immersion level is an important element of the narrative,” explains Dalco.
The feeling of exploring the environment with Oculus is really special – it's like being there for real – and the feeling of anxiety we are trying to recreate is amplified.”
Although games have come to mean far more than beating a high score, many topics still remain off-limits for triple-A games.
Controversial themes are difficult to deal with, hence not favourable to be covered by those who invest a lot of money in big productions,” says Dalco.
In terms of movies, the indie games scene is closer to the concept of art movies. The costs are lower, so you can target a smaller audience and you can – you must – risk digging deeper.”
With games continuing to encroach on the visual flair and narrative intricacy of cinematic blockbusters, Dalco believes that a new era of titles dedicated to taking games beyond simply ‘playing' is beginning to emerge.
The release of more high-quality, story-driven games is a clear signal of market maturity,” he concludes.
The name ‘game' seems to be really limiting for this amazing media; it is time this maturity process started. Games have enormous narrative potential, which is yet to be fully explored.”