Dark Tourism in The Town of Light: Dark Heritage, Player Agency and Phenomenological Experience

On Saturday the 2nd of September 2017, I presented my paper on Dark Tourism and The Town of Light at the EAA conference in Maastricht as part of the Session number 275: ‘In Play. Archaeology in Videogames as a Metadisciplinary Approach.’ I would like to thank Lennart Linde, Meghan Dennis, Aris Politopoulos, Angus Mol, Csilla Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke and Krijn Boom for organising a fantastic session.  Hanna Pageau, as well as being a speaker herself,  live-tweeted the session which allowed those who couldn’t attend to follow along. Andrew Reinhard was also not only a speaker but wrote up an invaluable summary of each talk which you can find here.

I was incredibly excited to attend the session-not only was it my first opportunity to talk about archaeogaming at a large international conference, it was also the first time I would be able to meet many fellow archaeogamers in person. The archaeogaming crew are a very welcoming group of people who made me feel at ease, and as a person who suffers from anxiety I really appreciated that.

Which leads me to the next topic I want to discuss…

Motivations for studying dark tourism and The Town of Light

As far as I can remember (the experience now is a bit of a blur) someone asked me at the end of my talk what my motivations were for studying The Town of Light, whether I identified with the protagonist of the game and if I knew why players were generally motivated to play it. Whilst I did talk about my intentions to survey players about their motivations, I realise that I completely side-stepped the first part of the question.

Researching dark heritage and tourism, as well as playing The Town of Light has at times been an overwhelming experience for me. As was appropriate, I was very concerned about discussing a game which portrays a historical mental health institution in a way that was both respectful of the subject matter but also academically rigorous. I was also very aware that whilst I myself was analysing the ethical implications of a game which uses the protagonist’s mental health problems as a ‘hook,’ I could also be complicit in exploiting the subject matter for my own research. This is why I feel that its important to be self-reflexive and discuss my own motivations for pursuing the concept of dark tourism and applying it to The Town of Light.

For many years I have suffered from mental health problems. I will not go into detail about this, and I don’t think that any individual should feel pressurised to disclose personal information of this nature to justify their research. In this case in particular, though, I don’t feel comfortable not mentioning it at all, expecially given I’m particularly interested in understanding what leads a player to experience a game like The Town of Light. For someone who perpetually experiences a fear of stigma and shame about mental health, the representation of mental health matters to me. As an archaeogamer, the representation of a non-fictional mental health institution in a video game environment particularly mattered to me.

I find dark heritage and dark tourism fascinating as academic constructs in themselves (what constitutes dark anyway?) but I’m particularly interested in their potential as a way of promoting social justice and education, which Edward Gonzalez-Tennant focuses on in his brilliant article ‘New Heritage and Dark Tourism: A Mixed Methods Approach to Social Justice in Rosewood, Florida.’ That’s something I’ll continue to focus on to guide me as I continue to do more research into archaeogaming and dark tourism.

Presentation link and notes

Content warning: The presentation and notes contain reference to sexual abuse and mental health

Below is a link that will allow you to download my presentation for the EAA session:

Dark Tourism in The Town of Light PowerPoint presentation

At this point I would also like to thank Adam Smith of Rock Paper Shotgun who very kindly allowed me to use his photographs of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra which he visited in 2016 (you can read his article about The Town of Light here). I’m also very grateful to Luca Dalcò, the studio head of LKA, for discussing the game with me.

I’ve also included my notes for the presentation below, which correspond with the slides. They’re very rough around the edges (I hope to really build on this research and write it up properly), but I thought they might be of interest for anyone who couldn’t make it to the conference and wanted to have a better sense of what I was discussing. Some slides do not have notes.

Presentation notes

Slide 2

This is a content warning that the presentation will include references to sexual abuse and mental health. What you can see on the screen here is the disclaimer which appears at the beginning of the game, which specifically details that the game is based on “real facts and places” but that “This game uses an artistic interpretation of a former Italian psychiatric institution for dramatic purposes.”


Slide 4                           

Town of Light was released in 2016 and created by the Italian developers LKA. It is set in Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra, an asylum in Volterra Italy. It can be classed as a walking simulator, a game which involves exploration and discovery rather than combat or point-scoring. The central premise of this game is that the protagonist returns to the asylum where she was a patient in the late 1930s to 1940s, in order to try and make sense of her experiences there.

Another interesting facet of this game is that its never made entirely clear who exactly the player is-Renée would be in her 90s by 2016 when the game is set. All you see of your body is that your hands have chipped red nail varnish. The narrator of the game itself does at least appear to be Renee, though sometimes she speaks in the third person. She is the one who directs you through the asylum.

Slide 5

Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra originated in 1888. It underwent six separate stages of development and in total included a vast array of buildings to accommodate patients, as well as workshops and other facilities. This screenshot from the game shows a map of the area which the game is set in, with the ‘Padiglione Charcot,’ (Charcot Pavilion) being the primary building that you explore. This was built in the third phase of development, between 1926 and 1929, which was a women’s ward. The Italian Mental Health Act of 1978 led to a reform of the Italian psychiatric system, the closure of asylums and replacement with community based services. This led to the dereliction of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra.


Slide 7

The creators of the game specifically set Renée’s time in the asylum as the late 1930s to early 1940s, which was a period when Italy was ruled by the National Facist Party under Benito Mussolini between 1922-1943. From 1942-43, mortality rates reached 21% at Volterra asylum, which was 60 times as high as the mortality rate in the general population. During this period patients suffered particularly terrible conditions due to scarcity of resources during the Second World War. This entails that the game’s developers deliberately focused on a period  which has particular significance for the wider political context but also the particular stresses that patients would have had to endure.

Small details in the game elude to this fascistic context,  for example a picture of Mussolini.

Slide 8

This is a game which particularly focuses on the suffering of its protagonist within this wider historical context. Through the course of the game we discover that Renée was originally omitted to the asylum at the age of 16 after being raped, leading her to exhibit symptoms as a result of this trauma which led her to being committed. She is later sexually assaulted in the asylum itself by a male nurse and this is shown in a memory as an illustrated cutscene.

There are a few problems which I would like to flag concerning the portrayal of sexual assault in this game:

– Renée isn’t real, but she represents an amalgamation of the developers’ research. In an interview with Katherine Cross, the writer and Studio Head Luca Dalcò commented that “with a character of this kind you can tell the uncensored truth of many lives.” It is important to acknowledge and not avoid the experiences of women in the asylum. However, projecting these onto a fictional protagonist raises questions about how these have been edited.

-The player cannot consent to watching this scene-there is no content warning for it

-Linked to this point is the question of whether depicting scenes of sexual assault in this way may make the game unaccessible to those who have had similar experiences and do not want to be disturbed or triggered by the games’ content.

Slide 9

How does all of this relate to dark heritage and dark tourism?

‘Dark heritage’ can be used to define sites which are associated with death and human suffering. Dark tourism specifically refers to the “presentation and consumption (by visitors) of real and commodified death and disaster sites” (Lennon and Foley 1996, 198).

Town of Light is a game which contains a digital interpretation of the heritage site Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra. As it is a videogame which is produced and consumed as a commodity, which portrays the asylum as a site of human suffering, it can be considered through the lens of dark tourism.

Slide 10

Edward Gonzalez-Tennant wrote an article in 2013 on New Heritage and Dark Tourism, in which he applies the concept to his creation of his digital reconstruction of Rosewood, Florida, an African American community , and the potential of dark tourism to engage audiences and promote social justice.

The concept itself has been heavily critiqued, specifically in terms of how classifying a site as ‘dark’ is a matter of privilege and perspective. Tourists themselves may have multiple motivations for visiting a site. Furthermore, its important to examine the experience of tourists at dark tourism sites.

The player of experience of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra as a dark tourist site will examined through phenomenological experience and player agency in the game. These concepts will be defined but not rigorously critiqued for brevity’s sake.

Slide 11

Phenomenology can be broadly defined as the study of the appearance of things, how we experience them, and the meaning that we draw from that experience. In particular, Christopher Tilley has advocated for phenomenology as a means of understanding past human interactions with particular landscapes or settings. The subjectivity of phenomenology has been critiqued.

The concept of phenomenology can be applied to The Town of Light in terms of how the developers have curated the player experience of moving through and interacting with the asylum within a wider landscape.

Slide 12

Another concept which will be applied to Town of Light is agency. Ian Hodder in particular stressed the importance of recognising individual intention in the archaeological record. Agency has also been critiqued as an extremely subjective concept which could lead to projecting anachronistic ideas about society and the self onto past actors.

The extent to which the player can make meaningful choices in Town of Light and how this relates to the depiction of Renée’s agency will be examined.

Slide 13

For this section, I’m going to be talking about the player experience of Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra as two asylums-the present day asylum that Renée visits and the asylum of the past which she encounters through interacting with the present day asylum.

Slide 14

In order to gain access to the present day asylum in the game, you must trespass-there are signs warning no unauthorised people to enter. On the one hand, from an archaeological and ethical standpoint it could be argued that this problematic if it were to normalise trespassing on heritage sites. However, as a patient Renée could not escape the asylum and the fact that she is now choosing to trespass is an inversion of her previous lack of agency to be able to enter and leave the asylum.

Slide 15

The game experience of Town of Light is very tightly controlled in that certain areas are locked until you have explored other sections of the Charcot pavilion. The player does have the ability to open and close shutters in most rooms that they enter, rendering the spaces lighter or darker. This is especially significant given the themes of light and darkness in the game, with light being associated with trauma.

Slide 16

Pictured here is a storeroom where Renée finds a package that her mother sent her that was never delivered to her as well as a package for her friend, which she finds in order to prove to herself that she actually existed.

Slide 17

She also finds she wrote to her mother which was never sent. A volume of such undelivered letters from Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra has actually been published, entitled Corrispondenza negata or Correspondence Denied.

Slide 18

The past asylum, or more specifically, memories of that past asylum, can be accessed through interacting with pieces of material culture and written sources, which sometimes triggers a flashback.

Slide 19

Flashbacks of the asylum come in two main forms. The first of these are drawn cutscenes, in which the player is only able to watch and cannot interact with the scene that is unfolding.

Slide 20

Other flashbacks allow the player to actually move and interact with a specific memory of the past asylum. All of these flashbacks are in black and white. Movement is often sluggish and the perspective of space is warped.

In one notable flashback Renée moves through an endless corridor of the asylum which seems to fold in on itself. Although this flashback does not depict any historical details of the asylum it is a good example of how a game can effectively portray a sense of disorientation and confinement.

Slide 21

There are points in the game at which the player makes choices which leads to different storylines. For example, you can choose whether or not to read all of Renée’s clinical records, leading to her either blaming her doctor or herself for what happened. Ultimately, though, the game ends in the same way regardless of what choices they make, so there is limited player agency. The game does at least allow for multiple interpretations of certain textual sources.

Slide 22

As stated earlier, there are two asylums in the game-that of the present day and of the past. Just as archaeology is not the study of the past but more specifically the interpretation of the material remains of that past, this game is an interpretation of the asylum and its past. Both are interpretations of the existing and past Ospedale Psichiatrico di Volterra. David Staley has commented how perhaps we need a warning of “This is not the past” on videogames which contain historical reconstructions. Funnily enough, Town of Light essentially has this but its blurring of a reconstructed setting, real archive sources and a fictional protagonist means that the distinction between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ is easily lost.

Slide 23

-Just as ‘dark tourism’ involves privileging a certain perspective of a site above others, Town of Light focuses on one particular period of its history and one character’s suffering

-It is a tightly controlled experience that does allow for some limited player agency and presents a particular version of the past asylum in various ways

-To really build on research into Town of Light and dark heritage it would be good to conduct a survey of players asking them about their motivations and experiences

Included here is a picture of the asylum in the present day which has been reappropriated by graffiti artists-perhaps a more playful reinterpretation of the space than Town of Light itself.


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