I’ve had a chance to talk with Luca Dalcò, main designer of the Town of Light, developed by LKA studios about the success of his first game and his plans for the future. In the article wou will find some photos of Volterra asylum’s abandoned cemetery which I took myself several years ago.
The original interview in italian is here.
Hello Luca, the idea of getting in touch with you for an interview came to me while writing about Blackstone Chronicles. That game sits in-between pure narrative and a documentary about mental institutions of the past. Your game, Town of Light, also works in a similar way, wouldn’t you agree?
Hello! Well, I haven’t tried Blackstone Chronicles yet, but I’ll be sure to!
Inspiration and first visits to the former asylum
I’ve read in an article how you came to work on Town of Light, for your lifelong interest in mental health and psychiatric institutions. Since I’ve seen how faithfully you recreated Volterra’s former mental hospital, I can imagine you’ve been visiting it numerous times. Do you mind sharing some insights about it? How did you feel visiting the rooms where patients had been?
Indeed, I’ve always been drawn to mental health issues, while at the same time being frightened by them. I’ve spent many hours researching mental patients treatments in the past on my own.
Visiting the former Volterra’s mental hospital has been a peculiar experience that went hand-in-hand with the development of The Town of Light.
My first breathtaking non-official visit was very emotional and that was the spark that induced me to start working on the game. Truth is, I have been feeling very emotional even during the late institutional sanctioned inspections I participated to. All those experiences were fundamental in discovering the history of the place and recreating it in-game.
Even today, I am still completely fascinated and awestruck by that place. That strong mixture of attraction and repulsion, of beauty and fear; that’s what I wanted the player to experience in the game.
Beyond your personal interest in the matter, were there other sources of inspiration in writing the story of Renée?
I too visited the former asylum years ago, I definitely relate to your feelings.
Do you mind sharing some tidbits about the development of the game and the writing of such an emotional story? I’ve read you’ve had many economical difficulties, which weren’t solved by going on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. How did the publishers react once you managed to successfully self publish on Steam, even with such a “difficult” topic?
Developing the game has been a wild emotional ride. I had tears in my eyes even while writing the story and reading it back to my teammates, who were also weeping! This is not a painless topic, mental disease is something that burrows deep inside you and never lets go.
Financially, it’s been a hard road, that much is true. The team all personally contributed to the game while working their full-time jobs. Since we were having numerous out-of-pocket expenses, we decided to go with Indiegogo (not Kickstarter), hoping to at least cover some of those.
That didn’t work out in the end, unfortunately. Mostly, I blame it on poor communication on our side.
Still, we weren’t going to give up and, luckily, we persevered.
Once we managed to self-publish on Steam, things started to turn for the better, but not really by a wide margin. Financially the game still wasn’t making back what we spent.
After a year, we finally decided to work with Wired production. Truth is, they had already come forward for distributing the PC version; at the time we refused because we felt we weren’t ready to tackle such a big responsibility.
It was our first game and we weren’t sure that we could even finish it.
With Wired’s help we managed to port the game on both Ps4 and Xbox one; things started becoming gradually easier.
As of today, Town of Light has sold almost 150k copies on Steam and continues to sell! A fantastic result we never thought we’d ever achieve, even as recently as two years ago.
A project that at first seemed impossible became reality, thanks to our integrity and hard work.
Developing the game
What was the message you hoped the player would get from The Town of Light?
The main intention of the game was emphatically connecting the player and Renée, the protagonist of the game. This also to somewhat lift the stigma on those who are affected by mental health issues.
I think it’s fundamental to keep the memory alive, not to forget what mental institutions represented for the people who suffered. Today things are obviously different, but, as we all know, losing the memory of the past is the first step in repeating past mistakes.
Renée was a sensitive and smart girl, thus I hoped the player would create an emotional bond with her, in order to understand the horror of her sickness and how she was treated by everyone around her. As recently as the 1940s, mental patients weren’t even considered human beings and, today, this stigma still exists.
The game also had a physical release on both consoles and PC. Is this something you were hoping for from the start? What are your thoughts about the inevitable digitization of the videogame medium?
It was Wired Production that came to us with this possibility and it’s been a great satisfaction. Being a collector myself, I hope physical editions will continue to exist, of course!
Digitization is, obviously, inevitable. Instead of fighting back, we should embrace it, it is also especially positive for the environment. From a market viewpoint things are changing very rapidly and I think that magic period for self publishing is now over. The digital market is becoming more and more complex every day and self publishing shall be ever more difficult.
Tell me a bit about your background before you came to work on Town of Light and LKA
My main area was 3D graphics and virtual set design. I’ve worked in theatrical and operatic productions, along with many documentaries. Cultural heritage was my field, really!
Still making a videogame has always been my dream and not a day passes by that I don’t think about how great it is to have made my dream come true!
As you may well be aware, in Italy, even though there are plenty of government funds for videogames, it is almost impossible to get ahold of them because of the lack of annual calls. Basically, the EU gives us money that the goverment doesn’t want to use!
Sometimes, I have to be honest, the thought of leaving is really hard to resist.
Luckily we’ve managed to get ahold of Creative Europe’s funds, which we hope to use also for our current game.
You’re developing a new game, Martha is Dead. What are the main lessons you’ve learned from ToL and how are they influencing the development of this new game? Will mental health take a central role again?
We learned many important lessons from The Town of Light, but developing a game is still a very complex procedure and there will always be mistakes. Instead of fighting them, we should accept their role in making us grow stronger and better.
The first important lesson, one we took to heart was: do you want some high quality 3D graphics without hassles? Give up Unity and never look back. Go with Unreal engine!
In Martha is Dead, mental issues will once again take the main role but in a totally different way. It is more varied and action-heavy with many possible ways of interpreting the story.
Thanks Luca for your time and kindness, we’ll be sure to speak again when Martha is Dead is released!