TSC Reviews – Irritum

When we were approached about reviewing a new Indie game covering the subject of mental health issues and suicide, I knew just the person to cover it for us here at TSC.

Dr Dan from the PileOShame podcast is not only a fully qualified medical professional  but he also loves indie games, so here is his first ever review for us at TSC.

Title copy

I like words. Finding out what unusual words mean, tracing histories, and seeing how words evolved from their mother language into English is a joy to me, and I have been known to browse dictionaries for hours at a time. I also like indie games. I have no special requirements for what genre they should be or how they should look or play, I just enjoy the thrill of trying out some fresh and original ideas, with the thought that this might be the next big thing in my mind. So the first thing I did after I was asked to review Irritum was find out what the word means. It is Latin, as I suspected, but unlike the English word which looks like it, irritum (the neutral-gender adjective) means ‘null’, ‘void’, or ‘vain’, ‘useless’. Well this was news to me, and it certainly seems to tie in better with the developer’s description of the game as one ‘revolving around the concepts of depression and suicide’ than what I initially thought might be some kind of fly-swatting simulation.

Irritum is the first full-fledged release from developer Nick Padgett, who produced the game in its entirety, with sound by Matthew Norris. This speaks to me of a dedicated and motivated game developer coding away in his spare time for the love of his craft–exactly one of the reasons I play indie games. It is a third-person 3-D platformer with an interesting mechanic: you have the ability to switch different coloured platforms on with the mouse buttons, but only one colour can be on (i.e. solid) at a time. This forces you to switch the different platforms on as you jump between them. Seems simple, but coloured pieces can block your route too, so they must be switched off (by switching a different colour on) to pass through them. This also seems simple, but now imagine standing on a blue platform, with your route to another blue platform blocked by a blue piece. You have to jump, switch blue things off to get past the barrier, then switch them quickly back on so that you can land on your blue target platform. If you fail, you fall into the black abyss that surrounds the game world and respawn at your most recent checkpoint. This on-and-off platforming requires some quick reactions, good timing, and puzzle solving too. The complexity increases steadily, with the addition every third level or so of a variety of moving platforms (which can be tricky enough to stay upon, let alone move between), laser beams to avoid, planes which break shortly after being landed on, and more. The jumping combinations can become devilish, and unsurprisingly, failure causes frustration. Level 13 in particular, a nasty combination of rotating platforms swept by deadly and difficult to see laser beams, almost made me scream. This is no criticism, since the game is well balanced here: whenever I failed, I felt like the jump had only just been out of my grasp rather than impossible, and the desire for just one more try kept me coming back. Levels are selectable from the main menu, and if a particular level is too much, you can skip forward up to two levels beyond where you got stuck.

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The background to Irritum is that after a suicide attempt, the protagonist finds himself in some kind of inner mental world through which you must guide him to escape and be revived. In each level, you pass angel/demon type creatures, Sollus and Cassus.
Sollus offers you redemption, which comes from forgetting the past, Cassus a return to your old life. Throughout the game, usually off the main path and at the end of more difficult jump sequences, lie one or two memories which you can choose to collect, and this is what Cassus encourages you to do. At the end of every fourth level or so, the usual end-of-level marker becomes a depiction of a brain, and you must activate it in a piecewise fashion in order to retrieve your consciousness. The sequence is certainly anatomically and physiologically accurate. For example, the first piece activated is the medulla oblongata, the stemmiest part of the brainstem, and which controls breathing, heart rate and some vital reflexes; without this part functioning, life is not possible. Nick Padgett has certainly researched his subject matter. Activating parts of the brain brings you to an interlude, where you guide a memory to its target through a set of movable barriers having the same colour scheme as platforms in the main game, and which can pose almost as much of a challenge as the game itself.
The demons have competing things to say as you move through the levels, and they will often accuse each other of lying to you or tricking you. The question, of course, is which entity to believe, and whether or not to try collecting the memories. Those who like an extra challenge would probably try collecting them, while the more easily-frustrated player might just skip it. At the very least, this option offers replayability. Collect a memory and a soundbite appears, telling the story leading up to your appearance in this purgatory. I found the warping in the sound (an intentional effect) made it difficult to hear what was going on, but transcripts of collected memories can be read from the main menu. On reading them, the protagonist seems to have been faring badly recently, with marital problems and apparent depression, but I won’t let on any more than that. Cassus and Sollus sometimes throw comments at you, for example suggesting that you are worthless and ought not carry on. But aren’t these elements of your own subconscious, considering the gameworld? Feelings of worthlessness are a symptom of clinical depression, and Padgett has certainly been brave to bring up a subject that most people feel uncomfortable talking about. But this isn’t Psychiatry Simulator 2013, and these story elements could be ignored if you simply wished to play the game. It is enough though that they are a part of the game, and they make a unique story framework.

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The game is coded in the Unity engine. The graphics are not spectacular, but where gameplay is key this is no problem. Graphical quality, though, and resolution, are selectable from a configuration popup before the game starts. Now here is the important part: when I was first sent review code the game did not play in widescreen at all: it was at my monitor’s native resolution, but with black bars either side of the screen. In a brief email interview with the developer I mentioned this in the context of how he planned to update the game after release and how he would respond to user comments. Yes, he does plan to be fixing the game for some months after release, but more importantly he found a fix for the resolution issue. Now this is how to do things right as an indie developer: listen to your consumers! The game is much more pleasing to the eye at the full native resolution of the monitor, making it feel a lot less crammed in during the later levels, with distant platforms no longer confusing the view of nearer ones. The single bug I saw occasionally occurs after respawning on a platform, where your character is thrown off the platform before you even take control. So you die again, respawn again, and are thrown off your platform–again. This can happen four or five times in a row, and can be a bit of an annoyance, but you’re eventually set correctly and ready to carry on.
Sound is minimal–there is no definite music for instance, just a kind of audio ambience–but that suits a game like this very well anyway. There are distinct audio cues when platforms switch on and when memories are collected. Cassus’ and Sollus’ speech is in text rather than voice, but again, this suits the feel of the game.

I finally worked my way through to the end of the game–39 levels of missed jumps and restarts, but also the thrill of just scraping onto that tricky platform after several tries. I did feel like the game dragged slightly towards the end, as though it was being deliberately extended. About 30 levels, I think, would have been optimum. You might guess that in a game like this there are alternate endings. I won’t disclose which I went for, but I felt–not disappointed, but as though I myself had ballsed up somewhere along the line. I was of course, reminded that I could play the game a different way to see another ending. A single-life mode unlocks for those seeking a greater challenge. A return to Irritum is not out of the question for me, if I find myself a few spare hours some time in the future.
The story of the protagonist’s suicide attempt, and the idea of the gameworld being part of the subconscious, are interesting ones. However, the game, with its unique mechanics, could be played entirely without a story. But I do like the fact that there is some story there. It also justifies the alternate endings, adding the chance for a replay.
The key point here is that Nick Padgett has, single-handedly, created an engaging platform game that finds the right mix of frustration and satisfaction in its gameplay, adds a broad but not bewildering range of mechanics at just the right pace, and offers the players a conundrum: to forget, or to remember? He has some excellent and original ideas, and has a lot of potential. I certainly hope he keeps trying his hand at developing indie games, because with experience and refinement he’ll be able to produce outstanding puzzle games with great mechanics and challenging stories.

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TSC score 8/10

Visit irritumgame.com to find out more or purchase the game. Nick Padgett can be followed on Twitter @IrritumGame. Irritum is also on Steam Greenlight.

Dr Dan can be followed on Twitter @PileOGore

TSC were provided with a download of Irritum by the developer for the purpose of this review and it was reviewed over the period of a week