Irritum is a new indie offering from developer Nick Padgett. The game’s ambitious exploration of the human mental state reminds us of how crudely other games deal with depictions of psychological instability.
The mind is a mysterious place. While some of the most remarkable and profound experiences can be born inside a lucid and stable mind, flaws or irregularities in the same environment can also produce remarkable and insightful adventures . Mental illness is a topic that’s impossible to cover without some issue, but is one that creative works and fiction are ambitiously looking to cover in recent times. Video games are no exception to this, and among the slew of games doing this right now there is ‘Irritum,’ a unique indie development from Nick Padgett.
Irritum takes the form of a 3D platformer. Each of the thirty-nine levels tasks the player with manoeuvring their translucent humanoid figure across floating planes to reach the next stage. The game also introduces ‘plane changing’; colour-coded levels for the player to activate and deactivate as necessary to complete their path through the stage. Add to this the inclusion of optionally obtainable memory fragments to complete a complex, emotionally involving backstory and you start to realise this simple looking game may not be quite so simple.
Irritum’s visual style is eerie and mysterious, with the minimalist atmosphere and use of colour excellently portraying it the game’s intended location; purgatory. Players find themselves in this unholy realm due to a pre-game suicide attempt by the protagonist. As players make their way through the early stages they are introduced to the mechanics of their surreal surroundings and are encouraged to work their way through every available memory fragment on the way to each goal. Players are not alone at each level, and this ‘encouragement’ comes from two enigmatic overseers.
Meet Cassus and Sollus; silhouettes that are reminiscent of both angels and demons at once. They offer encouragement and instruction to you at various points of each level. While their assertions are that you need to work your way through each world to achieve freedom, their comments about each other and the exact actions you must take suggest ulterior motives. The two appear as helping hands to the player in the game’s first levels, but their sudden separation provides the player with yet more food for thought in this deeply involving game. The player; a man driven through despair to a suicide attempt, has to decide whether to embrace a new afterlife or obsess over collecting the fragments of an old, mortal life. Mirroring the purgatory around them, the choice between two unstable and somewhat undesirable mental states puts players into another kind of limbo. It really is a question of choosing the lesser of these two evils when neither one presents the kind of sanity or normality we’d aspire for in our own lives.
With that said, how does this game’s coverage of its sensitive subject matter hold up against other such examples? Irritum’s presentation of mental instability and the potential for recovery (or otherwise) from it is far more inventive than other fresh titles on the market. Titles such as psychiatric hospital-based adventure ‘Outlast’ or ‘Condemned 2’, the sequel where a global event has turned the world’s homeless population violently insane offer portrayals of mental illness with a far familiar and crude outlook.
Especially in Outlast, victims of mental illnesses and other afflictions are employed as obstacles for the player to overcome within the game. They appear to have no more depth or character than antagonists from a simple zombie shooter and are even visually reminiscent of them. Though seemingly harmless from an entertainment perspective, the employment of mentally unstable characters in such a way contributes to continued social stigmas surrounding mental illness. The game’s enemies are practically mindless; their only thought or motivation is to harm the protagonist who is initially perceived to be the only ‘sane’ character in the game. Here mental illness is presented to be as deadly and dehumanising as the kind of disease that has zombified entire worlds in games such as ‘Resident Evil’ or even ‘The Last of Us’.
Outlast is not the only guilty party to this in the current climate, and it is perhaps a little harsh to level so many criticisms specifically at it. As already stated, games such as ‘Condemned’ are also doing nothing more than employing victims of mental illness as nothing more than maniacal, mindless zombies. Outlast is, however, the latest and perhaps most obvious in a long line of obnoxious, crude portrayals of mental illness in video gaming. The idea, in these games, is that sufferers of mental illness or other afflictions are to be dealt with by either lethal force or the deployment of some miracle cure. While entertaining for players, these games are certainly doing nothing to encourage any kind of positive reflection on perceptions of mental illness where video games are concerned.
One of Irritum’s greatest strengths, then, manifests itself once a comparison is made to other video games that deal with the question of mental illness. Overlooking crude, one-dimensional portrayals of the suffers of mental afflictions in favour of more complex questions about recovery, redemption and ultimately survival, Irritum sends players on a journey from despair to survival, via hope, memory and a little outside encouragement.
The result of Irritum’s uniquely blended recipe is an engrossing experience. The game’s platform and puzzle aspects work intuitively together to offer players more than enough of a challenge across the path to salvation. The addition of optional memory fragments that add the meat to the bones of Sollus and Cassus’ commentary keep the experience fresh and will have players searching for ways to reach every single area of each level. This is a game that I needed to complete 100%; anything less felt like a disservice to its creator who has so expertly blended an appealing puzzle game with a truly involving and emotional story to unfold.
Irritum is a great game, more than holding its own as a contender for your attention in the current indie game environment. If you’re looking for a game that’s inventive, challenging and just sensitive enough to adequately cover a very divisive topic in an enthralling and positive manner, then look no further.
Irritum is available direct from IrritumGame.com for £5.99