Written by Vikki Blake, @_vixx
Gaming is growing up.
This year, particularly, has birthed some of our greatest interactive stories. Developers – keen to marry immersive gameplay with tourniquet-tight narrative – have increasingly surveyed deeper, darker motifs, with titles like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us unabashed in their exploration of base human behaviour.
But it’s not just gaming’s AAA elite that is rewiring how we write, and think, about storytelling. As blockbuster gaming narratives become ever more sophisticated, so too does the startling work trickling from our industry’s indie developers.
One such example might be Irritum. Presenting a peculiar but intriguing concept, this one-man development team explores the impact of life (or should that be afterlife?) after suicide. Trapped in a big world of blackness and blocks, you must navigate through the empty expanse of purgatory, seeking solace by either embracing a new life… or meticulously collecting the memories of your last.
So: how can such a game sit in today’s congested market? Spoiled by soft difficulty curves, infinite ammo crates and spoon-fed perfunctory tutorials, one might successfully argue that today’s mainstream gamer is wholly untutored in the ways of – air quote – old school gaming. That said, Irritum may have positioned itself too far on the opposite end of that scale. Though admirable in ambition, Irritum falls just short in execution, instead delivering a game that – whilst at times a competent puzzler – recycles just one too many clichés.
Each level is thematically dark and disconsolate, and the score suitably melancholic for such a solitary story. You progress through each level with the ultimate goal of stepping into the golden light at the end (yep, that old chestnut). The heavy sky will occasionally flash with the wrath of a distant storm, and – should you choose to, of course – the nebulous memories you collect will rumble with indistinct whispers. It’s to the designer’s credit that I’m faintly reminded of the wispy, unsettling atmosphere brewed in early Silent Hill games … which makes it all the more disappointing to discover so much of the game’s impressive sound work is recycled so shamelessly. It degrades the aural impact, becoming regrettably stale only a few levels in.
Visually, Irritum is something of an oddity, and I’ve yet to decide if the game boasts distinctive, stylised graphics, or merely recycle tired, uninspired ones. But whilst some might unfavourably compare Irritum’s basic grid graphics to more sophisticated (and typically AA or AAA) offerings, know this: you’d be doing the game a disservice if you judged this book – or indeed, any other – entirely by its looks. Though basic, it’s not unattractive, and I grew to appreciate the game’s aesthetics the further I progressed.
But like many dark tales before it, Irritum relies on just too many worn tropes to deliver its melancholy message. Take our spiritual companions, Sollus and Cassus, as a case in point. Suitably mysterious, these two ethereal beings accompany your journey, each insistent that only it speaks the truth, and the other cannot be trusted. It falls to you, therefore, to decide whom to trust, and whether to follow Cassus and collect the shards of past-life memories sprinkled throughout the game, or race with Sollus towards a new existence untethered by your past.
The problem is, the idea of these spirits is significantly more powerful than their on-screen translation. Colour-coded, presumably, to make identification easy on the eye, the burnt amber and day-glo purple icons look significantly less mysterious than the beings actually are, and the design itself (think of a spider crossed with a Christmas tree angel and you’re kind of in the right place) even moreso.
Mechanically, your in-game counterpart moves cleanly and smoothly through the environment, but how to get around it is less apparent. Lacking much by way of waypoints or help prompts, Irritum leaves you to your own devices, which is fine once you get going, but initially can be something of an irritation, particularly when you’re only just coming to grips with everything. Jumps, too, can be problematic, with depth-of-field perspectives and imprecise physics off-kilter just enough to morph simple leaps into enraging plummets of death.
But the premise is an interesting one. To progress, you’ll need to switch seamlessly between realms, locking and releasing coloured blocks. It sounds weird, I know, but the idea is actually a great one, and it opens several pathway options to one ultimate goal – moreso, if you’re hellbent on collecting memories, too.
But again, ambition is tempered by execution. A 3D platformer tied to a mouse and keyboard – particularly one so demanding of very precise timing – is a brave strategy, and not always a successful one. Regrettably, Irritum is but one such example. There’s a lot this game expects of you, and none of it is made any easier by the default scheme which, whilst permitting personalised remapping, does little to intuitively assist the player. Add a South Paw into the mix – as I am – and prime yourself for some four-letter explosions. Sometimes it feels as though the game cares less about keeping you immersed in the action is as it does forcing you to contort your fingers in Twister-esque feats of dexterity. You’ll need a stronger stomach than I to take on the game’s post-completion One Life mode, that’s for sure.
The Final Word: The atmosphere is perfectly pitched, and the abstract idea of scrambling around your own mind in search of blessed escape is one that will sit with you long after you stop playing. Unafraid of subtlety, Irritum is unashamedly about consequence rather than action, and it’s to the game’s credit that a simple puzzler – which could, in all fairness, exist without any supplementary story at all – anchors itself to such an unusual and thought-provoking premise. It’s just such a shame that so much of the game’s great ambition falls flat on translation into gameplay.