Lemma is a first-person platformer set in a surreal, dream-like universe. The main gameplay revolves around parkour-style free-running similar to Mirror’s Edge. Lemma was made over the course of five years by a single developer, Evan Todd. Putting together a game of this scale and technical quality is impressive, one person doing all that work is simply incredible. Lemma is truly an indie labor of love, and for the most part, the love can be felt throughout most aspects in the game.
As the protagonist in Lemma (a word which means a proposition or alternative), you are a young woman who has been mysteriously dropped into this mysterious world. A text box in the opening level explains that your friend Mark at Berkeley was working on a project he called “Lemma.” As you move forward, you immediately notice two items nearby. One is a pile of papers, the other is a glowing orb hovering above the ground.
During the course of the game, you will encounter many of these objects. The notes act as clues about Mark’s work. They are scattered throughout the levels and reveal the progress of his experiments. Notes fill out some of the story, but are too widely spaced and disjointed to form a complete narrative during the course of the game. The other objects floating nearby act as the game’s collectibles. These shimmering incentives can challenge the player’s creative thinking as they are often hidden or seemingly impossible to reach.
Outside of the notes and orbs, the character eventually comes across a cell phone in the middle of the first terrene (what the game calls the different environments or levels). The phone’s messages contain a warning to Joan (the player) from Mark telling her not to enter this ethereal world. As the player continues through the level, they arrive at a small obelisk. These signal towers allow the player to use the phone to send text messages to Mark. This is the other main way that the narrative unfolds. You have the option of responding to Mark in different ways with different questions, but there really is only a modicum of choices.
Later in the game, as Joan discovers the secrets of the terrenes, she has to make some important decisions that contribute to getting to one of the four possible endings for the game. Overall, the story is filled with science-fiction tropes and themes and loosely-tied theories about energy and matter. It makes for a somewhat interesting story, but the lack of character interaction and plot development feels like a lost opportunity. If there were more focus on getting the player emotionally invested in the game, Lemma ’s story might have surpassed its potential instead of falling short.
As the gameplay of Lemma focuses on free-running, gravity and momentum are both simulated well throughout the game, and the player can effortlessly wall-run, slide and climb along the various surfaces in each level. Between the blurred vision and roaring wind sound effects that occur when building up momentum, Lemma realistically replicates a free-running experience. As a fun bonus that we sadly unable to experience, Lemma also supports VR. No doubt it would make for an interesting experience given the free-running gameplay (assuming it doesn’t give you vertigo).
Apart from the smoothness of the parkour mechanics, the player also picks up terrain creation abilities. While wall-running, sliding or moving in some way, the character can create their own blue walls and floors. These create new opportunities for exploration and allow the player to reach new areas provided they can think of a way to get there. Gamers who have played Portal will find a similar sense of accomplishment as they master new techniques and abilities that allow them to solve puzzles or reach goals that previously seemed impossible.
Lemma runs on a voxel engine, so the terrain closely resembles Minecraft with its various block-structures. However, the textures are more varied and appealing. On top of that, various objects and lighting have been added with more detail. The result is a sensation of exploring the inside of someone else’s dream. The levels throughout Lemma each have their own color pallet and heavily resemble different real-world environments. There are levels with earthy orange and brown rocks and mountains with a blazing blue sky. Then there are industrial levels built of metallic grays and glassy whites. The levels are all distinct and are often filled with beautiful set pieces. One of the first levels in the game is simply called “Monolith” with the titular structure looming above the player as they emerge from a dark tunnel.
Similar to how the levels’ colors and designs vary, so too do the challenges in the different terrenes. Many of the early levels simply challenge the player not to fall into the hazy abyss below the floating platforms that make up the area. Others include turrets, puzzles, strange block-creatures, exploding devices and terrain-absorbing singularities. The demand for well-timed and complicated free-running combinations also increases as the game progresses.
Joan is a very capable parkour athlete. Outside of that, she doesn’t get much of a chance to develop. Similarly, Mark, the other central character in the game, seems to be some kind of scientist whose only purpose to set the game’s plot into motion. Character development and plot are not the focus her in Lemma . The focus is very much upon the unique universe and impressively smooth free-running gameplay.
The music for Lemma helps support the game’s mysterious and dream-like atmosphere. Somber tones and instrumentals fill some of the darker levels while more upbeat and fast-paced music echoes in the background of brighter areas. The sounds of rushing winds and the scraping of Joan’s clothing against the hard ground are well executed and help make the free-running feel more intense and real. The majority of the game’s dialogue takes place through text messages, so there are no real voices to appreciate. Joan does make appropriate grunts of pain after falling and can be heard breathing heavily as she bounces around the game, however. The audio is well done and helps support and elevate the overall experience.
While the central story should take about 10 or so hours, the additional challenge levels and level editor stand to add dozens of hours to the game. Not only can players create their own levels, but they can share them online for other players to try out. It’s like Little Big Planet on speed.
On that note, the level editor does not come with any kind of instruction. Fortunately, the developer published a guide here to provide the desperately needed help for this powerful tool.
Lemma is definitely a unique experience, and any Mirror’s Edge fans should definitely pick up this title. It provides a pleasant change of pace from the action-packed shooters and RPGs flooding the market right now. Lemma offers few storyline thrills, but ultimately it is the quality of the free-running and exploration experience that will satisfy gamers who choose to purchase this title.
Tyler Davis is a gaming writer and contributor to PN2. He’s on Twitter @TDavis179