The time loop at the heart of Lemnis Gate is equally as alluring to sci-fi fans as it is a challenge to first get your head around how to play. Combining core first person shooter mechanics and ideas with a strategic layer layers 25 second move on top of 25 second move, it’s a game that will inevitably take some time to learn. Yet, from our hands on preview, it’s one that could easily sink its hooks into you.
With Lemnis Gate heading to release for PS5, Xbox Series X|S, PS4, Xbox One and PC this summer, we caught up with Lemnis Gate Game Director James Anderson to discuss how Ratloop Games came up with such a mind-bending concept, the blend of familiarity with new concepts, and teaching all of this to players.
TSA – So, first things first – and I don’t mean to incriminate yourself personally – but were drugs heavily involved when coming up with Lemnis Gate?
James Anderson – No, actually. Surprisingly not! [laughs]
No, we really wanted to do something different. We’re an indie team and there’s a lot of competition in the first person shooter genre, so we had to come up with a really unique hook and way to play the game. That was really the fundamental driving principle of the concept of the time loop and the turn-based first person shooter.
TSA – And speaking of the time loop, which equates to a form of time travel… which version of time travel do you subscribe to? Are you more Back to the Future, Avengers Endgame, maybe even Hot Tub Time Machine?
James – I’m a big fan of Back to the Future. I’m a little bit old school in that regard, so I’d have to go with that!
They all have their own patterns and stuff, but I think Back to the Future and its intricately woven narrative that really is amazing, you know.
TSA – Yeah, being able to go back, undo things that change the course of events…. I think the way that you’ve rendered the time loop in the game is fascinating, but because it is such a fusion of elements, it’s a game that reminds me of chess boxing in how you mix some strategic gameplay with something a bit more pugilistic, with the first person shooting.
James – Yeah, and honestly, we’ve had that comment before – it’s funny that you mention that. Mentally the game really does play out like a match of chess, but then you also have to have the reflexes and the skill to execute your move.
I think what’s really interesting about the game is that you have to think in a new way for a first person shooter. We give you that time to think, that spectator mode where you can fly around and examine the time loop,. You can see all the characters and what they’ve done, and you get the chance to absorb all the information and formulate a plan, maybe discuss with your team mate, and then go in and execute that. Whether you do or not is up to your skill, right?
So there’s some different phases of the gameplay that challenge you in different ways. That, for me, is something that’s quite new for the FPS, which hopefully resonates with players and even captures a slightly wider audience because some people who enjoy strategy could potentially come in and play a first person shooter, whereas before perhaps that wasn’t something quite to their palate.
TSA – I do feel that whichever direction you’re coming to this game from, the tutorial is absolutely vital to getting across the core concepts. How have you balanced keeping it short, but also trying explain the many, many nuances?
James – That’s actually a really good question. We’ve had many, many internal discussion about that. We used to have a much bigger tutorial, but we tested it out on people and people just don’t have a lot of patience to learn. I think they want to get into the game really quickly and start having fun…
TSA – Especially because video games feature a lot of learning by doing.
James – Exactly. So that’s why we came to the conclusion that the best way to learn is just to play a game. Yes, you may not win your first game, but as long as you have fun from the very beginning, you’re going to want to keep playing and learn the ropes.
One of our core philosophies for the game is making it easy to pick up and play. The challenging part and the learning curve is not about how to move an Operative or how to shoot – all that stuff translates pretty well from first person shooter standards. We wanted to make sure that familiarity is there coming into the game, and then once you start playing game after game, the strategic elements start to creep in and the “what if?” stuff popping into your head. That’s the discovery curve that we were aiming for.
TSA – How did you settle on 25 seconds for the time loop? It feels like that aspect, in addition to the fluid character movement and shooting, having the 25 second loop is a big part of what puts pressure on the player.
James – You could say that again! Definitely!
It’s short, but it really comes through a lot of testing and playing. We wanted enough time for you to study the board, plan a move and then execute it. For us, we figured out that keeping a plan in mind for 20 seconds or even 15 seconds is pretty comfortable for a person, but after that duration it’s a lot to ask for somebody to think of a plan that lasts that long and execute it. We really designed the 25 seconds around: “This is the thing I want to do, I want to take this character, go here and eliminate that player or capture that objective.” That takes around 20 seconds, so we built the game to give you a little bit of a buffer where you can make one or two mistakes and still execute your plan. After that, we don’t want players to say, “OK, I’ve done my plan… now what do I do?”
We really found that magic number where you can get what you needed to done and not have too much time with nothing to do. Then, because of that 25 second loop, all of the maps were built to scale around that. It’s an intertwining of multiple features, the level design, character movement speeds, and all of this kind of stuff that has to merge together.
TSA – I’m sure you spent a hell of a lot of time in grey box testing. [laughs]
James – Oh yeah, we grey boxed everything, mate!
TSA – You were probably like, “I wish my game looked interesting, but I’ve been staring at grey boxes for three years!”
James – It’s true! But you know, if it’s fun in grey box, it’s going to be fun with artwork and sound. We love grey boxes. We use them exclusively for everything.
Also, as an indie, we can’t afford to redo artwork, so we basically wait until something is solidified through many, many iterations of testing before we say it’s going to be in the game and figure out what it will look and sound like.
TSA – In addition to the fundamentals of an FPS, you’ve also got familiarity in the game modes and objectives.
James – Yeah, and we really did that intentionally. One thing that’s cool about our unique twist in the game, is that you can pretty much cherry pick from anything you see in the whole FPS spectrum, put it inside our time loop and it kind of gets reinvigorated. It becomes fresh and new to a certain extent.
What that means is we have a rich smorgasbord or features and ideas that we can pluck and put into our loop, and when players experience it, they already know them, but they feel new because of this fundamental twist.
We wanted to take game modes that people already understood and knew how to play – the Retrieve XM, the Domination. It’s not things you haven’t seen before, so you have that familiarity again which facilitates the ease of entry into the game. We basically enjoy playing those modes anyway, they work fine, it’s just now you’re playing them inside a time loop and it’s fun to re-experience the things you love in a new way.
TSA – Speaking of picking familiar elements: character classes. Having characters is pretty much everywhere, really, but here they add a lot of complexity to the strategy I feel. Not just in terms of what they can do, but picking when to use them.
James – Yeah… we really, really see the game like chess and the Operatives like pieces on a chess board. I’m not sure if this happened in your game, but the sniper is more of a late game character and we parallel the sniper to the queen in chess. If you bring her out too early and you spend that character in the first few rounds, then you leave yourself open. You want to save that Operatives for a later stage where they can have more of an impact.
Each one has these functional roles depending on which game mode and map you’re playing. The different Operatives really do play a huge role in terms of what they can do and when they can do them. That’s an aspect to the game where, in most other hero shooters, you stick with one favourite character and play them over and over again, but in Lemnis Gate you need to master the entire team.
You’ve got this whole set of abilities, this whole set of Operatives, but then the sequence you use them is also something that’s deeply strategic. There’s a lot of depth wrapped up in the system.
TSA – That’s some real early game challenge to drop on someone. Like you say, in most games you’ll pick a character to main, maybe with one or two backups, but here, right from the off, you have to know what each Operative does. The first time I opened the character picking wheel I was a little overwhelmed, I’ll be honest!
James – Yeah, and I mean, there’s no really easy way around that. As I mentioned before, we didn’t want to make the tutorial so long and complex that you’re taught every single Operative. I think the main thing is you can still get in there, run around, shoot, collect things with each Operative. You don’t need to necessarily master their abilities right away, because they do have standard weapons – you can run, jump and shoot your sniper rifle, rocket launcher, machine gun, shotgun… The goal is that you can play, pick the characters and learn how their abilities work and how to use them effectively over time.
TSA – How do you feel that the general dynamics of the game change when going from 1v1 to 2v2? You’ve got someone to collaborate with, an extra round to share between you…
James – I think really the strategic part changes a lot. You become dependent on communication and your teammate doing the right thing. You’re working together, so if you have a team that’s discussing tactical elements and the other team isn’t, then for sure, you’re going to win. A big part of it is the human to human communication.
In terms of the plays, once you get in to take your 25 second turn, it’s fairly straight forward. The difference between 1v1 and 2v2 isn’t so much, because you’re really just focussing on moving that character, so I think it’s more about communicating effectively and working as a team.
TSA – Finally, what would be your biggest tip for success? What’s the thing that you think gives you an advantage over someone that has only just started playing?
James – Wait, wait, wait. Are you asking me to reveal my advantageous secrets? I have a few in mind, actually.
Probably the most basic thing is: don’t cluster your Operatives together in the same spaces. Nearly everybody does this; you have this mental pattern and you want to run in the exact same path, and you have to learn to break that habit and send your Operatives on different paths so they’re not easy targets for a single rocket or a single explosive. I’ve seen four or five team members get taken our by one grenade because that player was just running the same path.
I’ll give you that, but that’s all! I do have some others, but I don’t want to spill the beans too early! That’s part of the fun, right? Discovering what to do.
TSA – See, now game directors and developers are notorious for being good at their game, right up until the day of launch when it turns out that they actually suck compared to the rest of the world. So you’re hoping to make it, like, two weeks before you suck?
James – Yeah! I want to give myself a little bit of enjoyment, you know? [chuckles]
Nah, I’m sure when the game comes out, we’re going to get absolutely spanked.