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Lemmings still haunts my nightmares almost three decades later

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This article first appeared in issue 354 of PC Gamer magazine, in our PC Gaming Legends feature. Every month we run exclusive features exploring the world of PC gaming—from behind-the-scenes previews, to incredible community stories, to fascinating interviews, and more.

The medieval historian St Bede—aka The Venerable Bede, which really ought to be a band name by now—once compared life to a sparrow’s flight through a banqueting hall on a winter night: a moment of light and warmth, bookended by darkness. I sometimes like to think of DMA Design’s Lemmings as a modern reworking of this existential fable, with a couple of major differences. Firstly, it’s about stupid rodents rather than birds, and secondly, it unfolds in a kind of Brighton Pier version of hell, all novelty crystals and gold pillars set to unholy chiptune renditions of songs like London Bridge is Falling Down. 

Unlike Bede’s sparrow, the lemmings need a bit of direction. They drop from a magic window and trundle brainlessly left or right unless otherwise ordered. Your goal is to get them through this souvenir-stand underworld against the clock, by assigning skills such as digger or climber. On the other side of both the entrance and exit portals lies not wintry oblivion, but a heavenly vista of green slopes and blue skies. 

If the moral of Bede’s fable is to savour every conscious moment, the moral of Lemmings seems to be that life is a nasty interlude full of spikes and lava pools, to be navigated as quickly as possible.

Rush mode

I was seven when I first played Lemmings, and it properly did a number on me. I was immediately panic-stricken at the thought of taking responsibility for creatures who are their own worst enemies—creatures who seemingly exist only to traumatise anybody with a protective streak. But once I’d begun, I couldn’t let go. Who else, after all, was going to guide these hapless vermin back to their happily-ever-after? Lemmings was the game that taught me to empathise with make-believe entities, and I glimpse its mop-haired spectre in every management sim I play today. 

The game isn’t that difficult to begin with, but mistakes are easily made. Perhaps you’ve forgotten to set one lemming as a blocker, in order to box in the horde while you send out a lone builder to bridge a gap. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that there are only so many of each skill to go around: you can’t just make every last lemming a floater as they toddle off a cliff. Either way, any oversight transforms the level into a slaughterhouse line, with freshly dropped lemmings dutifully repeating the errors of their siblings, death cries blending into a single, garbled scream. I’m aware there are worse ways to be introduced to the concept of dying, but try telling that to little infant Edwin, bawling his eyes out at the altar of a Macintosh Performa. Better yet, tell little infant Edwin that you can pick skills while the game is paused. Somehow I didn’t work that out until 1999. 

The other terrible thing that Lemmings teaches you is that certain deaths are necessary. Many levels only require you to save a certain percentage, and some lemmings are difficult to retrieve once they’ve performed their allotted tasks. Blockers, especially, are the most tragic of lemmings, unable to resume walking once deployed unless you send a digger to undermine them. The game’s cruellest touch is that it requires you to kill any lemming that can’t be saved—individually or, when time is short, care of a big old nuke button. Condemned lemmings don’t go quietly into that good night. They shriek and clutch their skulls until they burst. DMA Design, of course, would go onto create Grand Theft Auto—a much bloodier game, but for my money, it’s actually nowhere near as harrowing. 

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