Review ‘Lemmings: Can You Dig It?’ – life in seven by ten pixels. By Neil Merrett.
The world of gaming is not short of cute, cartoony mascots. In recent years, characters such as Sonic the Hedgehog, Pikachu and the Angry Birds have all headed apparently viable cinematic franchises – a concept and phrase that seemed unthinkable just a few decades ago.
Yet for a subsection of home computer owners in the early 1990s, Britain has its own homegrown gaming icons in the form of the Lemmings. These green haired, passively suicidal rodents were brought to life with just a few dozen pixels.
While their look was seen as graphically limited even by 1991 standards, the game was still something of a commercial and critical sensation. In time, Lemmings would find its way to all number of home computers and consoles. The Lemmings were huge gaming icons, until they weren’t.
Three decades on
30 years since Lemmings first debuted on the Commodore Amiga in 1991, gaming publisher Exient – which has in recent years has sought to reimagine the digital rodent’s adventures as a mobile game – has released a documentary looking at the appeal of the once ground-breaking title.
The film is part documentary and part advert for the both the original and latest iterations of Lemmings. It mostly focuses on a somewhat compelling rags to riches story about how a group of plucky hobbyists and after school coders created the foundations of a company that has gone on to become a billion-dollar behemoth.
But in a world where the green, blue and white Lemmings have not themselves found their way into a lucrative cinema franchise, or even appearing on more modern home console hardware, how exactly does one go about showing the value of a once mighty franchise?
DMA Design, as Lemmings’ developer was originally known, has since been rebranded into Rockstar North. The company is now known as the developer of the Grand Theft Auto 5 – a game that was estimated by 2018 to be the most profitable piece of entertainment ever produced in any format with estimated earnings at the time of some US$6bn.
Fascinating as this origin story is, particularly considering DMA Design started life in a flat above a Dundee fish and chip shop, the documentary keeps its focus on the game of Lemmings rather than Rockstar’s success in redefining games and culture.
This is largely told through a collection of talking heads consisting of the founders and key early figures behind DMA Design. They are joined by high-profile developers such as Peter Molyneux and the co-founder of Lemming’s original publisher Psygnosis.
A more contemporary view of the game’s significance – important after three decades of hardware and software innovation – is provided by YouTube documentarians such as Larry Bundy Jr and streamer Trista Bytes.
Leaving and breathing pixels
As the latter notes at one point of the documentary, Lemmings’ success is arguably in how it made a player feel that a couple of dozen pixels – extremely crude in terms of modern graphics – were helpless living and breathing creatures worthy of your guidance to avoid being incinerated or pulped.
Instead of using the well-worn gaming tropes of shooting and jumping that dominated gaming for the 80s and 90s, Lemmings was a puzzle game that charged you with managing, rather than controlling the lemmings directly. Instead, the player used a mouse to assign abilities to individual characters such as stair building, demolition, or blocking large crowds.
These abilities were often limited in number and had to be used judiciously to safely get a menagerie of lemmings to the exit of each level. Left to their own devices, they would usually fall en masse into lava pits of walk casually off cliffs. The game was, and arguably remains cerebral and charming, with a healthy level of cartoonish brutality and Darwinism to offset the overt cuteness of the main characters.
Importantly, the documentary argues that the game was an early glimpse of a future era of more conceptually rich, immersive videogames that were to come over the proceeding 30 years.
It wisely strays from focusing entirely on using its talking heads to discuss how revolutionary or formative Lemmings was to individual gamers, and instead looks at the how hobbyists in Dundee built an industry from scratch out of some charming and basic animations in an old school computer paint programme.
From a games industry perspective at least, Lemmings: Can You Dig It? is an at times charming and important story about the creative process of coding games and the emergence of the medium as a genuine career path and art form.
However, a decision to include streamers and high-profile UK Youtube producers does also serve to highlight that the internet and social media are now awash with a range of videogame and pop culture documentaries. Some of these, provided for free across video sharing sites, take highly creative visual and narrative approaches to explaining sometimes niche cultural artefacts with brilliant uses of archive footage and brilliant research.
By comparison, Lemmings: Can You Dig It? takes a more straight forward approach to tell the origins of the game’s development up to its huge commercial success using mostly first-hand accounts of the team behind it.
It is testament to the film’s editors that the origins of the game are so well told, essentially via a series of in-person and Zoom interviews. The early stages of the film in particular give a compelling insight into how technical and economic limitations can be an essential and painful part of the creative process.
The documentary also lightly explores how much of the game’s charm and rule breaking stemmed from the naïve lack of experience of its developers as they expanded the building blocks of their less commercially successful works to create something iconic for at least one generation of gamers.
So inexperienced were some of this team, that they had to be told by the game’s eventual composer that ‘copyright’ was kind of a big thing that prohibited them from using popular TV theme tunes of their era within their commercial product. Sadly, the 1960s Batman TV show never made it into the final game!
At two hours, the film can feel a little too long, particularly for those that may not have played a Lemmings game. This is especially with a final 15 minutes spent focusing on the recent mobile reinvention of the game for smartphones.
The film also lightly touches on the eventual formation of Rockstar North. There is a sense that a better, and more complete movie might be made about the evolution of the company with many of the same talking heads, but this is a story ultimately about one step in this overall process.
Lemmings: Can You Dig It? is probably the nearest fans will get to a movie about the digital critters for some time? For non-gamers or those not versed in the Lemmings games, there might be more engrossing tales about the game development.
But for those with a passing familiarity of the game, the documentary tells a fairly interesting story about the unpredictability of the creative process and the often humble origins of vital art and artists.
Ian Hetherington (1952 – 2021)
It is also worth noting the inclusion in the film of Ian Hetherington, the co-founder of the now defunct, but highly influential Liverpool-based publisher Psygnosis.
Mr Hetherington passed away on December 14, 2021, and is portrayed in the film as a commercially and creatively astute force in the growth of the British videogame scene from a hobby to a central component of modern popular culture.
There are certainly worse epitaphs for a live lived than making a living from building up an industry that lets people engage their passions.
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