The Bloody Pantomime In Which You Have Enslaved Yourselves (Lemmings)


They move ceaselessly forward. Always forward. They cannot do anything else; their nature is set. At best they may be acted upon by outside influences, but still they are like water. They may be diverted and rerouted, but there is nothing that actually stops the flow. They will walk until they drown.

It is the same with us, really. Time’s riptide pulls us all under, drowning us all beneath the waterline of history. We are perhaps more complex than the green-haired mascots of Psygnosis’s 1991 multiplatform classic, occasionally making what appears very much like a choice. But our choice is just the removal of all the other options; We are set within a system of rules and defined by outside influences. We are not protagonists; not individual avatars of some demiurgic player-souls. We are but part of the flock, buffeted by outside forces.

(And yet the outside forces cannot, strictly speaking, be described as “causal.” The path of history’s flow is defined and knowable, and yet nobody actually follows it with any precision. To use a specific example, we might successfully root the development of the masculine “gamer” identity in the Sega Genesis’s attempt to counter Nintendo’s family marketing with a male-skewing notion of coolness, but it is not as though every Genesis household spawned a Gamergate supporter, or as though there are no misogynistic fuckheads who owned a SNES.)

Perhaps one separates from the crowd. Often this is accomplished by literally elevating him above the rest, designating him with two of the three (or arguably four) permanent traits, namely Climber and Floater, which allow him to scale walls and subsequently parachute down from great heights. This newly minted ubervole will be forever marked as such, appearing under the cursor as “Athlete.” He will strike out and explore the vast landscape, reshaping it to whims that he no doubt imagines are his own. 

But this great reshaping’s only purpose is, in the end, to provide the path that the crowd shall flow through, so that his individuality is subsequently lost in the tide that follows. Indeed, the functions of reshaping -  Builder, Digger, Miner, and Basher - are all temporary roles. When the tasks are completed, whoever performed them simply recedes back to the faceless crowd, reclaiming their identity as “Walker.” The landscape has no author. Nobody made it this way. It simply is. 

More chilling is what is revealed about the the landscape itself when it is altered. Once it has been Dug or Mined or Bashed, or even Blasted, it is simply removed, and the shadows and texture remain fixed around it. For all the intricate play of light and shadows with which it is rendered, it proves flat, an illusion that can be torn through and scraped off. Individual points of landscape may be resistant to destruction or fatal to the touch, but it is all the same substance - a trompe l’oeil painted upon the world. 

This is the state of things: a world designed only so that a mass of people can flow deterministically through it, and a mass of people who exist only to sluice within it. And at the end of things, a pockmarked landscape with a traced path from entry hatch to exit gate, left desolate and void of life. We call this blasted husk “history” and move on. And thus the game is played.

Within this, one figure stands out: the Blocker. There are several dynamics from which the game’s challenges arise: the difficulty of isolating a specific figure from within the crowd, the steady creep of chaos that arises from simultaneously managing events at opposite sides of the board in real time, and the simple dance of timing involved in renewing a Builder’s status after the twelfth brick is laid or in converting a Walker into a Basher at the precise moment before it turns around to walk in the other direction. But none are quite as profound as the Blocker.

The problem is simple enough: like Climber and Floater, Blocker is a permanent status. Unlike these others, however, it is also a terminal one. The Blocker, once named, cannot be unnamed. It will stand there forever, looking side to side, until the clock runs out and history is imposed upon the world. Or, alternatively, until the player opts to euthanize it, either by assigning it the status of Bomber or by simply nuking the place. 

The practical consequence is an enforced upper bound on how much of the flock can be saved. In those maps where 100% survival is a requirement there can be no use of Blockers, despite the fact that they are, on other levels, one of the most basic units of play. And on those other levels a perfect score is impossible. Instead a brutal logic of necessary sacrifices is imposed. And once this logic takes hold, it is difficult not to apply it in other circumstances. The stragglers who, by happenstance of facing the wrong direction at a crucial moment, lag behind the flock. The rear of the line, slowly meandering towards the gate long after the goal has been met. Armageddon becomes an ever-present temptation, a handy means of avoiding idle time. 

Oh, to be among the flock. To march ever forward is, after all, to never be idle. To never face the awful, mocking spectacle of boredom. Why be a player, suffering the cruel delusion of selfhood that afflicts all who sit behind the cursor, when one can instead submit to history’s flow and be swept along with the tide, trusting or perhaps hoping that you will not be among those turned to Blockers.

In the end, of course, it is all based on a lie. Lemmings do not simply blindly follow each other off of cliffs and drown. The myth is based largely on a documentary produced by the Walt Disney company entitled White Wilderness, which purported to show a mass of the creatures marching to their doom in the Arctic Ocean. In reality, the body of water was the Bow River near Calgary, and the effect was produced by placing lemmings on a rotating platform so that they were pushed to their doom.

The lesson here: the game, like the landscape, is an illusion, created only by the presence of a would-be player. The cruelty has only ever been ourselves. 


Matt Marshall 5 years, 5 months ago

Lemmings on a console? How did that even work? Was it a thing or just a rubbish port from the Amiga version? I can't imagine not playing it on an Amiga or PC. That said, I can't imagine playing Sim City on a console either!

I don't know about the SNES version, but in the original you could turn a blocker back into a normal lemming by digging along under his feet. He'd then fall and become a walker again.

What always struck me was that the land you glimpsed through the trapdoor they fell out of looked so idyllic; what did they hope to achieve by throwing themselves into this terrible new world full of danger and meat grinders? Could the hand of Walt Disney be pushing them through the trapdoor too?

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Elizabeth Sandifer 5 years, 5 months ago

It's surprisingly not bad. Works much better than SimCity. They use the X and Y buttons to let you cycle through the Lemming modifications, which means you don't have to do much elaborate scrolling.

It's possible that trick works on the SNES version; honestly I'd never heard it before now. Actually, I'll go check now.

Oh my god. That's amazing.

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Matt Marshall 5 years, 5 months ago

I seem to remember (and this is rusty childhood memories of the Amiga) that you use a digger to dig down half a lemming-height and then turn them into a basher to cut away the ground beneath the blocker's feet so there's no ground remaining at all where they're standing, they then turn into a normal lemming. I don't recall any levels requiring the use of a blocker AND needing 100% so maybe it wasn't a deliberate thing across all platforms.

In this age of phone apps I'm surprised Lemmings hasn't made a big comeback.

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AndyRobot800 5 years, 5 months ago

The theme music (whichever tune is based on Pachebel's Canon) is one of my favorite video game tunes ever, if not one of my favorite songs hands down.

Incidentally: glad to see the SNES project back. How are you choosing the games?

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Multiple Ducks 5 years, 5 months ago

He determined the list a while ago on Tumblr, the full list is

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AndyRobot800 5 years, 5 months ago


(Can't wait for him to tackle Chrono Trigger.)

(Also: my friend actually owns a Super Scope, but I don't think she ever uses it...)

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Alex Antonijevic 5 years, 5 months ago

This game was my first video game addiction. I had the Amiga version. So many memories.

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Pete Galey 5 years, 5 months ago

A slightly less finicky method is to start building a little bridge and turn that guy into a blocker after a couple of steps. Then a basher can free him without affecting the initial landscape. Or one of those diagonal guys if the bridge is long enough.

Rather more cruel are the levels without any or enough digging / bashing dudes where you have to explode a lemm to clear a bit of space.

Also notable: in Lemmings 2 explodey-lemms don't die. The whole idea was changed so that the number you save is the number that goes forward (a la Pikmin), so they made it so that you can get a perfect game. Also the "Shadow" levels IIRC you are trying to reach a TARDIS. That they put the TARDIS in the spooky shadow levels and not the space levels says something about how canny the folks behind the games were.

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Froborr 5 years, 5 months ago

Count me as another who had no idea this even had a SNES port. But I was addicted to it on PC. Never any good at it, but addicted.

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Abigail Brady 5 years, 5 months ago

How on earth do you play Lemmings without a mouse, though?

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Matt Marshall 5 years, 5 months ago

"Tricky 19" was a catchphrase in my house, as that is where my entire family got stuck!

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Matt Marshall 5 years, 5 months ago

I always enjoyed setting all the lemmings to nuke as they marched into the end goal (once the target had been achieved, of course). Would they reach the gate and thus live, or explode and die?

But now I think... did those lemmings truly live? Or did they continue to tick down, and explode in their new home in a graphic spray of pixels and "oh no's"

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Daibhid C 5 years, 5 months ago

Don't know about Lemmings, but I had the point-and-click adventure Discworld Noir for the Playstation (having learnt from the previous Discworld games that our PC of the time couldn't handle anything beyond the original Prince of Persia). I read a blog post by the designer a while back where he apologised to everyone who'd tried to play it with a control pad, but I didn't find it that difficult ... except for that one bit where you're supposed to wave the pointer around vaguely looking for the patch of wall you can interact with.

And now that I've brought up Discworld, the main thing I know about Lemmings is that Sir Terry found it such a time sink that he not only removed it from his hard drive, he wiped the disks to be sure.

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AndyRobot800 5 years, 5 months ago

I remember Civilization was a huge pain on the SNES without a mouse, too. I'd gotten so used to playing it on PC, that when I finally booted up a copy of the SNES port on an emulator, it just made me upset.

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ataf 3 years, 1 month ago

Just for clarity, and cos I am a hopeless pedant, they stated on QI the Lemmings suicide myth goes back to at least 1908:

And here is a reference for a 1929 encyclopedia mention!topic/alt.folklore.urban/CRa6CugCzXU

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