‘The sprites clearly do not look like actual lemmings’: the inside story of an iconic video game | Documentary

When you try to describe the much-loved video game Lemmings, it sounds like a wind-up. Your mission: herding a collection of tiny, green-haired, blue-jumpered, bipedal sprites from a trapdoor entrance to a safe exit without them dying horribly. It looked, if not bad, then willfully basic even for 1991. But, released years before mobile phone games were a thing, it was nevertheless a fiendishly addictive game that feels like the spiritual precursor to the likes of Angry Birds. And it was manna to many, many kids like me, whose sole household computing device was a rubbish PC with a horrible four-colour CGA screen that basically couldn’t play any video game of the time … except Lemmings!

To mark 30 years since its release, Exient – ​​current holders of the franchise – has made a YouTube documentary about it. Made remotely, Lemmings: Can You Dig It? largely consists of interviews with the people involved in the creation of the original game, plus spirited nostalgic interjections from various nerdy talking heads.

Accepting its limits, it’s pretty damn endearing. The story begins in ’80s Dundee, which we discover had a remarkably vibrant coding scene thanks to the local Timex factory, which manufactured ZX Spectrums, many of which found their way into the local population. A trio of kids – Russell Kay, Mike Dailly and David Jones – met at the city’s Kingsway Amateur Computer Club, and would go on to make games together, eventually landing themselves a deal with Psygnosis, a hip Liverpool studio that was home to priapic beat ’em up games.

Co-creator Mike Dailly.
Co-creator Mike Dailly. Photograph: PR

Lemmings was the exact opposite of this and was initially rejected, but eventually Psygnosis came around. Most of the documentary consists of accounts of what a delightful time the trio and various other pals had making it. The game started out as an experiment in how many individual animated sprites could be made to walk across a screen at any one time, and took on a sort of giddy momentum that would eventually beget million of sales: by the time they recount how they designed the actual levels, the whole thing sounds like a dream job. Viewers of the documentary will doubtless learn something new: something that I missed at the time was that the game had a carefully crafted 20-level two-player mode that almost nobody knew about, and was basically impossible to access without advanced soldering skills.

One of the more fun elements explored here is that the game had never involved any concept art whatsoever: the sprites clearly do not look like actual lemmings, and were merely given the name because of their idiot behavior. Hence, for hazy reasons, artist Adrian Powell – whose previous job was painting murals in old people’s homes – was drafted in, something he still sounds bemused about to this day. He was essentially responsible for “interpreting” the featureless sprites into something with an adorably rodentlike form … things might have turned out very differently had his art been less cute.

The film probably doesn’t need to last for two hours: that’s one minute longer than Citizen Kane. There are moments when it could do with a less rambling structure, for the developer talk to be toned down (“Of course, nobody has ever credited DPaint with gaming on the Amiga,” opines renowned designer Peter Molyneux, bafflingly.) or for somebody to ask some slightly less earnest questions, ie did Lemmings make them all massively rich, and what did they do with said rich? When it ends, it does so with an obligatory 15-minute plug for the game’s current mobile phone iteration that everyone seems a bit sheepish about, and fans of Lemmings 2, Lemmings 3D et al may be dismayed that there’s no mention of any of the interim games.

But really this is all about the original, and despite some rambling over-explanations and obvious budget limitations, there’s a sweet, earnestness to this documentary. The tale of three lads from Dundee taking on the world via the medium of stupid walking rodent people will make you pine for a simpler age.

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