Scottish Design Icons: Lemmings

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. In our very first one, Russell recalls playing the video game Lemmings 20 years ago.

Written by: Russell Dornan

As soon as I heard the high-pitched, and now iconic, “let’s go!” for the first time, I was hooked. The relentless, unstoppable march of the tiny blue and green lemmings across my Commodore screen was matched only by my own thrawn attempt to save every single one of them. Sadly, I didn’t always succeed.

Lemmings, designed by DMA Design and published by Psygnosis in 1991, was one of the most successful videogames of the early nineties, with over 15 million copies sold worldwide. The object of the game is to save a certain percentage of the creatures as they drop into each level and attempt to make their way to the exit. Their passage is foiled by a gradually increasing selection of perils and pitfalls as the player races to guide the group of lemmings through the landscape of obstacles by assigning them various abilities, such as climbing, floating, bombing, blocking, bashing, mining and digging.

The game is deceptively simple, highly addictive and was created in Dundee. In the mid-1980s, Dundee emerged as a centre for videogame design. The Kingsway Amateur Computer Club nurtured the programming skills of Mike Dailly, Dave Jones, Russell Kay and others who would become internationally significant videogame creators.

Their initial idea for Lemmings came from a competitive challenge to find as many moving objects on the screen as possible at one time. Small characters (themselves moving) moving en masse across the screen made the team think of the widely-believed but untrue story of small rodents leaping from cliffs.

You can see footage of the game being played by Mike Dailly, one of its creators, in our Scottish Design Galleries.

I’m not sure I want to know how many hours I spent at my computer trying to save hundreds of pixelated characters heading to their doom in an oblivious trance. I felt guilty when I failed to rescue them, but the whimsical design and obsessive gameplay meant those hours were well spent. I still wonder, though, if the lemmings were the only ones in a trance.