A Study in Death: Lemmings

Yesterday, I talked about the role that death plays in game design. Today, I want to give an example of how death plays a part of the overall game experience: Lemmings.

If you’ve never played this game before, the premise is simple. You have a number of lemmings who march steadily towards a series of dangers, and towards eventual safety and freedom. Certain lemmings can be promoted to having certain powers (blockers, builders, and so on) who can change the course of the lemming tide. The object is to get a certain minimum number of your lemmings to the safe zone to go to the next level. If you don’t stop the lemmings in time, they will blithely walk off cliffs, into pits, and otherwise die. You also have the option to tell all your lemmings on screen to self-destruct.

The object of the game is simple and obvious: save as many as you can. You are shown the percentage of lemmings you’ve saved this level, and the implication is that a higher percentage is more desirable. Sometimes, you accidentally put your lemmings into bad positions, and have to cause them to self-destruct in order to complete the level. It’s all very straight-forward – you want to save as many as you can, and any who die could have been saved.

Except the blockers.

One of the first lemmings you get is the blocker: a lemming who immediately stops once you promote him, and all lemmings who reach him are sent back the other way. But the poor blocker never stops in his duty, even if there are no lemmings left. He will stand there, ready to block anyone who comes, for eternity. Worse, you cannot end the level until all lemmings are off-screen in one way or another. To progress, you have to order your brave blockers to self-destruct.

They kill themselves so that the other lemmings may live.

When I played this game twenty years ago (dear god, did I just type that?), I admit I didn’t think much about it. Pretty quickly, I realized that the lemmings were a limited resource: every time I used a blocker or similar special lemming who couldn’t keep walking, I was using up the same resource that I needed to win. It’s actually an interesting game design, and the more elaborate the level, the more resources you need. And soon you’re making these decisions at lightning speed, as the lemmings move faster and faster as the difficulty increases. It was only many years later that I realized the underlining message that the mechanic was telling me: you have to sacrifice some so that other may live. Granted, Lemmings is not the first game to enshrine the measuring of lives into their game mechanics, but it was the first game that made me really think about the decisions the gameplay was creating.

Since then, I’ve had a number of people tell me that they can’t play Lemmings for long stretches, because the game is “too dark.” Sending those cute little guys to kill themselves time and again to save their brothers gets to be too heart-breaking, and they have to stop. Even today Russell told me at work how Lemmings wasn’t a cute story about puzzles, but rather a game about the terrible costs of war (or at least, the cost of escape). And I think that the main reason why some people are having this powerful reaction to the game is because of the place that death has in the game mechanics.

Can you think of any other examples where the role of death in the game sent a different message than perhaps the rest of the game intended?

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