April 2nd, 2020

The modern miracle of the Lemmings soundtrack

I'm a little ashamed to admit it, but I only just recently became acquainted with the soundtrack to the original Lemmings, and I can only say: Boy, have I been missing out my entire life.

Considering that I grew up playing computer games that were right in line with the time when Lemmings came out, combined with the fact that Lemmings is easily one of the most important and influential video games in human history, and particularly when one considers that the use of classical music in computer games has been a particular focus of mine which I've written about several times before, it seems almost inconceivable that I could have somehow missed the Lemmings soundtrack. It's almost like someone having studied Shakespeare for 30 years and only just now discovering that he wrote a particular play called Hamlet which had been previously overlooked.

I can explain the circumstances that led to this outcome. When you are a child, as I was when Lemmings came out, you cannot usually acquire games yourself; you are dependent on your family to acquire games for you. When I was a little over 10 years old, my mother took me to a computer-game store for my birthday and said that I may select one game of my choice. Being the astute gamer that I was even then, I pulled a Lemmings box off the shelf and handed it to the cashier. This was one of those stores, however, where the boxes on the shelves are empty to prevent theft; the box which I handed to the cashier contained nothing but air, and the cashier had to go into the back of the store to retrieve a game box with the actual game contents inside. The box which ended up being sold to us, however, was not for the original Lemmings despite that being the box which I had selected; rather, we were sold a copy of Oh No! More Lemmings (often known as ONML for short), which is technically the sequel. I do not know whether this was done by mistake because the cashier didn't know the difference, or because they didn't have an actual copy of Lemmings in stock and figured that the sequel would be an adequate substitute, but in any case, I didn't make a big deal out of it, because Oh No! More Lemmings is exactly like its predecessor, except with new levels. So you could get one game with one set of levels, or another game which is functionally identical but has a different set of levels. It didn't matter too much, since either way, I was essentially getting the same game.

I played through Oh No! More Lemmings with the patience and the spare time that young children often have. I eventually did end up playing through every single level of it, although this process took me more than a year; I think it took something like three years before I was finally done with it. In any case, when I was done, I was not filled with a pressing need to play the other Lemmings games. As much as I enjoyed the game I'd finished, as satisfying as it was when I finally finished a level which had had me stumped for weeks, the game was also sometimes enormously frustrating because of the pixel-perfect placement and timing it requires, and given that I did not receive computer games regularly as a child--usually one on my birthday and otherwise only occasionally--I had to be pretty particular about which games I asked for, so I did not ask for another Lemmings game during my childhood, and consequently, I did not play the other games until I became an adult and the games had already become abandonware, fairly widely circulated on the Internet.

When I did finally come into possession of a working copy of Lemmings, I was an adult, with the responsibilities of work and subsequent inability to devote a lot of spare time to things like computer games. This being the case, I did not start at the beginning and simply play the game through, level by level, all the way to the end. Instead, I found a list of the level codes online and took a look at each of the game's levels without playing most of them. I played only the ones which looked particularly interesting, which was still several of them, but usually I'd only play a few at a time and then quit, intending to play more later. It becomes apparent when you look at the levels from both games that while Lemmings was more experimental with its levels, Oh No! More Lemmings was more of a true puzzle game, the kind of game where split-second timing, precise placement, and careful resource conservation are necessary to finish the later levels. Having played through that game, it seemed to me that most of the levels in Lemmings were not extremely challenging by comparison; some of them looked harder than others, of course, but looking at them visually, I had a fairly decent idea of how most of the levels would play out without the need to actually go through the process of doing so. I played the levels which looked like they might have some surprises in store or where actually winning them would be a real challenge, but since the time I had for this process was limited, there was never a time in my life when I sat down with Lemmings and played more than a dozen levels back-to-back.

For those who haven't played a Lemmings game and don't know how the music works, here's the thing: Unlike most games which have a particular musical tune that accompanies each level, the Lemmings games have a linear set of musical tunes which simply go on to the next tune every time you complete a level. However, the sequence of tunes resets if you quit the game. This means that when you start the game, the first tune will play regardless of what level you start on. You will only hear the second tune after you complete a level. When you complete another level, the game moves on to the third tune, and so on. It doesn't matter which level you completed, or which level you are on now; it just matters how many levels you've completed since starting the game. If you only play a few levels at a time and then quit the game, you'll never hear the full soundtrack, because you need to play several levels in sequence to hear all of the tunes. You could even just play the very first level over and over; that would work. But I never made it a personal mission to hear all the tunes from the game, because the first few tunes in the game are... well, not bad, but not compelling enough that I'd want to make an effort to hear all of them. Oh No! More Lemmings contains six tunes; if you complete six levels in a row, the game starts over with the first tune on the seventh level. The fact that I played that game a lot means that I heard each of those tunes several times, and those tunes were nice, but not revolutionary, in my opinion; I still fondly remember them sometimes, but they are more memorable as nostalgia than as great pieces of music in themselves. By contrast, Lemmings contains 17 tunes. I do not know what accounts for this large difference; Lemmings does have slightly more levels, specifically 120 of them compared to 100 in ONML, but perhaps what accounts for the difference is the fact that while ONML contained only music written specifically for the game, Lemmings has renditions of several well-known classical and folk songs in its soundtrack. They're almost hidden away because they're several tracks deep in the track list. You'd never hear them in the game unless you played through several levels at a time, and while kids who grew up with the game would have done exactly that, I never did until recently. The other day, finding myself with a bit of spare time and realizing that it had been years since I'd played a Lemmings game, I decided to sit down and spend time with the original game for a while, having never really played it through. And doing so, I discovered something I'd never heard before: The complete soundtrack to the original Lemmings.

The soundtrack starts off pretty low-key. The first several tunes, like the ones in ONML, are pleasant enough as accompaniment to a computer game, but probably not something you'd listen to for a long time as music. The first recognizable tune is the fourth one, a computerized rendition of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain", which I did not expect in a Lemmings game and which seemed a little out of place for some reason, as it didn't seem to fit the mood or the theme of the game, but I didn't think about it too much. Holiday Lemmings, a short set of levels released for the holiday season in 1993 (with a follow-up released around the same time in 1994), had a soundtrack featuring the Christmas carols "Jingle Bells" and "Good King Wenceslas", so hearing recognizable music in a Lemmings game didn't strike me as particularly unusual. The next recognizable tune from Lemmings is the sixth one: Jacques Offenbach's "Infernal Galop" from Orpheus in the Underworld, which most American listeners will be most likely to recognize from its association with can-can dancing (a holdover from its use in this context in Paris cabaret). This is also a tune fairly commonly used in computer games, and so I also didn't think much of it at the time. The seventh track in Lemmings was written specifically for the game but stands out as an especially lovely piece of music, as does the following eighth track (or at least the first few seconds of it), also written just for the game but which has unofficially come to be known among fans as "Tim 2" because it was written by Tim Wright. There are few pieces of music, I think, which can conjure up such utter joy with their opening four notes the way "Tim 2" does, although I must say that the rest of the tune doesn't quite live up to the perfect beauty of its opening arpeggio. Moving on, the ninth track is nice but unremarkable, but the tenth track struck me as almost lyrical. Although there are no voices on the Lemmings soundtrack, the tenth track actually sounds like a real pop song, or at least, like it should be one. Track 11 is "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?", which just struck me as kind of bizarre, but it was on level 13, "We all fall down", where I heard the 13th track, said "Wow, this is awesome!", and went to look up the rest of the soundtrack, because I instantly recognized "The Dance of the Reed Flutes" from The Nutcracker, and the way it's worked into the game is absolutely beautiful. It turns out that the game's use of classical music was, for some reason, crammed into the end of the soundtrack: After the sheer awesomeness that is track 13, track 14 is Mozart's famous "Turkish March" (from his Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331 / 300i), and track 15 is--are you sitting down for this one?--the "Dance of the Little Swans" from Swan Lake (!!!), a tune which I don't think I've ever heard in a computer game before. Then, bizarrely, the soundtrack uses "London Bridge" as track 16, and for the final track 17, the music writers had some fun: The tune is basically the hymn "O Little Town of Bethlehem", or more specifically, the English tune "Forest Green" used for this hymn, but at the very end, it mixes in the famous note sequence from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (The resulting track was reused for Holiday Lemmings.) The effect is so subtle that I didn't realize it was there for years, but once you recognize it, you know what it is.

So that's the Lemmings soundtrack. It occurs to me just now that maybe they wanted it to be about the length of an actual released music album, which might account for the fact that it contains 17 tracks, in contrast to the 6 songs on Oh No! More Lemmings, which the music industry would consider more like an EP than a full-length album. In any case, when I discovered the wonders that were hiding within this soundtrack, I went onto the Internet to see if information on them could be discovered. I expected to be disappointed; although the Internet is sometimes very good at copying-and-pasting information, it's often terrible at actual detailed information about niche subjects. I still have yet to find a listing of the tunes in Nyet III: The Revenge of the Mutant Stones, for instance, or even something as simple as the lyrics to Laibach's "Warme Lederhaut" (just was is he growling on the verses?), so I was expecting that at best, some obscure enthusiast's site might mention a couple of the songs on the Lemmings soundtrack, but not that anyone on the Internet would really publish thorough information about it. This is the nature of the Internet: People endlessly reproduce popular information, but more detailed information dies in obscurity. Sure, everyone knows that "the Tetris music" (technically the "A-type" music from the Game Boy version of Tetris) is based on the Russian folk song "Korobeiniki", but how many people know that the music from Spectrum HoloByte's 1992 Tetris Classic is from Mikhail Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila?

As it turns out, the Internet outdid itself on this one. Not only have multiple people posted the complete soundtrack to the DOS version of Lemmings on YouTube (here it is as a YouTube playlist, and here it is as a single video) along with the names of the tunes which are based on pre-existing pieces of music, someone has even gone to the trouble of making videos that contain the renditions of these tunes on every port of the game, which is no small feat because Lemmings was one of the most-ported video games in all of history. You can compare the sounds of "The Dance of the Reed Flutes", the "Dance of the Little Swans", and, yes, "Tim 2" across systems as diverse as the Amiga, the SNES, the Atari ST, the Macintosh, the Game Boy, the 3DO, the IBM PC (in both AdLib and Tandy 3-voice versions), the PlayStation, the Amstrad CPC, the TurboGrafx-16, and even the classical lineup of Japanese-only micros like the PC-98, Sharp X68000, and FM Towns. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Amiga and the SNES tend to have among the "best" sounds among these systems, but it's often amazing what sounds the music programmers wrought from simple Tandy 3-voice harmony, and the TurboGrafx-16 puts in a strong showing; pity that it was so short-lived as a console. I was actually really happy when I discovered these videos, because this was a rare case of the Internet providing good, accurate, and accessible information about a relatively niche subject. This is what the Internet was supposed to be: A place where you can easily and quickly find accurate information about things which you might not be likely to find in a local library.

The Lemmings soundtrack is a modern miracle: An object of profound beauty that just becomes more wonderful and intriguing the more you study it, a synergistic marriage of art and technology that produces something both fascinating as a technical achievement and aesthetically outstanding as a work of creativity and culture. It's a shame that although Lemmings is still fondly remembered today as a game, the soundtrack has sort of fallen into obscurity, probably because the 17 tunes it contains means that interest in the soundtrack is sort of scattered, whereas the (for example) 3 tunes on the Game Boy version of Tetris resulted in a razor-sharp focus on a relatively limited number of musical tracks. Whatever your tastes in music or video games might be, if you have any interest in electronic music, it's worth giving the Lemmings soundtrack a listen, as it is one of the 1990s' greatest triumphs as a work of real computer art.

After this experience, I did spend some time wondering to myself why the use of "traditional" or "folk" music seemed so out of place, but the use of classical music didn't. Why did it seem perfectly appropriate to use music from Tchaikovsky and Mozart but not "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" or "London Bridge"? I thought about this for a long time, and I think there are two main reasons: First of all, it's partly because the use of classical music has been a regular feature since pretty much the very beginning of video games, and so it's a trope which people are used to, whereas it's rare to hear "traditional music" in video games. Secondly, songs like "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" are something I associate mostly with children's music, and while the inclusion of this music might have made sense to the game designers since the game is probably meant partly for children, the truth is that I don't think of Lemmings as children's games; they're too difficult for most children, and many of them (particularly the first one) do have some imagery which might be considered too disturbing for young children. The use of traditional children's music isn't bad, it just seems weird to me, but when making the first Lemmings, the game probably started out as more cutesy and family-oriented than it ended up being, and so one can see how these music choices made sense to the game designers at the time.

My initial understanding that Lemmings and Oh No! More Lemmings are just different level sets for the same game may be technically correct, but upon further examination, the games have very different souls: Again, Lemmmings was highly experimental, not only in its gameplay but also in its graphical and musical style. Lemmings is a work of art: Flawed, uneven, and touched by moments of surprising beauty. Oh No! More Lemmings is more of a polished game: It also has its moments of inspiration and beauty, but it is more tightly constructed as a product of a team that had already gone through its experimental phase and now had a better idea of what they were doing. And Lemmings 2, of course, was something else altogether: An instance of people pulling out all the stops and putting everything including the kitchen sink into their product, resulting in... Well, that's another story for another day.