Place two fingers on your neck and feel your pulse. Got it? Should be running steadily at about a beat per second, maybe a little more. Any faster than that and you’ve got some form of tachycardia. That is unless you’ve just gone for a jog, or had some exuberant sex – or just completed a boss level in 140. Although it debuted on PC several years ago, 140 rolled onto consoles this week with Double Fine on publisher duties.
140 is a no-frills platform game. Its sparse Atari 2600 aesthetic is bereft of busy textures and grand special effects. As for the mechanics: move left or right and jump. That’s basically it, for the most part. Except the apparent simplicity of 140 is deceptive. The game’s primary developer, Jeppe Carlsen, also worked on Playdead’s physics platformer Limbo, an unforgiving game in both presentation and execution. That pedigree carries over to 140, which can be mercilessly difficult – mistime a jump by a fraction of a second and you’re punished harshly.
140 lives and breathes (and dies) by its music. The electronic soundtrack, largely techno and dubstep derivatives, serves as a critical guide during moments that demand precise inputs. The player’s avatar toggles between record/play/stop icons to reflect its movement style. The moving platforms and pounding columns all shift position in time to the music – at 140 beats per minute – so a sense of rhythm is vital. I often caught myself nodding to the beat while preparing to make a precarious jump. So the music of 140 is a kind of double-edged sword: Move in sync with its time signature and you’re rewarded with a clean flow, the avatar chiming in to add its little part to the overall harmony. Mess up and you’re confronted with a static-filled killscreen, the music bitcrushed into a hellish alarm.
The soundtrack was composed by Jakob Schmid, another Playdead alumnus, and his music was integral to the design process. As Carlsen explained on Twitter, the levels and music “[were] created in tandem, but level design with simple rhythm patterns was always first.” The composer also influenced the game’s tempo, Carlsen says: “I actually started out on 120bpm, but [Schmid] insisted on 140 to make the music a bit more energetic.” Music not only shapes the levels, it also informs their aesthetic too – one level is backed by a chilled dub-tech track, the level palette turning red, yellow and green to match the song’s Rasta vibes. The boss levels, which employ hectic SHMUP mechanics, trade the laidback breakbeats of the platform levels for thumping 4/4 rave to match the frenetic pace.
With only three “worlds” to play through, 140 can be completed in a couple of hours (mirrored playthroughs notwithstanding). It’s better viewed as a succinct game than a short one, however – in those couple of hours, you’ll be treated to an audiovisual spectacle, a dense synesthetic experience built from basic geometry, a few dozen colours, and a relationship with the music that is both supportive and antagonistic. If you’re a sucker for Carlsen’s low-fi style of punishment, his next project THOTH is due to release in October. It follows similar art design principles to 140 – and judging by its trailer, will also match its heart-racing intensity:
— Jeppe Carlsen (@CarlsenGames) September 9, 2016
— Jeppe Carlsen (@CarlsenGames) September 11, 2016