the artistry and psychology of gaming




The Good:
+ Rhythm-based platforming is consistently clever and entertaining
+ Unique abstract presentation makes superb use of minimalism
+ Controls are simple and accurate

The Bad:
– Mountains of unused potential

140 plays like a crash course in how useful minimalism can be. It uses the technique in every conceivable way: there’s no semblance of story, 90% of the game is completed by moving and jumping, and it’s made with programmer art, for Christ’s sake. And for good reason: the game was made entirely in the spare time of Jeppe Carlsen, gameplay designer for LIMBO creators Playdead (who really need to reveal their second game already). But since Carlsen wisely chose to restrict the project to gameplay and themes that suited his technical and artistic limitations, the final product is a simple, elegant, and intoxicating piece of hour-long entertainment.

Like Bit.Trip and Rez before it, 140 can be seen as an emulation of sound-to-colour synaesthesia (a condition in which sounds and music trigger visions of colours and shapes in the listener), this time as a 2D puzzle-platformer. Speaking as someone who has synaesthesia, the goal is all but impossible; every synaesthete perceives stimuli differently, so creating a definitive showcase of its effects is just not going to happen. But really, from a game design perspective, who cares? When your game looks this cool and original, it doesn’t matter if the soundtrack’s synth chords manifest as the correct kind of rainbow. And thanks to the switch in genre and the enormous expressive palette Carlsen has to work with, no one could possibly accuse him of ripping off 140’s like-minded peers.

This is what the game looks like. No, seriously.

So while I’ve played plenty of puzzle-platformers and a handful of stabs at synaesthesia emulation, I can honestly say I’ve never played a game remotely like this. This is a game where objects pop in and out of the world in time to an incessant and addictive drum beat, where pockets of TV static are devastating obstacles, where volume bars form pulsing mountains in the background, and where all “characters” exist as pastel polygons traversing an equally sharp, colourful world. But where 140 gets a leg up on other experimental titles is accessibility. Unlike Thomas Was Alone (the only other modern game I can think of with the gall to be about quadrilaterals), whose major conceit involved envisioning rectangles as human beings, 140’s innovation and minimalism are focused squarely on its gameplay. Its primary concern is offering as much entertainment as possible with as few tools as possible.

It’s an inspiring reminder of just how little funding you need to create a memorable game, as long as you have passion and a little ingenuity. With all extraneous elements stripped away, the game’s brilliant level design and infectious rhythm can be absorbed in completely unadulterated form. Most importantly, the standard actions that we take for granted in larger games are broken down into their most basic components, so the game manages to find dozens of different ways to squeeze challenge out of simply jumping from one platform to the next. And most surprisingly, the game includes some intense boss fights, which usually take the form of makeshift bullet hell sections with mechanics that work extremely well alongside the game’s existing rhythm component.

I challenge you to name me one other game in which you get to blast hostile blobs of static with rhythmic lasers.

Not that the game is flawless – it was made by a bored developer pretty much for the hell of it, after all. The need to learn every new trick the game throws at you via trial and error becomes a little uncomfortable, and the postgame content consists only of a pointless “mirror” mode with all the checkpoints removed. It’s rather disappointing – checkpoint-free trial and error is a volatile combination, and you’ll be better off just ignoring everything after the incredibly abrupt ending. Furthermore, while the controls are visibly precise and simple, the inability to adjust your jump height will be difficult to become accustomed to if you’ve played any of the hundreds of more technically sophisticated platformers released since 1985. Finally, while I greatly enjoy the minimalism overall, I have to admit that after too many empty halls, the art style can lose its audacious punch and become a little boring to look at.

It becomes apparent very quickly that the art of 140 is just a means to an end, and the real meat of the presentation is the audio. This may be the best combination of traditional gameplay and rhythm elements I’ve ever seen – it feels like a playable form of the creative process that goes into writing music. You’ll find yourself nodding your head and tapping your feet just to keep in sync with the gameplay, assuming the contagious beats don’t get you started just because you want to. The explosive death sounds feel like incorrect notes and misplaced steps, but they’re never frustrating, because the brief death screen adds an effect-riddled blanket to the current song, creating a rendition you’ll want to hear more of. But respawns are almost instantaneous, so it feels less like a series of failures before an eventual success, and more like practice and improvement leading up to a big payoff – like learning an instrument.

It works best if you see it in motion, obviously.

It pains me to say it, but 140’s biggest problem is its one-hour length. It’s not a problem in and of itself; a good game can be any length it wants. But this game’s scope is far too narrow to accommodate the vast potential of its subject. It’s established pretty definitively that the rhythm-affected elements of 140’s world can do practically anything, and three levels is simply not enough room for the game to deliver on that hope. The intense and original boss fights are especially teasing, because their mechanics are a joy to play but are used precisely once. The game simply leaves you wanting more from its concept – it’s got an entire low-res suite to work with, and it’s only playing the first movement.

Nevertheless, it is a movement played with skill and style, and it’s one of the most pleasant surprises of the year. As the indie game scene becomes more and more represented by minimalism, 140 will be the new standard against which barebones mechanics and presentations will be judged. It’s intoxicating, intelligent, original, and, if nothing else, it’s cool – to watch, to hear, and to play.

Score: 8/10

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