by James M. Potter
Music games come in a variety of forms these days. Some have used music to generate or influence environments (such as bizarre ambient-em-up The Polynomial). Others use musical cues to prompt the player to do something. Most of the platformer-style music games have been of this latter type, using the soundtrack to cue the player into when he or she should perform a certain action. Sometimes they’re called ‘rhythm-action games’. They’re supposed to reward attentive listening on the part of the player, who responds to regular rhythmic events to time jumps and actions. Whilst that’s all well and good, there isn’t always much incentive to listen hard.
140, the new game from Limbo designer Jeppe Carlsen, makes you listen. Hard.
The title is a reference to the pulse underlying the whole experience, driving the soundtrack and guiding your actions at 140 beats per minute. This might sound monotonous but the texture varies greatly through the different stages, beginning with next-to-nothing, then ambient synth, then adding layers and complexity in a cumulative process. The shifting, disappearing blocks that are the staple fare of the 2D platformer are closely tied to soundtrack events. To overcome a particularly complex sequence, I found myself waiting, watching, yes, but feverishly listening. And here’s what sets the game apart from other rhythm games that I’ve played: it rewards closely listening to the music. Working out which events fell on which beats, in order that my jump, timed just so, became itself a sort of musical event, was very satisfying. Some of the manoeuvres required me to count just as hard as if I were sight-reading a piece of unfamiliar music, launching myself on beat 1.5 and watching as I glided safely beyond the moving blocks as they crashed together behind me.
It isn’t long before the the heritage of Limbo (itself a model of indie sound design) becomes obvious. As well the occasional sense of eerie melancholy, the two games share many of the same concerns. Despite being more abstract than its predecessor, death in 140 shares its visceral violence. Perhaps just as horrifying as being impaled on a spider’s hairy limb, here encounters with bands of 90s-style static snowstorm jolt the display and distort the soundtrack, before depositing you back at one of the mercifully frequent checkpoints, suitably chastened. There’s always the drive to carry on though, not to explore a dark and horrifying world, but to discover the next musical addition or, especially in the later stages, wildly inventive boss fight. And whilst 140 is bright and colourful in contrast to Limbo‘s monochromatic palette, there’s a starkness to the art design which has a pleasingly Scandinavian feel. It’s minimal and beautiful. Even the avatar – little more than a square when stationary – becomes a poetic sequence of geometric shapes when in motion or in flight. The care which has been lavished on animating such simplicity is emblematic of the thorough-going design that pulses through this platformer at 140 beats per minute.
140 displays considerable mastery of the vital techniques of introducing gameplay elements and training the player in their manipulation, before adding complexity to these ideas. The economy of the level design is a considerable factor. The player advances by locating orbs which, when ‘plugged in’ to sockets on the floor, change the properties of the environment, allowing the player to progress. Each time you do this, the intensity of the experience, and the music, gets vamped up, until you reach the end of the level.
Completing the game once unlocks a challenge mode which, as far as I can tell, flips the levels by 180 degrees and inverts the colours. Oh yeah, and takes out all the checkpoints. Eek.
At the time of writing, 140 is available on Steam for the price of a pint.