140 is a synaesthetic rhythm puzzle platformer indie game released in 2013. I remember it getting favorable reviews, and bought it, but like so many people who buy games on Steam, I didn’t play it for a long time. I finally got around to it, and I’m glad I did.
So far I’ve completed the first four levels.
The design of this game is so, so good. Let me tell you that straight off. I’ve never played a game where the various design elements are do tightly and intricately interwoven. The graphics are abstract, shapes and colors. The background of the levels animate in sync with the music, which has a strong beat, I presume, of 140 beats per minute. The platforms and obstacles in the game move in synch with this beat as well, so if you are attuned to the music, it helps you time your jumps and when to move to avoid death and achieve success.
The title of the game symbolically represents the 3 states of your avatar. 1, represented as a rectangle, or square, is you when you are motionless. 4, represented as a triangle, represents you when you are airborne, jumping or falling. And 0, represented as a circle, is you when you are moving, rolling on the surface of the ground. Thus, the title serves as a subtle reinforcement of the basic play mechanics: wait, jump, run. It’s brilliant.
The game uses this subtle, abstract visual language pervasively throughout the game, communicating to the player without words what they are supposed to do. This lets you discover the game on your own terms, and you don’t feel like the game is ever holding your hand or hitting you over the head with tutorials. The early stages of the game are simple and very gently pull you in to learning how to read the visual cues, as if instinctively.
The result is that you get get really deeply immersed in the action. As you learn how you can move, at just the right time the game provides you with a new challenge, and it’s up to you to work out for yourself how you’re supposed to overcome it. There are pits to jump over, ledges to jump up to, moving platforms, disappearing and reappearing platforms, platforms that alternate between being safe and being deadly, ceilings that will crush you, platforms that have a trampoline effect that will bounce you with a super jump in rhythm to the background music. There are keys which you can pick up by jumping into them, and you can carry them to a circular “doorway” which the key will unlock, changing the level in some way, activating dormant platforms or introducing some new play mechanic or transform the level to up the challenge.
It’s a combination of hand-eye coordination, rhythm, and figuring out puzzles for how to get through the obstacles. At the end of each level, there is a special challenge, a kind of boss battle, where you have to quickly learn a new puzzle mechanic and master it, handling iterations of the obstacle repeatedly until you’ve succeeded in defeating the level.
The first four levels were a fairly quick play, I probably completed each one in about a half hour or so, dying a lot, and taking breaks here and there. It felt like after the fourth level I had won the game, but after watching what seemed like some kind of ending, I found myself back in the starting room, which serves as a level select, and discovered that there appears to be another four levels waiting to be unlocked and played.
I started the fifth level (or is this more of a “second quest”? and found that now instead of moving to the right, this level seems to be all about moving to the left, which for some reason feels less natural and therefore more difficult. I guess since English is read left-to-right, and most platformer games tend to follow the convention established by Super Mario Brothers, and treat scrolling to the right as “forward”. It makes the level seem more difficult than it really is. The obstacles are simple, but then I died and instead of starting over at a checkpoint the game kicked me all the way out back to the starting level select screen. So it’s super-hard, you have to beat the entire level on one life, no mistakes. Yeah, this definitely feels more like “second quest” level difficulty increase. Well, as much as I died in order to get through levels 3 and 4, I have no idea if I’ll be able to get through level 5 at all, so this might be as far as I get.
I really enjoyed the challenges of the game, and have a great deal of appreciation for the style and design of the game as a whole. Everything feels so purposeful and deliberative, like every single thing in the game was done just as it was after a good deal of thought had been put into it — its purpose in the game, how it relates to other elements of the game, and how to tie those elements together to make everything seem like a unified whole.
It does seem a bit brief, but if the difficulty continues to ramp up from levels 5-8 as it has from 1-5, you might well never get to see all the game has to offer.
Everyone should give this one a try. It’s timeless and will be just as good another 10 years from now as it was back when it was first released.