words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Carlsen Games for PC, Mac, and Wii U, originally released in 2013.
140 is a colorful yet minimalist platformer with an underlying focus on musical beats as a means of navigating the world and overcoming obstacles. The abstract game world is also designed to provide an intuitive system of progression by presenting new elements that impact the player’s movement in a variety of ways, and showing these properties to the player rather than explaining them. The game provides a relatively penalty-free environment to experiment with solutions as well, allowing the player to build an understanding of how the world works.

The title, 140, is essentially a representation of the 3 basic shapes that you can take during the course of the game: a square, a triangle, and a circle. When stationary, you appear as a square, where moving to the left or right transforms you into a circle, and jumping makes you appear as a triangle. These are merely cosmetic changes, however, as they are automatic based on your movement; you are not required to inhabit a particular shape to navigate the environment.

Things start out very simply, with a smooth escalation in difficulty over the game’s three worlds, each of which is designed to be completed in a single sitting. The game offers no interface… not even a proper title menu. When the title screen appears, you can start the game to dive in, you can and hold a button to exit. There is no pause interface (and in fact, there is no way to pause the game, but also no reason to do so), no score, no timer, and most importantly, no tutorial messages.

When you begin the game, you are placed in a plain room with a black floor and a grey background, with a white square sitting in the center of the room. Press to the left or right, and your shape will change to a circle and the environment scrolls in the appropriate direction. However, given the lack of any sort of texture or other detail, the only way to tell that you’re moving in a plain room is by looking at the hazy trail of light left behind you. Moving to the left brings you to a solid wall, while heading right reveals a series of three indentations, each of which houses a hovering circular object.

As you pass by, the first circle drops down within your reach, while the other two remain. Jumping up and touching the circle causes it to start following you, and heading off to the right reveals a semicircle on the floor. As it turns out, the circle that you grabbed is a key, and the semicircle on the floor is a gateway to one of the game’s three worlds. The other two circles are the keys to the other two worlds, and these will only lower themselves into your reach once you have completed the preceding areas.

In addition to acting as a hub, this basic room also provides information about how to progress in the game as a whole. Each level has a hovering circle which must be sought out, grabbed, and brought to a gateway to proceed to the next area.

Moving into the first level reveals some very basic platforming structures, with solid ground beneath you, some other platforms to jump on, and gaps between the platforms filled with snowy static that will kill you if you touch it. But even if you do manage to fall into the deadly static, you will be returned to your most recent checkpoint – activated by passing hazy spots on the ground – and checkpoints appear quite frequently.

These frequent checkpoints remove any serious penalty for death, allowing the player to experiment with the abstract objects in the environment to understand how they behave. Many of these objects are based on standard platforming tropes, such as moving platforms, while others require a bit of experimentation to completely understand, such as platforms that change color and boost you into the air like a bounce from a trampoline.

One of the more interesting elements in the design is that levels are not divided and separated into completely isolated experiences. Only the hub world sends you to a new area when you open a gateway; in the levels themselves, passing through a gateway actually transforms the level around you, rather than taking you to someplace new.

In the first world, you roll through the environment, passing platforms that appear to be built along a track and designed to move, but they are stationary. In fact, as you fall from a tall ledge, you are prevented from backtracking, and you must continue to the right to find a gateway. A bit further up is a key. Grabbing the key and returning the gateway causes you to hover for a moment as a new color washes over the world.

When you fall to the floor, you find that you are in exactly the same place that you left. Moving to the right reveals the location where you grabbed the key and nothing else but a dead end. Heading back to the left reveals that the platforms have begun moving, allowing you to ride on them to move back past the high ledge and eventually up into a new area.

As such, each world is actually one large area, but the design parses these worlds into individual level-style experiences rather than sending the player to disconnected environments or leaving him to aimlessly wander a large open world. Obstacles are placed to keep you from moving into new areas before keys are collected, and the layout often prevents you from moving into previously explored areas as well, thus continuously compelling you forward toward the next gateway.

As you move through each gateway, not only do the colors and object properties change, so too does the music. While music is ever-present, it’s not immediately apparent that it has anything to do with the onscreen action. However, the objects in the game move in time with the music, and listening for musical cues becomes more important as you play.

Many objects move or cycle along with the beat, activating or deactivating after a certain number of beats, changing position, or moving between deadly and non-deadly states. Some keys move around according to the beat as well, requiring that the player get the timing right before making a jump to grab one. There even some challenging gravity-based puzzle sequences that require even more careful consideration of the timing as you move through the environment.

Many of the action-based sequences rely heavily on music as an indicator, letting the player know when it is safe to move. This is the case with trampolines, disappearing-reappearing walls and platforms, and objects that hang over pits of deadly static. Some blocks expand and contract according to the music, potentially crushing players who dive in without considering the beat. Later levels feature long snake-like objects that build themselves one block at a time, only to turn black and disappear, requiring that the player not only avoid being overwritten by a block but also requiring that the player position himself to use solid blocks as platforms before they disappear.

In addition to the platforming challenges, each of the three levels ends in a boss encounter, and each of these provides entirely new gameplay. One boss is modeled after a starfield shmup where you must position your “ship” along the bottom of the screen and unleash beat-based blasts of energy against static-based geometric shapes while dodging incoming projectiles. Boss encounters are generally more action oriented, requiring fast reflexes, a high tolerance for flashing backgrounds, and – in the case of the final boss – some pretty hardcore spatial awareness.

The game’s presentation is somewhat reminiscent of Electronic Super Joy, which was released just prior to 140, particularly given the simple vibrant color scheme and use of upbeat electronica. However, even given Electronic Super Joy’s silhouetted presentation, 140 is still far more abstract, offering few clear indicators of the nature of the world without observation and experimentation, but the simple visuals are used to create some fairly complex environments, at least in terms of navigation. A strong electronica soundtrack helps players connect with the environment and coordinate their moves with the beat.

140 was developed by Jeppe Carlsen under his Carlsen Games label, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Jeppe developed the game on his own time over the course of three years while working as a lead designer at Playdead, where he also worked on the atmospheric platformer Limbo and was responsible for that game’s puzzle design. He also worked as a programmer on Lost Empire: Immortals.

Music for the game was created by Jakob Schmid who is also an audio programmer at Playdead also provided the music and sound effects for Lost Empire: Immortals. The visual concept was created by Niels Fyrst and Andreas Peitersen. The game won the IGF 2013 award for Excellence in Audio and received an honorable mention in the Technical Excellence category.

Following 140, Jeppe developed Thoth, a twin-stick shooter that requires a bit of puzzle-solving to complete each level, along with the typical arcade-style reflex-based dodging and shooting. The game is aesthetically similar to 140 with enemies made up of simple geometric shapes and backgrounds that are literally just the 2-digit level numbers.