Make Up the Breakdown: Music as Self-Contained Instruction in 140

November 25, 2013 · Print This Article

 

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When 140 begins, you’re dropped into near silence. A single tone plays: low and bassy, it seems to emanate from the flat, monochromatic setting of the world. Your avatar is a lone recognizable shape: an unmoving square. Move to the left or right and transform into a circle; or jump into the air, turning briefly into a triangle before landing.

140’s protagonist-shape is instantly familiar, because it’s derived from a universal visual language. Those gentle geometric shapes are the stuff of childhood learning, the foundational building blocks of concepts such as color recognition, addition, and geometry. The square, rectangle, and triangle are a mark of simplicity, their functions instantly recognizable in motion.

What’s wonderful about 140 is that every component of the game is at its most basic, most recognizable. The colors are just as sparse as the landscape, a single-color expanse that’s all right angles save for the occasional circle. Whatever origin the game’s character came from, the world came with it.

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In the Nintendo classic, Super Mario Bros., numerous pits and enemies roll across the screen at a somewhat uneven pace. The game is a pillar of the platforming genre it helped popularize. Platformers are the side-scrolling titles that defined early consoles, where a 2-dimensional protagonist such as Mario, Sonic, or 140’s shape runs and jumps between obstacles and platforms.  But though the game is legendary, it can be unforgiving, confusing, and ultimately, frustrating, especially in a modern context.

While modern games are usually prefaced with in-depth tutorials requiring memorization of a vast button- or combo-system (and sometimes to the detriment of ease), Super Mario Bros. suffers from a lack of explanation. The only way to become good at the game is learning its game-design language, usually by trying, failing, and trying again until you succeed. Such as it is, it’s somewhat difficult to get into without the determination of a child, applied in full force.

This is, in part, due to expectations about difficulty. Early video games were the stuff of quarter-gobbling nightmares, an intersection between entertainment and commerce. Looking back, most games from the era seem to be defined by external forces, external expectations: we should expect games to be hard; we should expect ourselves to adapt on our own time, determine the game’s world as an adversary, and conquer games such as Mario from within ourselves.

Mario and 140 certainly share a skeleton. Their challenges are similar ones, of jumping over pits and obstacles. And while both are without explanatory text, in Mario, this feels like a technological oversight. In 140, however, it feels purposeful; the game relies on no textual explanation. Like its shapes, the game’s instructions are spoken in a language that’s universal, that we’ve all known our entire lives: music. Where there might have been lengthy tutorials, planted signposts explaining mechanics, there’s instead narrative silence. There’s no princess to rescue in 140—there’s just a song that wants to be complete. And the game is tuned entirely around creating the feeling that the player should feel invited.

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140’s title is derived, presumably, from the BPM of game’s ever-present soundtrack. As the player progresses through 140, they’re treated to an ever-growing blend of electronic music. While the entry of the game is a low rumble, the introduction of the game’s first challenge—a moving platform—adds a rhythmic thrum, and each subsequent challenge increases not only in difficulty, but in musical complexity. By the end of each section, the soundtrack is varied, and as it pulses, the background of 140’s world pulses with it, as though it were an overly-reductive music visualizer.

Though the player and her shape are dropped into a world of visual and audio silence, the player progresses naturally into a world filled with vibrant color and sound. The player’s goal is to seek out a dual-colored circle that floats, and when touched, follows you. But the disc also emanates a sound pattern, as though it were calling out sonar, asking you to come get it. And when you do, you take it to another circular pattern embedded in the world, at which point the disc jumps directly into it, drawn by certain magnetism.

At this, the world explodes. Color erupts, painting you, the land, and the background in new, effervescent colors, and the music, previously a lilting silence or dull drone, turns into a celebratory ecstasy.

The landscape changes, too. Where platforms were once stationary, they now move on fixed lines, ski-lifts taking you to previously unobtainable heights. And every round they make, a familiar noise occurs, a component of the now thriving soundtrack that signals timing to player. And in the background, a beat acts as a metronome for your action, counts the moments before you need to jump.

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Death in video games is usually met with a loss of lengthy process, or a dwindling of your “lives,” a holdover from the arcade days of tokens, or quarters. Lose them all, and the penalty is usually grave, can sometimes result in a loss of all forward progress.

140 has no lives, and true to its nature, checkpoints are common. These are tiny beacons of light that shoot skyward when you touch them, celebrating your progress. The music momentarily hits a filter as you falter, plunging into static after mistiming a jump. But when you return to that point, the beat of the soundtrack is there, timing the obstacles for you, for as long as you might need to internalize it.

Later, as the challenges and music build further, greater obstacles are encountered. Pits of static which ostensibly “kill” you send you back to a previous point, although the length of loss is generally minor. Blocks shift back and forth, disappear and appear in time, or expand and contract. Floors glow and bounce you into the air. It’s all incredibly joyful, even more so because it all serves to underline a distinct, obvious fact about 140: above all, it wants you to succeed.

 

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