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

November 25, 2013 · Print This Article



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.


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.


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.


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.


Episode 329: The 2011 Holiday Spectacular!

December 19, 2011 · Print This Article

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This week: Put on your footie pajamas, get a cup of hot coco, and eavesdrop on Max’s bedtime story. There is enough hamming it up here to make a vegetarian squirm.

This episode is squeaky clean and safe for the kiddies.

Yip-Yip in Mark Mothersbaugh’s Top Ten

December 12, 2011 · Print This Article

Top ten lists are a staple around this time of year. What they lack in shades of grey they make up for with enthusiasm. I could read them all day. My favorite top tens come from trusted sources, so when I cracked this month’s Artforum I went straight to Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s list of his 2011 top ten moments in music. Mothersbaugh avoids listing albums only. On his list, he includes a weird message on an answering machine cassette found in a Palm Springs thrift store as well as a cover band he saw play in a Tijuana restaurant. What really surprised me was his number five: the self-released album Bone Up from the Orlando-based electronic duo Yip-Yip. As Mothersbaugh says, “I’m a million years old, and I’ve heard a lot of music, but I’m always happy to be pleasantly surprised. Yip-Yip did that for me.”

Yip-Yip had already been performing live for a year when I moved to Orlando from my hometown in 2003. In the absence of a local artist-run gallery circuit like Chicago’s, live music filled the city’s niche for experimental culture. Playing in mutant black-and-white costumes behind pyramids of synthesizers, Yip-Yip was the closest thing to contemporary art I laid my eyes on in Orlando. They introduced me to the possibility that experimentation derived from the character of and in constant conversation with a specific place might breed something fantastic.

Yip-Yip, Live in Orlando, September 2011.

As media decentralizes, kingmakers like Artforum are no longer primary fountains of validation. That the magazine’s globalized gaze had turned to a commited local group like Yip-Yip was not what surprised and impressed me about Mothersbaugh’s top ten. Here’s what really knocked my socks off: Yip-Yip are always have been massive Devo fans. In a place like Central Florida, without widespread institutional support for things like experimental music, a pop group like Devo might be the only model to work from. Seeing one of Yip-Yip’s idols list them among his favorite things about music this year renews my faith in the stalwarts of local culture. Like Mothersbaugh, I’m pleasantly surprised.

Paul McCartney Between Art and Pop

November 14, 2011 · Print This Article

As Paul McCartney played “Paperback Writer” during his concerts at Wrigley Field this past July, details from Richard Prince’s nurse paintings flashed behind him on stage four stories high. I was confused.

For a concert with tens of thousands in attendance, the connection is subtle. The images in Prince’s nurse paintings come from pulpy dime-store paperback novels and the song is, of course, about a writer of paperbacks. If—after years studying contemporary art and much longer as a Beatles fan—the connection was lost on me, I’d guess it was lost on much of the audience as well. If it was lost, it didn’t seem to matter much. The Baby Boomers around me still bopped along. We can only assume that Paul, or maybe the tour’s art director, got a little kick out of the embellishment.

Either way, juxtapositions like this are nothing new in McCartney’s career. He’s been nuzzling up to contemporary art since at least the mid sixties. He has both collaborated with visual artists and produced artwork himself. Many of these associations are chronicled in Ian Peel’s 2002 book The Unknown Paul McCartney: McCartney and the Avant-Garde. He’s made albums of concrete music and masqueraded under pseudonyms. In 1977, a conductor named Percy “Thrills” Thrillington released the album Thrillington, an orchestral version of McCartney’s 1971 solo album Ram.

Prior to its release, Thrillington took out announcements in the society pages of English newspapers that seem as much like Fluxus provocations as buzz marketing. These snippets mention the album, but also describe Thrillington’s whimsical adventures in high society, including highlights from a ski trip in Switzerland. The album’s provenance remained mysterious even though the back cover shows McCartney reflected in the studio glass. No one could say for sure that Paul was behind it. It wasn’t until 1989 that McCartney revealed it had been him all along. He’d produced the album a month after Ram’s release. With wife Linda McCartney, he wrote the ads for the society pages as a lark. Old copies of Thrillington immediately tripled in value.

McCartney’s art gestures will attract attention from people whether the work merits it or not. He is, after all, a millionaire, one of the most recongnizable human beings alive, and a knight of the British Empire. But there are also instances where McCartney has collaborated with artists directly, and the interest the work generates does not derive primarily from his celebrity. For example, he enlisted his friend, the artist Richard Hamilton, to design the sleeve for The Beatles’ 1968 self-titled album, better known today as The White Album.

Think about that for a moment—because of an artist’s design, we refer to an album by the biggest band in the history of the world by the way it looks rather than what the band named it. What’s more, the design itself apes the aesthetics of conceptual and minimalist art emerging at the time. “The Beatles,” the only words on the album’s front, are not printed but are simply embossed into the object itself. Sleeves were manufactured with seemingly unique serial numbers. By some estimates, there are over three million copies. Especially now that seriality has been recognized by art historians as a primary concern of late sixties artworks, Hamilton’s serial edition of three million spread in homes, record stores, and radio stations across the world comes off as a prescient joke on a massive scale.

As an artist, Hamilton brought more than simple imagery to the album jacket. Visual artists’ work had appeared on album jackets before The White Album and continues to do so today. Hamilton’s design focuses attention on both the album’s construction process and the circulation of the album itself. It makes us acknowledge the album’s birthplace in a factory, printed plainly and efficiently and stamped finished with a serial number. The serial number also makes tacit the existence of all the other Beatlemaniacs out there. We’re both the owner of a unique artifact (“No. 0382937 is all mine!”) and an object that’s come off the assembly line. What you make of this contradiction built into the album’s design depends on your point-of-view. It could just as easily be a perverse illustration of commodity fetishism as a light-hearted prank meant to give fans a laugh. It’s easy to think of the legions of Beatles fans as simpletons who could swallow the inscrutability of The White Album because their devotion to the group was forged during the mop-top years. But to know the real truth of that assumption, you’d have to interview a lot of Beatles fans. Meanwhile, it’s safe to say that the group never let any presumptions about their fanbase’s intelligence or sophistication get in the way of unconventional aesthetic maneuvers. The cover is a white canvas to project on anyway, the possible interpretations as numerous as the copies in circulation: it’s an aesthetic retreat from the Pop art cover of Sgt. Pepper’s released the previous year, an absurdist quantitative measurement of the world’s Beatles fans, and a comic skewering of the concept of originality in art.

I am a fan of the austere gestures of conceptual art as well as the sophisticated humor of popular music. Historically both sides, although not without exceptions, have tended to avoid the contamination of the other. Side A thinks Side B is poisoned by the market. Side B thinks Side A is willfully pretentious. With this stand-off the status-quo, the occasions of overlap are jarring. When Richard Prince’s paintings appeared fifty feet high on screen at Wrigley Field, I was jolted. I thought I’d come to the concert as a McCartney fan, not as someone trained to recognize an artist’s work from memory. But my knowledge of Prince’s work and my reserve of Beatles trivia reside in the same brain, maybe they even share neurons. The same goes for my understanding of early conceptual art and the story behind The White Album. Both emerged at the same time in like places involving similar people. It would be silly to pretend that they didn’t share some common stock. At least in this case, the less boundaries I have between professional interest and private enthusiasm, the more I might see where the two fields overlap and, consequently, enrich my understanding of the instances where open-minded cross-pollinatation has produced curious hybrids that exist in the world without much concern for what club they belong to.

Episode 288: The Residents

March 7, 2011 · Print This Article

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This week: Richard and guest host Charles King speak with Hardy Fox, from the Cryptic Corporation who acts as the agent of The Residents. The Residents is an American art collective best known for avant-garde music and multimedia works. The first official release under the name of “The Residents” was in 1972, and the group has since released over sixty albums, numerous music videos and short films, three CD-ROM projects, ten DVDs.

They have undertaken seven major world tours and scored multiple films. Pioneers in exploring the potential of CD-ROM and similar technologies, The Residents have won several awards for their multimedia projects. Ralph Records, a record label focusing on avant garde music, was started by The Residents. Throughout the group’s existence, the individual members have ostensibly attempted to operate under anonymity, preferring instead to have attention focused on their art output.

Much outside speculation and rumor has focused on this aspect of the group. In public, the group appears silent and costumed, often wearing eyeball helmets, top hats and tuxedos – a long-lasting costume now recognized as their signature iconography. Their albums generally fall into two categories: deconstructions of Western popular music, or complex conceptual pieces, composed around a theme, theory or plot. They are noted for surrealistic lyrics and sound, and disregard for conventional music composition.