140 begins with an assault of retro sonics and an explosion of strobing colour as the intimidating typeface of the logo looms large on-screen. It’s a flurry of sensory punches that delivers an immediate shock to the system. Then silence – you’re left alone to explore and understand the game for yourself with nothing but a small cube, our protagonist, as it turns out, visible. From this disorienting start until its conclusion an hour or two later, Jeppe Carlsen’s passion project takes hold and doesn’t let go.
Completed in the Playdead programmer Carlsen’s spare time, on first impressions 140 appears to be the antithesis of his employer’s stark adventure Limbo. It’s an often hectic puzzle-platformer in which the world reacts to the intricately layered, looping chiptune soundtrack – for which the game deservedly won an IGF Excellence In Audio award – and success depends on your ability to move to the beat and read the shape-shifting patterns of each environment.
Platforms appear and disappear in time to the music: jump pads spring up as the bass kicks in and the world is framed by brilliant block colours bobbing along to the catchy background rhythms. It’s a simple, striking marriage of sight and sound that at first evokes Sound Shapes or a Tetsuya Mizuguchi production rather than Limbo, but 140 ultimately carries more of Playdead’s DNA than meets the eye (and ear).
For a start, the game requires keen management of velocity and space to succeed. Guiding your shape (a square when stationary that transforms sleekly into a circle when moving and a triangle when jumping) through each stage is performed via the arrow keys alone but, as with Limbo, the challenge lies in deciphering and surviving the gameworld’s traps through caution, failure and repetition. Jump pads propel you into deadly ceilings of scrambled static, platforms pulse into view and vanish in progressively complex intervals and boss battles demand superior reaction times to overcome. It frequently instils a sense of dread and despair reminiscent of those sweaty-palmed escapes from Limbo’s iconic spiders, rarely devolving into frustration as you can feel the solution mere moments away.
As with Playdead’s 2010 chiaroscuro indie champion, those moments can mount up, of course, as 140’s challenge spikes harshly in its final third. Though the initial difficulty curve is finely judged, with generous checkpointing throughout, later stages will inevitably deter purist puzzle fans as the challenge lurches away from the logical and towards more reaction-based, timed puzzles that pivot around the music rather than your brainpower. Once you’ve ploughed through the game’s three tiers there’s also little to keep you coming back: 140’s stylistic elements are clearly intended as the rewards in themselves and moving on to the next portion of a stage to hear the music change rhythm and frequency is a thrilling high, however subtle and slight that may sound. This is a game designed to be savoured on first contact rather than obsessively revisited for secrets.
Carlsen has also clearly learned the art of minimalist presentation through his day job, as 140 lacks traditional game systems and visual elements common to the form, enhancing the clean, crisp angles and arrangements. There are no numbered lives or continues here; you simply reappear instantly at the previous checkpoint if you make a mistake, and there’s no HUD detail or menu screens to worry about either. For some this will equate to a cold, clinical atmosphere but it fits the game’s singular focus: this is a game of actions, not words. Like other recent indie games that opt for simplicity and unobtrusive visual design over user-friendliness, 140 finds a happy medium between allowing unaided exploration of its geometric world and ensuring it’s never too complex to navigate and hop around in. Where Limbo told a subtle but distinctly human story with its world, enticing with its enigmatic charms and delicious noirish art direction, 140 feels very much the product of a programmer rather than an artist or team.
Visually and aurally 140 and Limbo couldn’t be further apart, then, but the subliminal similarities – in the pacing and careful marriage of sight and sound – suggest Carlsen is pioneering his own auteurist path, taking the craft he refined at Playdead into his own private portfolio. 140 is a magnetically moreish experience: delicately balanced and well thought-out. If this is what the programmer can achieve during the downtime from his day job, Playdead’s enigmatic second project can’t come soon enough.
140 will be released today on Mac and Windows through Steam.