Beats The Game: An Interview with the Creators of 140
Platforming and music have always gone hand-in-hand (for evidence, check out Smooth McGroove’s back catalog), but rarely has the combination been as stark or as powerful as it is in 140.
Designed by Limbo gameplay director Jeppe Carlsen in conjunction with fellow Playdead developer Jakob Schmid, the game challenges players by asking them to listen carefully, timing jumps and movement to the game’s insistent, electronic soundtrack. Over the course of three levels, the designers introduce new, music-driven gameplay elements, which change the course of the game’s geometric avatar in surprising ways.
In contrast to Limbo, 140 is full of vibrant colors and blocky polygons, offering an abstract, psychedelic world well suited to its soundtrack. Designed in the Unity engine as a hobby project, the game is now available on Steam and on the game’s website via the Humble Widget. Read on for my interview with Carlsen and Schmid, conducted in San Francisco at the 2013 Game Developers Conference.
GF: Were you producing electronic music before you started working on this game?
Jakob Schmid: I’ve been doing this kind of music for many years, on different platforms.
Jeppe Carlsen: We have similar taste in music. I played around with different platformer ideas, and I became very interested in music, and Jakob was the first one to go to.
GF: Rhythm and platforming is becoming a more popular synergy. Were you influenced by other games?
JS: Bit-Trip Runner, definitely.
JC: It was definitely something that I had played a lot — it was an unhealthy addiction for a while. Also VVVVVV, which is not a rhythm game at all, but had a style of levels — a structure that I found very appealing.
GF: Was the idea always to have the game be very simple? Did you consider making it more representational?
JC: Level- and game-design-wise, I knew that I had to put some restrictions on myself to be able to deliver this game. I had started a bunch of small projects but I never finished any of them. I knew that it had to be very simple but I wanted also to pursue a very simple form that I found actually had something new.
GF: How does the design process work going back and forth between you? Do you write the music and then match the levels to the music, or is it the other way round?
JS: I think what we’ve done mostly is that Jeppe comes up with an idea that he wants for a puzzle, and he makes a prototype, and he has some sounds — stuff that I made or some other sounds on his machine, and he puts it in. When I hear this, the first thing I say is, “Okay, this sounds like crap” [Carlsen laughs]. But I really like the rhythm of the stuff Jeppe has done — he has a very good ear. I get inspired by this mock-up, and remove everything and make it again.
JC: In general, it’s the level first. It’s about inventing some kind of rhythm-based thing: a level object that behaves with the rhythm in an interesting way, that I can mix with the other elements. Then I go to Jakob. The cues — where I have put the things with the music — we like to shuffle, because with the rhythm it’s usually a little bit boring. We have to re-work the puzzles to a more interesting rhythm pattern.
GF: One of the things I thought was really cool was the way the song continues but changes when you die. How did you come up with that idea?
JC: The graphic artist [Niels Fryst, who collaborated with his roommate Andreas Peitersen on the game's art -ed.] did a sketch of the square in the center swiping out, making all the colors black and white, and it becomes a big, pixelated, white-noise kind of thing. We wanted to do a similar, distorted thing that removes information from the music, and Jakob had a neat programmer trick to actually just remove information from the music, dynamically. It’s not a sample or anything, it happens procedurally.
GF: So it’s not a matter of composing different music, it’s about taking music that you have and removing parts of it, or applying an effect to it?
JS: The actual death sequence is a form of down-sampling, making it sound like a broken piece of machinery. But the music itself, as it evolves, is actually different tracks, as you go along in the game.
GF: It used to be, back in the day, with platformers, when you died, it was this horrible thing. You had to start over, or the music would totally grind to a halt. Now there’s a different idea — in 140, you have these checkpoints — you’re never really out of the game.
JC: We talked a lot about the effect that Bit-Trip Runner had on us: when you die, the pulse of music never stops. Even though the music rolls back, the pulse continues, and at least in our opinion, that’s what kept you going.
JS: You’re really angry, and you want to throw the controller, but the game is already playing!
JC: Initially we didn’t know exactly how to have this death effect. But we needed to have the pulse continuously going.
JS: The punishment for dying is stark but brief.
GF: There are different gameplay elements, different puzzles that get introduced as you play through the game….
JS: The elements for the different levels are completely different, there’s no reuse. The first boss is a rhythm-based “bullet hell” kind of boss, the second boss is a rhythm-based tunnel, sort of like an old-school scrolling shooter.
JC: I did design it one level at a time. The first level has the most obvious mechanics, and the further you get, it is trickier for me to figure out new ways of doing stuff. It becomes more…
GF: You say you have a concept artist working for you. Because the design is so basic, it seems like the choice of the colors is really important. Is that something he handles, or do you guys collaborate on that?
JC: That’s completely his responsibility. I think what he wanted to do with the colors is to make them not look very video-gamey. He wanted to choose colors that people don’t use in video games.