There’s an old The Muppet Show bit where Fozzie sings George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” hilariously out of rhythm. The bear snaps his fingers furiously while his arm flails, desperate to find the beat of the song. He tries so hard, only to end up hanging his hat in shame when Statler and Waldorf inevitably heckle his horrible attempt. I always remember this scene when I think of a few of my dearest friends, people who—despite spending more time with demanding games than myself—get frustrated and throw in the towel when attempting to play games that require you to keep a beat like Rhythm Heaven or the BIT.TRIP series. These are simple games, but they depend almost entirely on the player’s internal metronome. My friends understand that everything is working to a grand rhythm, but for some reason, they just can’t feel it. They don’t got rhythm. I consider these friends, these hapless Fozzie Bears, and I feel bad for them because they might have a lot of trouble enjoying 140.
Designed by Jeppe Carlssen, a lead designer of 2011’s Limbo, 140 is a tightly paced and clever game of precise timing and jumping. It’s also intensely rhythmic, so the ability to keep a beat is indispensable. The player controls an avatar whose geometry reflects its state of motion: square while sitting, circle while rolling, and that most aerodynamic of shapes, the triangle, when airborne. The landscape is flat and lifeless, a silent monochrome plane that begs to be explored. Rolling along the land, a distant melodic loop grows ever closer until the source of the sound is visible: a small white orb, floating in space and moving around to its own music. The orb is the unknown, and the only semblance of life in this world. You must have it, but the blasted thing keeps moving!
The first challenge is adapting your movements to the orb’s rhythm in order to catch it. These orbs—you’ll track down and collect plenty of them before your time with 140 is up—peel back the layers of restraint in the world, one at a time. The orb’s song plays in the foreground and the innocuous, still landscape behind you comes to life, revealing the path to a new area. The new area has a new distant song. That distant song is attached to another orb. That orb will add to the pulsing beat of the world and bring another set of obstacles out of stasis. The cycle continues, with each area growing more complex and difficult to traverse as new musical elements interact with those that came before. The barren wasteland steadily grows to a sprawling obstacle course—every piece of which is a voice in the breakbeat soundtrack.
And there’s a brilliant twist in 140’s cycle of collection and renewed challenge: The next obstacle you encounter always mimics the movement and rhythm of the orb that awoke it. Caught an orb that disappeared and reappeared on the third beat of every measure? You’re about to face some blocks that do the same, like the disappearing platforms of so many Mega Man-related nightmares. Did that last orb bounce high into the sky on the seventh eighth-note of the measure? Here come some blocks that will bounce your avatar into the air on that exact same eighth note. The player always has a hint about what little trick will spring up next and has the advantage of observing it when they last grabbed an orb. It helps to soften that reliance on the player’s internal metronome, making it possible for people to get by even if they don’t know about quarter notes and syncopation.
140’s minimalist visual design also helps with picking up ideas quickly. The land and the platforms that allow us to cross it are the same flat super-saturated colors. When the black-and-white static—fields that resemble the snow on a signal-less television—show up, it’s clear that these are bad and should be avoided at all costs. The deadly static goes from bad to worse, though, at the final area of each stage—action-oriented boss encounters that take arcade-game tropes and apply rhythm logic into the reflex-testing battles. The final sequence in particular, required such quick observation and pattern recognition that my brain felt like it would crack through my temples at any moment.
The punchline of that Muppet scene comes once Rowlf scribbles some changes onto Fozzie’s sheet music, and the bear reads out a deadpan “I don’t got rhythm”—perfectly on the beat. He’s visibly embarrassed and beside himself, as much as a puppet can express such subtle emotions. But by admitting his shortcomings, Fozzie overcomes them. It’s just a gag, but the lesson is one we can all learn from: When you keep running into the same wall, stop trying so hard. Relax and feel it out. If that doesn’t work, don’t get frustrated. Just laugh at yourself and say “wocka wocka wocka.”