DYAD: Lance pt.4
Monday, August 13, 2012 at 10:51AM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Critique, Dyad, Gamer Culture, Planet Puzzle League, Review

The following are Dyad related quotes followed by my comments. Though the topic varies, I tried to cut right into the heart of the issue like a lance. For in many ways the range of language we use in the gaming industry to talk about games is an obstacle that scatters our understanding of what games are. The intent is to cut a straight line through the endless pipeline of commentary in the Dyad discourse to try and connect the disparate dots, so to speak. Fortunately, many of the comments below have something very good and insightful to say about Dyad or the Dyad experience. 

 

"I answered it earlier, but I will elaborate on the most influential game: Tetris Attack... The way that game has constant action, and constant "planning ahead" is amazing, I've never played a game that comes anywhere near Tetris Attack's action/strategy loop (except Dyad). You're always doing something in the present, planning for the future and cashing in rewards for your past actions." ~Shawn McGrath

Shawn's right about Tetris Attack (a.k.a. Planet Puzzle League, Pokemon Puzzle League, or Panel de Pon) ; it's a great game. But it doesn't belong in a unique category with it and Dyad alone. A little critical-language will help us clear up what Shawn likes in Tetris Attack's design. Being an action-puzzle game designed around combos and chains, Tetris attack naturally has a lot of strategic "planning ahead" as players attempt to set up elaborate sequences of blocks that fall into place Rube Goldberg style. Tetris Attack features a core decay dynamic because blocks disappear when matched. A functional reset typically happens whenever any chain or combo ends. So while the decay dynamic causes past actions to ripple forward, the resets mostly stop any further rippling consequences. Many action games have this kind of design. And nearly all competitive action games when played on a high level feature lots of present action, planning for the future, and maximizing advantages gained in the past.

Dyad's design isn't very much like Tetris attack, but it does use a different kind of design to achieve a similar end result. Suspended gameplay features help bridge functionally distinct or separate gameplay challenges. Because the suspended features carry over from one challenge to the next, they help facility more long term strategy and let players cash in or pay up for past actions. Dyad's suspension mainly involves gathering lance energy and player speed. Otherwise, the moment-to-moment challenges reset the gameplay conditions in Dyad very frequently. 

Shawn had some interesting things to say about how people draw comparisons to games they have played to make sense of Dyad. Of course, Shawn and I are no different in this regard. After all, in part 1 of this series I compared Dyad to 20 other games. While I think there are better comparisons to make than Tetris Attack, it's clear that how each of us talk about Dyad reveals much about how we think about game design and our experience with different games.

Based on other reviews and comments in the Dyad discourse I've noticed something curious. It would seem that many gamers have forgotten what good (single player) game design is. I know good game design is hard to come by, but it's not exactly rare. If Dyad with its well-rounded mechanics, design space variety, and level design progression stands out as unique in a player's recent memory, that tells me he or she isn't playing the right games from the right companies that design good games all the time. I explain more of what I mean below. 

 

But until you play it, you just won’t fully understand what the game is about. Each of its 26 levels seems to build upon what was given to you prior, almost as if it was a continuous tutorial. ~Tim Poon

You can't "fully understand" any game until you play it. And to think that Dyad is special in this way is concerning. Even if the industry were filled will carbon copy FPSs, you wouldn't understand any one of them until you played it. Playing a game is necessary to understand its gameplay is about. And yes good games with a variety of challenges set in a sequence often use smooth difficulty curves to guide players through the game. Gameplay focused campaigns are largely  teaching or learning processes so "tutorial" is an appropriate term here.

 

It is simple in the way that Tetris is simple ...When you reach that Zen state of mind with Tetris, where all you see are gaps in your body and mind that need to be fulfilled with life-affirming tetrominoes and the acts of rotating and dropping blocks is as natural to you as breathing and blinking... But that tunnel never ends. And that Zen moment eventually drains away as the speed becomes unmanageable. You’re tumbling out of control and crashing towards in inevitable stop, a momentous collision where your elucidated mind and the sharp, tangled mess of your reality intersect. ~Tim Poon

Call it the flow zone or just being focused, this kind of experience is a natural occurrence with skill-based games. When players are squeezed enough and are skilled enough and focused enough our minds are lined up to think in a very functional game-oriented way. Gameplay and learning have this kind of tranformative effect on the mind. I think it's very telling that Tim Poon goes on to explain how the "Zen state" he experienced was broken by the speed of the game. This comment aligns well with Chen's flow zone theory. For it's when a game becomes too hard or gets out of control that the flow zone focus is broken. However, there's a bit more to this issue than speed and control. Based on what we considered in part 3 of this series, it's possible that the speed of Dyad never gets too far out of control for one's unconscious mind. And if this kind of play and mental state is what Dyad is designed around, then it is likely that Poon needs more skill and time with the game to be able to maintain hiz Zen state at Dyad's higher speeds. 

 

 

"That sensory assault can make keeping effective track of each course and precisely what you're supposed to be doing a real challenge. I found that allowing any sort of distraction would prevent me from achieving my high score goals — it wasn't until I found a sort of video game zen place that I topped out certain leaderboards" ~Arthur Gies

This is another comment on how getting good at Dyad can create a sort of zen like state in the player. Gies also implies that the "sensory assault" was a kind of distraction that made some of Dyad's challenges particularly difficult. 

 

"Part of what made Dyad such an exceptional experience came from when the base mechanics finally clicked. When I stopped making jolting, jarring movements with either the analog stick or D-Pad while controlling my avatar, and finally transitioned into smooth, rounded movements that flowed much in the same fashion as the on screen spectacle before me. It became more about timing and less about lining up my hooks for the enemies,"  ~Dustin Chadwell

Yes, gameplay clicks when you get enough skills. It's a beautiful thing. Invest enough time in any skill-based game and you should have a similar experience.  

 

Perhaps the most surprising thing is that you'll find yourself wielding considerable agency over what is transpiring on screen. If you would have dumped me in one of the higher levels without context I wouldn't even be able to relay exactly what I was looking at. With the careful development of a competent skill set on the way there, it becomes second nature to parse through the hysteria. In this regard Dyad called to mind the pure sense of wonder that would take over when I was six and playing Nintendo games in front of a little television. I was completely absorbed and simultaneously amazed that I was affecting the outcome of what was transpiring on screen. Dyad does this to me as an adult. Constantly. I almost can't believe the speed at which it seems to be moving, and I'm equally astounded that I'm any damn good at it. ~ Eric Layman

This is no unique experience to Dyad. All skill-based games challenge players to build their skills and take control. Because most skill building processes require a lot of learning, it's only natural to be frustrated and defeated by challenges from later, harder levels. You can say this about most games. This sense of "wonder" is wonderful, and I experience it with just about every game I play. The core experience is learning. And it's the result of a real transformation. Perhaps gamers have forgotten what gameplay is really like, what it really requires of us, and why it's really great. 

 

 

You'd be forgiven for thinking that Dyad is the latest sort of, well, let's say, experiential experiment to appear on the PlayStation 3, a successor perhaps to Flower or Flow. While those releases were critically well-received as explorations of what games are, they functioned least as, well, games — they were grand experiments of concept, not mechanics or game design. Dyad's mesmerizing but confusing lightshow gives a similar impression.~Arthur Gies

Thatgamecompany's games are less game-like and more of experimental concepts? Sounds like something I might say. Again, this is a quote showing how Dyad's presentation may belie its gameplay core.

 

It's that the critical reception is peppered with words like "hardcore," references to leaderboards, scoring and mechanics, as if to assuage the worry that a game with such pretty pictures couldn't be "twitch" enough. Critics and audiences now have defined ideas of what they expect from the artistic indie community...  ~Leigh Alexander

In this article Leigh Alexander comments on the kinds of comments many have made when talking about Dyad (much like I'm doing now). She writes about the reactions and general concerns players had about what Dyad would turn out to be. For many, watching the preview videos of Dyad confused more than they enlightened. Many worried that the game would be more lights and sound than gameplay, with good reason; the footage shown in many videos is intense. 

I think Leigh heads in the wrong direction with her article. The core issue isn't whether or not Dyad is "twitch" enough, though that statement alone is perhaps more troublesome than I have time to explain here. It's not crazy for gamers to think Dyad wouldn't have gameplay substance when part of the core design of Dyad is to obscure the gameplay feedback with sensory overloading visuals and sounds. The preview videos merely reflect what Dyad is to this extreme because it's impossible to convey what Dyad is about without playing it or at least watching it played from the beginning (which wouldn't make a very exciting preview video. This video comes close to clearing some things up). 

 

The treatment of Dyad has one interesting takeaway for indies: Reviewers don't view experimental games or artsy-looking stuff the same way they do "pure arcade" titles -- or, at least, they believe their readership doesn't. It's always been possible to loosely group together the work of indie designers with similar values, but are genres emerging more strongly now? ~Leigh Alexander

The confidence in which Leigh states that indie games could so easily be grouped together is deeply disturbing. Yes, many indie games have that indie feel, but many don't. Likewise, many non-indie game designers make the same mistakes and design decisions that indie too to create the same feel. But if you take a more comprehensive look at indie and publisher games, you wouldn't be able to group either category so simply. Leighs statement reflect a poor understanding of innovation in game design. 

 

Be honest, how much drugs were you on when you came up with the idea. We want specifics! :D ~Kotaku comment

 Do you have any recommended drug pairings for enjoying this game? ~Kotaku comment

Was this a game meant to be enjoyed with hallucinogens? Or just a fun game that coincidentally goes well with hallucinogens. Was the game specifically designed to enhance a psychedelic experience? If so, what was your inspiration? ~Kotaku comment

 

"And, of course, there are those visuals. Dyad effortlessly deals explosions of colors at every instance, creating imagery that either suggests you're either going back in time to save Sarah Connor or experiencing the desired effects of your preferred psychotropic substance. " ~Eric Layman

 

There are many comments and questions about Dyad that are just like these. It seems that people can't help but liken Dyad to drug-induced experiences. To be fair, I'm pretty sure Shawn invited this kind of talk into the Dyad discourse. All this halucinagenic talk feeds somewhat into what Leigh Alexander wrote about. If previews and impressions of Dyad seem inscruitable, the visuals are fluid and colorful, and the game is described as being an halucinagenic experience that's an extension of the mind, it would only be natural to suppose Dyad to be a game without a sense of boundaries, rules, and productiveness. 

 

 

you get in THE JEFF MINTER ZONE with that game, and it eaaaaassesss you into it, the game takes its sleazy little hand and gently puffs your pillow behind you....“are you comfy” dyad whispers as you learn the basics of hooking pairs and boosts... a gentle shoulder rub as you figure out that you cant TOUCH the enemies but you gotta gliiiiiiiiide past them....dyad turns down the lights while you get your first 10 lance.... then dyad slowly walks out the room... and then you are dyad ~phanpy

Is this a strange description of the Dyad experience? Perhaps. Is it an honest description? Certainly. The part I want to focus on is the ending statement "then you are dyad." Though it's difficult to sort out exactly what or who paphny is referring to I think it's telling that becoming Dyad is the result of a process. This process is playing and improving at Dyad. For the best of the Dyad experience comes only when players embrace the gameplay and the challenges in it. The reason why is because Dyad is design around conveying ideas and expereinces through gameplay. By embracing it, you go through a real transformation because games are half-real.

 

they messed up my brain man, its in my genes and its in my blood. but it makes some things easier, it makes LETTING GO EASIER... and dyad is about letting go, dyad IS letting go... *whimsical fairy voice* just let gooooo~~~~~~~  ~phanpy

I agree. Dyad is about the building up of one's self through a typical, gameplay style, skill building process that gives the player agency; then Dyad is about letting go of this self (perhaps not entirely) as the feedback overwhelms with speed, light, and sound. Certinaly in the final level, players will experience a sort of relaxing of structure or a "letting go." Though my experience with Dyad wasn't as... whimsical as paphny's, I can relate. 

 

To be fair, the graphics, although awful, are not part of this twee-ness. They’re the result of McGrath trying to make a game without art assets since he’s a one-man shop right now: He was limited to what graphics tools gave him. So while they manage to be both cliche and eye-bleeding at times, that isn’t his fault. ~Dan Seitz

This is a dumb statement that I felt like addressing. The graphics aren't awful. Even if they are the result of Shawn lacking traditional artistic capabilities, they're still very well made. Nothing else looks like Dyad, and I appreciate its uniqueness. All artists are limited to their tools and skills. If Shawn were a different kind of artist, perhaps Dyad wouldn't even exist. When the results are this good, I'll take what I can get. Yes, Dyad's visuals can be eye-bleeding, but cliche? I don't think cliche is the right word here. And yes, it's all Shawns fault; the graphics didn't code themselves.  

 

All that said, in terms of gameplay, this game is pretty much absolutely everything you’ve heard and a side of fries. It starts out as a fairly standard tube racer but rapidly adds new ideas and mechanics, becoming more of a puzzle game as it progresses. ~Dan Seitz

"I see a lot of people compare it to Rez, Tempest, or Space Giraffe but I think Dyad is a thing of its own since it hardly plays anything like those games. It felt like it was part racing and part puzzle game." ~Wario64

"Dyad is not a pure racing game, but sometimes I aimed for speed," Turi concludes. "It’s not quite a rhythm game, but the steady beat and ethereal enemy sound effects influenced my pace. Dyad falls into a genre gray zone that makes it hard to define. ~Tim Turi(gameinformer)

The way I see it, Dyad is a racing game with some shmup like qualities and, if you want to go there, a hint of puzzle game like design. It's common for games to have a variety of different gameplay challenges. Mario Kart DS features a racing mode, battle mode, and a challenge mode for racing, combat, and puzzle gameplay respectively. Yet, the entire game is built around racing gameplay so we consider it a racing game above all else.

There's not enough prominent puzzle gameplay in Dyad for me to consider it a puzzle game. Yes, Dyad has a fair amount of strategy. Yes, most of the levels in Dyad take significant skill to earn a 3 star rating or a trophy. Yes, you may have to figure out how to adjust your approach for each level. But Dyad's gameplay doesn't come close enough to providing challenges that stress  knowledge skills almost exclusively. Dyad is a real-time action game. Though there are many elegant solutions to its levels, fast actions will generally earn you all the stars and trophies you can handle. To their credit the puzzle genre label is tricky to understand and assign consistently. 

 

 

"The brilliant visuals and audio, although serving to create a physical experience unlike anything else in any other videogame..." ~Joel Jordan

Several players reported having noticeable physical reactions to playing Dyad. I didn't. Perhaps I'm immune, or just of the minority percentage of players who aren't affected strongly.

On a side note, Dyad is called a synesthesia game by many. The concept is interesting, but I don't like this pseudo-genre. Synesthesia is is a neurological condition where sensory impressions are involuntarily conflated. For example, when I was a kid I swore that the water from an outdoor fountain tasted brown. The point is, creating an association between colors and sound is not synesthesia. And over sensitizing players with lights and sound is not synesthesia either.

 

 

A music infused game that can kind of be compared to say, Child of Eden, in that when you make an action occur on screen it has a literal effect on the music you’ll hear. ~Dustin Chadwell

I'll admit, in my gaming history I put "music" as the secondary genre for Dyad after "racing." Still, I'm surprised that so many people feel that Dyad is extraordinarily musical. Or maybe I'm surprised that more people don't see all of the musical design in other games. Going back to Super Mario Brothers, the pause sound is in the same key as the main theme. The 1up mushroom is the same music for reaching the flag pole only sped up. And in later Mario games even the enemies dance to the music. It's nothing new to design gameplay actions to add to the soundscape of a game in a balanced and musical way. Dyad certainly has a lot of detail and dynamics designed into its music and soundscape. Perhaps comments like Dustin's are influence by personal musical taste more than anything else. 

 

 

You see, Dyad has a passionate reluctance to create any instance where a player might feel bored. Almost every one of Dyad's twenty seven levels not only has something new for you to do, it also employs much of what you've learned on the way there. ~ Eric Layman

This statement is mostly right. I think it speaks most to the dyadic, pro/con balance designed into every aspect of Dyad from the core mechanics to the enemy elements. Combining elements as a game progresses in difficulty is what many well design games do. There are a few types of video game climaxes that do this very well. 

 

 

"Experience a mind-bending, psychedelic sensory overload... Blast through a reactive audio-visual tube creating a harmonious synthesis of color and sound .... Embark on an interactive transformative journey... Transcendence awaits!" ~Shawn McGrath

True words. 


Dyad comes and Dyad goes. But before I put the game down for a while, I want to present to you something special that I've been working very hard on. My experience with Dyad wouldn't be complete without this final part. You don't want to miss it.

Stay tuned. 

Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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