The mechanics design of Dyad creates a strong foundation for the rest of the game, which consists of variation, level design, difficulty design, and overall campaign progression. It's here where all the really difficult design comes into play. For single player games are made or broken on their levels. To keep players interested, there has to be something that makes gameplay engaging and interesting; there must be some kind of hook.
Variation & Design Space
Any thorough analysis of gameplay variation starts with an analysis of design space. Being a relatively simple game, Dyad doesn't have a lot of variables (or properties) to define its gameplay elements. For variables that affect the player ship there's speed, lance energy, invincibility, and polarity. The variables to the enemy elements have a much wider range of effects. Enemies can be polarized (colored), move or be stationary, create zip lines, create grazing zones, trigger events, charge the player, cancel invincibility, extend player lance, and more.
Mine enemy, x enemy, particle sphere, lance extender, lance blocker, triad, charger, flow enemy, and etcher.
It's clear that enemies are the primary elements that flesh out the design space in Dyad. The ship never changes, nor does the tube itself change. It's the enemies and their arrangement that make the biggest difference in the gameplay of each level. With around 10 different enemy elements, Shawn designed each element to be as functionally unique as possible. X enemies punish players for hooking them. Lance Extenders extend your lance time when LANCEd. Lance blockers cut lance time to zero. Triads discourage thoughtless and hasty HOOKing because only the correct timing will result in a zip line. Otherwise, the Triad will fizzle leaving behind two enemies to avoid. Chargers and Etchers attack back when HOOKed. If you dodge their attack you're free to ride the zip line they leave behind. Flow enemies are a basic enemy type with sideways motion. The only enemy I don't think has a unique function are the Particle Spheres.
One thing that Shawn specifically wanted to avoid with Dyad is straightforward gameplay. Shawn didn't want to create mechanics and challenges that led to obvious strategies so that entire gameplay experience revolved around the execution of the obvious. So Shawn designed the mechanics and interactions in Dyad with pros and cons that work with the core gameplay dynamics. This is the real hook of Dyad that resonates with the core idea of what the word Dyad means; a pair with an implied juxtaposition and balance. Put another way, the best strategy in Dyad isn't about one action or one idea. The best strategies are a combination of all your mechanics in the dynamic and nuanced context that changes by the moment.
Dyad is designed with most of the elements that creates interesting gameplay. It has well designed variables, mechanics, and dynamics; the only thing Dyad goes light on is the interplay. This isn't a problem in itself (remember, interplay isn't everything). Instead of lots of interplay, Dyad is designed to enourge players to put themselves into greater danger. For example the core action of HOOKing requires players to line up shots, putting them in harms way of the incoming enemy. Once most enemies are HOOKed a grazing circle appears around the enemy which rewards players with lancing energy if they pass through it. Many of the enemies and interactions in Dyad are designed around this balance of risk-reward, which is where deep gameplay begins.
With no story and few complexities to memorize, Dyad sells the idea that being in the moment of gameplay interactions alone is worth all of your time and attention. Dyad says gameplay is the hook. Like Mega Man 10 or the Super Gravitron, Dyad's core design has a deceptively high skill ceiling for a game with so few mechanics and such limited options. The hook of Dyad is, there's a lot more than meets the eye (of the duck); and only skillful play will get you there.
There's a lot of nuance to Dyad's gameplay. As we know, nuance is juts particular gameplay complexities (rules/interactions) that the player isn't likely to notice. In many ways all issues of nuanced and intuitive design are a matter of teaching. And for most games, the best teacher we have are the creators, who teach through a progression of levels. And as you might expect, Dyad uses a smooth curve of gameplay ideas and challenges for its level progression to slowly build player skill to better understand the game (including nuanced complexities). Dyad's 26 levels are appropriately paced and appropriately scored giving player all the tools and feedback they need to gauge their own process. Such is the power of smooth learning curves.
With approximately 10 enemy types (3 basic type, 2 lance type, 2 blocker types, 4 zip line types) and 2 non-hazards elements (zip lines and invincibility shields) Dyad has more than enough distinct elements to work with that support the core gameplay systems. Whether Dyad succeeds or fails from this point is a matter of level design. If the levels and campaign of Dyad were too difficult or too unfocused, the strong foundation of mechanics and the hook of the design space would mean nothing.
In a traditional racing game on a typical racing course players look down the track to make informed decisions. Depending on several factors, players make all kinds of moment-to-moment and long term decisions to maintain speed and control. In Dyad most of the racing rules are different, but the strategic process is similar and the dynamic balance between speed and control is present as well. Dyad accomplishes this by not designing set tracks or long sequences of tunnels with fixed enemy arrangements. In Dyad, the recognizable enemy groups and patterns are much smaller and randomized in their order and position. Because of the significant randomization, entire levels can't be learned. One cannot create a single optimal strategy and refine it. Instead one must be more flexible, more alert, and master the pure execution based, moment-to-moment challenges.
In a race when two challenges are placed back to back without any kind of clear reset, the challenge of overcoming both becomes more complex. After all, how you clear the first obstacle can put you in a terrible position to clear the second. Expand this idea and you can easily see how a whole course of back to back challenges would increase the complexity of the long term strategies one could create. You might think that Dyad forgoes this level of strategic complexity because the challenges are always random preventing players from planning around future obstacles. In some ways this is true. But as I explained in the previous paragraph, Dyad levels have random sequences but not entirely random arrangements of elements within these sequences. Instead of memorizing whole courses, players can leverage their understanding of the core gameplay mechanics against the probability of upcoming sequences. In other words, the level design in Dyad is not random enough to prevent some measure of long term strategy.
The smartest design move Shawn makes is designing levels with different goals or objectives. Building enough skill to play the game well takes a lot of precise learning. To better teach players Shawn designed challenges with different goals to focus the player on specific concepts and to think in new ways. There's the race objectives where players push for the lowest times. There's the collection or point objectives where players have to perform a specific action a number of times to win. There's an extension of this goal where players have to perform a number of actions in a limited amount of time. There's also survival goals where players are challenged to progress as far or as long as possible before making too many mistakes. And even within these goal types the rules are frequently shuffled and tweaked.
With levels that feature new enemy randomized sections, new enemies, new combinations of enemies, different goals, and tweaked rules Dyad achieves a highly varied concentrated progression of gameplay ideas that teach as they challenge and entertain. But it's not enough to simply say that the campaign in Dyad progresses well. So I offer below an entire walkthrough of the game via the video playlist and a detailed description of each level's gameplay.
1. Tune In- Nice 3 level introduction to HOOKing. Feel free to button mash on the first sector; but in the second sector the X enemies encourage players to focus and take deliberate actions. The speed in this level is very low which is great to not overwhelm beginning players and to make the speed boost from pairing enemies in the 3rd sector more distinct.
2. Dyadic - Get so many pairs before the distance runs out. Now players have to play conscious of time. Players can no longer cruise through and make pairs at their leisure. Enemies still don't hurt players when they collide.
3. Danger- Players race while dodging incoming square bullets. Now collisions hurt the player. Not sure if 3 sectors are needed here; I can't tell how they're different.
4. Admirable Virtues- Another race. The random sequences change from groups of 2 particle spheres to formations of 3 to encourage looking ahead and making more complex short-term decisions. But what's more genius is that the 3-formation arrangement teaches players how to move horizontally and still make pairs using sharp timing skills. Nice change up in level design.
5. Magic Circle- Graze a number of enemies and then LANCE a number of enemies. The course contains highlighted paths lined up with enemy positions to really help players learn to line up targets.
6. Line 'Em Up- Lance a number of enemies with moving enemies. The enemies do not move much, so players can continue to practice the skills learned on level 5.
7. It's Steam Engine Time- A level that tests many skills learned in the previous levels by challenging players to complete a 3 sector race. Pay close attention to the changes between the 3 sectors. This level is designed to teach players to lance enemies while moving horizontally. With each sector, the lines of enemies are curved more easing players into the skill. The effect is somewhat subtle yet very effective.
8. The light spectrum- An endurance challenge where players are constantly increasing in speed. Players can take 3 hits before it's all over, yet they can also gain health by lancing enough enemies. This level has a nice risk-reward balance between the speed and safety when lancing versus the more controlled slower state of not HOOKing or LANCing that leaves players vulnerable to collisions. The visuals become overwhelming when things get fast. What kind of technique will you make to see through the visual blur? Sounds a good choice.
9. Match Sprint- Lance 100 enemies as quickly as possible. A simple level where LANCing and speed is the focus. Master both simultaneously is more difficult that the previous challenges. The best way to give yourself more reaction time when traveling and LANCing at high speeds is to lance the lance extender enemies first.
10. A Heroic Dose- Race all 3 sectors as fast as possible. Each sector adds enemies types so that by the end you have to play around all 3 types (mine enemy, lance extender, lance blockers). No previous level had such enemy variety.
11. Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime- Get as far as you can with constantly draining life. Lance enemies to replenish life. Another level with 3 enemy types (mine enemies, lance extenders, and lance blockers). Nice long level challenging players to see enemy lines down the tube, gather energy, and execute lances.
12. Expansion- This level is much simpler than the previous 2 levels. The reason is Shawn is teaching a new core concept, which is best done in isolated, focused practice. The new concept is that zip lines can be created off of Mine enemies. This level has 3 distinct parts; all orange mine enemies at first, then orange and blue, then wider spacing between the enemies to encourage turning and riding curved zip lines. There are many important skills to learn here. Before, the player was mainly concerned with pairing like-colored enemies to gain speed. Now with the creation of zip lines, it's important to pair like colored enemies with as much distance between them as possible.
13. Morphic Resonsance- Nice simple zip line course at first. Then the level design transitions into a fantastic split pipe set up where half the tube features a line of enemies perfect for lancing, and the other half features enemies perfect for HOOKing to create zip lines and gain speed. The idea is to understand what you need (zip speed/lance energy or lance speed/kills) and pick your side accordingly. Very nice.
14. Triads- Another simple level focused entirely on a new enemy, Triads. These enemies are more complex than any previous enemy or level element. They have their own internal timer and are made up of 3 separate parts that can be HOOKed. HOOK the middle part first and a long zip line is created. Ride as many zips lines as possible before reaching the end.
15. Play for 18 Triads- Reach a very high top speed using Triads. Since Triads create such long zip lines, it's important to use them for gaining speed. This level challenge is a natural extension of the previous level.
16. Miracles- Learn how to get really long lances by using zip lines and enemies. This level is like level 13 except that it uses Triads for players to build speed instead of Mine enemies. This is the level where players focus on just how much speed and enemy kills affects lance length and top speed.
17. Not Playing is Becoming Increasingly Oppressive- Hook Charger enemies to ride as many zip lines as possible. Another simple level for isolated practice on a new enemy element.
18. KKKKKKKKKKKKK- Race all 5 sectors as fast as possible. The order goes just mine enemies, then just chargers, then mine enemies and chargers, then mine enemies and triads, then all 3. This is the most complex level so far. If you didn't know just how well the enemies layer together in gameplay, this level should make the design of Dyad clear.
19. Just Take a Pinch- Collect 100 invincibility shields. LANCing invincibility shields counts for 2 points. This level introduces the invincibility shield elements. The level ffeatures mine enemies, zip lines, and chargers half way through. There are a lot of ways to gain speed here, but using the invincibility and lancing are the most important.
20. Winds of the Dawn That Is My Crown- Race 2 sectors as fast as possible. Features flow enemies, chargers, and lance extenders. Lots of elements going on. The first sector is very short. Not sure what the difference is between the two sectors.
21. Becoming Purple- Ride as many Etcher zip lines as possible. A simple level that introduces and focuses on the new enemy element the Etcher.
22. Giraffes? Giraffes! From Outer Space- Race as fast as possible using mine enemies, invincibility shields, and Etchers. Another complex level featuring a diverse set of elements.
23. I Really Missed Jack- Survival (time endurance). Collide into enemies while invincible to slow down eh? You want to go slower, but you're constantly speeding up, to get more lives lance enemies which is a clear risk-reward.
24. A Subliminal Reprise- Travel as far as you can until your draining life energy runs out. Extend your life by colliding with enemies while invincible. The core risk-reward gameplay of this level is similar to level 8.
25. Perpetuation- Stay invincible as long as possible in 3 minutes. This level really tests your ability to understand the invincibility rules and how to maintain the state.
26. The Jupiter Mission- Race. Nice 3 part combination. The first sector is all about managing blue invincibility shields, etchers, and mine enemies. The next sector is focused on organe chargers, invincibility sheilds, and mine enemies. And the last sector mixes all the elements. This is the most complex level in the game featuring charger, etchers, mine enemies, and invincibility shields. A fitting last level in terms of challenge and complexity.
Dyad is a game with a great core design and some great level design that fulfills its potential. The real hook of Dyad is its solid game design. But there are more design elements to consider. Dyad is sold on being far more than just a racing game with lots of variety. Take from the dyadgame.com:
"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
Technically, I consider Dyad's audio-visual design to be a part of the hook of the Dyad experience. So after detailed Dyad's mechanics and level design, in part 3, we'll see just how close Dyad's other design features graze up against undesirable experiential and emergent consequences.