There are many wonderful qualities of gameplay experiences that are best expressed when players make informed decisions. If players don't know what they're doing or can't tell what's happening in a game, the best they can do is guess and hope for the best. The wonderful thing about systems, rules, and complexities, is when they are consistent enough to allow us to make predictions. For predictions are what allow us to make strategies and informed decisions, which then allow us to make the right decisions to influence the outcome of game systems toward victory.
Clean game design is a term I use to describe games that clearly convey important information to players that's necessary for making informed gameplay decisions. The goal isn't to tell the player every detail about the gamestate; just enough to play well. This is inherently a balancing act that I'd prefer designers to err on the side of too much feedback rather than too little. For cluttered game design, the opposite of clean design, can cripple even the most well designed gameplay systems. Clutter can obscure the best parts of gameplay experiences and leave the player blind, hopeless, and powerless. Cluttered design works against information conveyance and therefore skill and many intrinsic motivators that are behind fun gameplay experiences. Cluttered design is a big deal, and Dyad is perhaps the most complex game I've analyzed in this regard.
Dyad is actually a 2D game that appears to be 3D. Though the tunnel appears to be volumetric, since no interactive elements can actually exist inside the empty space in the middle of the tube, Dyad plays using only in 2 dimensions. With this 2D design, the fact that the ship says anchored at the bottom center of the screen, and how the tube is often lined with graph like guidelines, Dyad avoids issues of ba3D or depth poorception. The player never has to make an informed decision based on the distance of upcoming elements. Players simply aim by lining up targets along the center of the screen. This is particularly useful because looking down the center of the tube is the best visual vantage point for seeing upcoming obstacles. In many ways aiming in this way strengthens Dyad's top down shoot-em-up like gameplay.
Another element that puts great stress on the cleanness of a game's feedback is speed. Purely from a technical consideration, increasing the speed of objects moving in a virtual space tends to cause issues with hit detection, collision, and rendering the object on the screen. If the game doesn't run in a smooth enough frames per second, high speed objects can appear to jump and skip around the screen. These natural speed feedback issues aren't a problem for most video games. But if there's one genre in particular that tackles such design issues often, it's the racing genre.
Racing games are all about speed. Typically, developers use a combination of increasing object speed and other visual effects (like motion blur) to convey a sense of speed to the player. Like F-Zero GX, Dyad is a racing game that allows players to reach speeds that push the limits of human consciousness. And as I concluded in part 17 of my series An Examination of Skill, increasing the game speed reduces the amount of skill players can exert over the system. This mainly happens because players have less time to react, analyze, and make informed decisions about upcoming gameplay challenges. It's easy to see how racing games struggle to balance creating a sense of speed while keeping the player in control. Sometimes getting out of control isn't a bad thing at all. I explore this idea below. For now, I want to consider the visual effects in Dyad.
The most significant element of clutter in Dyad is its visual flare. The colors, the lights, the shapes are all very stylized and blend together as you play. And many times they blend too much like in The Light Spectrum and Becoming Purple. In some levels it can become extremely difficult to even see what's coming down the tube. A "sensory overload" is what I was promised on dyadgame.com, so I know the effect is intentional.
On the one hand, I don't appreciate the visual flare. The speed combined with the visual clutter removes me from the gameplay experience. This is not about immersion or being in any kind of zone. It's about gameplay and the fact that when I can't see, I can't make informed decisions. In times of extreme visual flare my best moves are just guesses combined with some button mashing. On the other hand, there may be a lot more to Dyad's feedback design than just the visuals. After all, the website also says Dyad offers a "harmonious synthesis of color and sound."
Typically, when I talk about cluttered design in video games I only discuss visual clutter. Visual stimuli makes up 80+% of our day-to-day sensory impressions. With two eyes and a wide peripheral view, we can take in and process a lot of data, even about objects in 3D space! For video games we don't use our sense of smell and taste at all. And our sense of touch largely applies to the realm of controller feel, manipulating controllers, and a touch of force feedback. So, typically the vast majority of video game feedback comes from the visuals and the rest to sound. As I've described, Dyad is not a very complex game. Perhaps its simple and abstract design allows for audio feedback to provide more effective feedback.
Consider if Dyad does have an overly cluttered visual presentation designed to influence players to let go of their dependence on consciously processing everything visually and instead rely on less obvious but still clear feedback. It's obvious that great attention and care was put into Dyad's audio feedback utilizing both music and sound effects. Like many games with great sound design, the sounds that result from player actions punctuate the soundscape sharply. So I can rely on the punctuated sounds to extend my eyes, so to speak. When I can't see the tunnel clearly or when my focus is on another point on the screen, I listen carefully for distinct sounds as a guide. So while playing Super Smash Brothers blindfolded is a bad idea, and playing Rhythm Heaven blindfolded is easy, Dyad falls somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the ratio of visual to audio feedback players should search for in Dyad is more like 50:50 instead of 90:10 like with most video games.
What if Dyad's sound design though seemingly free form, unstructured, and random, precisely matched up to foretell upcoming obstacles? How would we evaluate the feedback cleanness of Dyad? Though this possibility complicates our analysis somewhat, it's clear that the purpose of clean feedback design is to inform the player; that is to make information distinct, clear, and obvious. Even if the sound design of Dyad is a carefully tuned layer of feedback, Dyad still brushes up against the very serious feedback issue of overloaded sensory presentation. How well can we really play when we're overwhelmed? When we can hardly see? When the game moves so fast opportunities come and go faster than we can blink? Now we've come to a very important part of our analysis on the challenge and skill design of Dyad.
Dyad is a gameplay game. With no story in sight, no worlds to explore, and hardly any interactivity outside of goal-oriented levels, Dyad is completely designed around gameplay. One of the most important ways for gameplay to be fun is by being clear about its rules and objectives and by being skill-based. For it's with skill-based games with consistent rules that players can learn and improve at over time. Such a design leverages the real parts of the half-real experience that is playing videogames. In other words, being real, we have to really invest time, energy, and effort to overcome increasingly harder challenges.
The big question I want to consider is whether or not Dyad is a skill-based game. Seems like a pointless question to ask, right? Of course Dyad is a skill-based game; it has leader boards and trophies and star ratings for each level. Granted. But none of these things make Dyad a skill-based game. I can create a coin flipping game with such features and it would ultimately be a game of chance. Perhaps Dyad is skill based because it's hard to master. But many activities are hard to master that are not games including musical instruments. To get to the bottom of this question we have to explore if Dyad's skill floor is too close to its skill ceiling because of the effectiveness of mindless tactics like button mashing.
On the 4th level in Dyad Shawn gives players the following pro tip: "Don't button mash. Be deliberate with your moves." In some ways this is a great tip. One of the design features that I always look for in shooters and shmups is what I call anti-spam design, which is design features or elements that encourage players to act (in this case shoot) more conservatively, thoughtfully, and with strategy. In many cases I do not find constantly holding down the trigger or spamming the fire button very engaging. Often times in shooters, when players are free to spam unlimited heavy duty fire power, developers over compensate by making enemies bullet sponges, that is take a lot of hits to kill. This kind of design can easily create static space, which is a type of interactive clutter.
To a large degree mindless button mashing isn't the way to perform well in Dyad. Because players get a speed boost for HOOKing enemies and a greater boost for HOOKing a compatible pair of enemies (typically like-colored enemies) players have to be deliberate with every HOOK attempt to make pairs and maintain a high speed. On the levels with more complex enemies like Triads and Chargers, spamming HOOK may quickly make things harder for yourself as it's easy to fizzle Triads or to launch too many back-to-back chargers if you're not careful. Certainly such design elements make Dyad skill-based in that there are more possibilities of failure than there are of success. Yes, but there's still more to consider.
The problem is, as I race faster and faster in Dyad and the visual flare begins to overwhelm the clarity of the visual presentation, my ability to make deliberate actions suffers. This is simply what a time pressure does on decision making. When there's not enough time to react to a challenge mashing isn't a bad tactic to use; in fact, mashing can be the optimal tactic. Increasing game speed puts a greater stress or reliance on long-term memory skills. Memorization is basically how we adapt to play really fast paced games. We don't really think faster so much as we have more things "pre-thought" or "pre-learned." If Dyad had fixed, predetermined race courses, then going really fast would test how well you've memorized the track. F-Zero GX does this well. But the level segments in Dyad are random. So without memorization torely on, we're left using some blind guess work.
Dyad suffers from the same problem that Meteos DS suffers from. Strangely enough Meteos is another game made by game designer Masahiro Sakurai that he abstracted or disassembled from traditional match 3 puzzle games. Meteos contains a lot of smart design elements creating gameplay that revolves around making matches and juggling rocket towers of puzzle blocks (see video). The problem with Meteos is the highest level play from the most experienced and knowledgeable players (in my experience) was significantly challenged by a technique called "scratching." Being a touch screen action puzzle game on the DS, players play by sliding pieces around vertically on the touch screen. When a piece slides into a match of at least 3 blocks a combination is instantly made and fired off. Scratching is when a player randomly and rapidly rubs their stylus around on the touch screen hopping for matches. Me with 60 hours of experience had a difficult time beating a scratching player who barely knew the basic rules of the game. This is exactly what I mean when I say that the skill floor can be dangerously close to the skill ceiling. The effectiveness of unknowledgeable, mindless play should always be far below the effectiveness of conscious, experienced play in skill-based games. This is true for single player and multiplayer games. Upsetting the balance of challenge in a game can have serious consequences considering how important challenge is to skill-based games.
In Dyad you can mash your way to 3 stars on some levels and even blindly mash your way to earn a few trophies. I easily mashed my way through some of the later, and arguably more challenging, levels in Dyad including level 20, 22, and 23. Sometimes when I tried to play the level "straight" I didn't do so well. But after switching to mashing my effective increased significantly. I went from around rank 200 on the leader boards of some levels to around 15 just by switching to a mashing strategy. Like with Meteos, I now use a combination of mashing and deliberate strategies. In Dayd my approach has gotten me all but 3 of the trophies in the game and in the top 100s rankings on most of the leaderboards. This is why I have a hard time calling Dyad a skill based game.
But maybe I'm thinking about skill and player agency in a view that's too narrow minded. Maybe interactivity isn't all about conscious play. Now we have to consider if the optimal strategy for playing Dyad is letting go or playing without much conscious thinking is such an experience skill-based and fun in the ways that works best for video games?
Unconscious vs Control
Now the question is, are my button-mashing-blind tactics truly mindless? I clearly know all of the rules and many of the complexities of Dyad. So when I button mash, am I really "blind." Or have I internalize the rules of the game, the set up in each level, and the particular sound effectors incorporating this knowledge into my mashing tactic? Is my intelligent mashing more skillful than it seems? Is my "mindless" success actually the result of complex strategies processed in my unconscious mind? Is this the kind of experience I'm intended to have? Have I simply let go of conscious control and perception? Is unconscious control really control at all?
Here's where we enter a large gray area in this analysis. I don't intend to answer most of the weighty questions I posed here. What I can say is this; what is conscious and what is unconscious is a tricky distinction to base an argument around. Because the conscious and the unconscious mind are connected in many strange and difficult to control ways, it's hard to fully separate the two when we look to explain the cause of our external actions. In some ways I designed the DKART skill system around conscious and unconscious knowledge skill. Our working memory or short-term memory is our conscious thoughts, while long-term memory and chunking are more deeply learned, unconsciously stored connections. I think that unconscious knowledge skills work in the same ways that conscious skills do. The biggest difference is instead of being aware of the solution making process, our minds just pop an answer into our conscious thoughts.
At GDC 2012 I attended a talk titled Microtalks 2012: One Hours, Ten Voices, Countess Ideas! In this talk one of my favorite games writers and thinkers David Sirlin present a micro talk on Time Pressure and fighting games. Sirlin sought to challenge the notion that deep strategic gameplay is only possible with slow or turn-based games where players have a lot of time to think. Sirlin defends the idea that fast games, like fighting games, have deep strategy gameplay too. As an illustration Sirlin compared our conscious thought (STM) to the tip of an iceberg where the bulk of the knowledge (LTM) is ice that's under the surface and "hard to articulate." Sirlin draws on scientific research proving that as the decision complexity of a task increases our conscious thought process becomes less and less effective; Yet our unconscious thought process is highly effective at working through complex mental tasks.
Now, Sirlin's presentation and the scientific findings may seem like great support for why the fast pace, consciously overwhelming gameplay of Dyad is in fact skill-based. But there's more too it we must consider. Like I explained above, when the task is simple like basic math problems (2+2=?) our conscious mind is better for the task. I think it's clear that the complexity of Dyad's rules and gameplay is pretty simple. Moment to moment you're making very simple decisions. So with Dyad wouldn't our conscious mind be better for the gameplay? When the game speed increases to the point where players have to use their unconscious mind and feel things out, is this an effective experience?
Sirlin finished his presentation with these 4 points about a game that pits your unconscious thought against someone else's. Such a game:
- has wide appeal in that it doesn't feel like homework
- probably doesn't take forever to play
- is interesting because it's getting at something deep down inside us
- can be enormously strategic
The question is, is Dyad designed to promote this kind of gameplay? Is there a method to the randomness that we don't pick up on consciously? Does the speed, randomness, and visual clutter of Dyad highlight unconscious play or is there not enough design to hold the game together on this level? If there is enough design in Dyad for unconscious focused gameplay, would we even know it consciously? Don't we leverage our unconscious all the time? Can we say the same of most real-time action games, cluttered or not? Is there anything special about a game that focuses on the unconscious play and not the conscious? Is the fun of games simply doing better or being conscious of the fact that we're getting better? Is appealing to our powerful yet seemingly absent unconscious minds a game design excuse that anyone can use to explain away their poor feedback design?
I'm of two minds about Dyad when I consider its feedback design and its core gameplay design. Sometimes I feel that the game utterly destroys itself as I try to engage with it extreme speed and style. Other times, I feel that Dyad's solid foundation holds up under the pressure giving me returns on every ounce of effort invested. I'm fine with not resolving the two feelings for now at least. Like Terry Cavanaugh's Super Gravitron mode, it can be hard to measure your progress in Dyad, which can be off putting for a skill-based game. Yes, Dyad is a skill-based game. I mostly raised the question to challenge you to think about game design in new ways. This is precisely why I'm so fond of Dyad. It's well designed while having that extra layer of unique indie style that most non-indie developers wouldn't consider. Dyad challenged me as a critical-thinker (as you can tell. I typically don't ask so many unanswered question in my articles).
If you take Dyad seriously and really put in some effort to get good at the game, you'll find yourself focused on a nugget of clarity. The game appears to move fast and blend light into a phantasmagoric flare, but if you stay focused through the clutter you'll find that there's usually plenty of feedback to make informed decisions. It's when you develop this "tunnel vision" that you'll see how tightly designed and tuned Dyad is.
The bottom line is, Dyad is designed to overload your expectations and conscious perception in very controlled ways to bring you close to a blind, mindless gameplay experience. It carefully grazes the dangers of excessive clutter only to show you something difficult to express otherwise. When you really learn how to focus on what's important, you'll see that just an ounce of feedback is enough. Some levels do this better than others. But ultimately, Dyad is a race captured in gameplay that challenges players to get to the finish to realize they had something special the whole time. As they say, you can't outrace yourself. If you think there's something special to Dyad by the end, that's because it's a 2-way mirror, like all gameplay experiences, like all art.
Congrats Shawn. You too David Kanaga.
In part 4 we'll cut through the Dyad discourse like a lance. There's definitely something to say about how people talk about Dyad.