What is DYAD? This is a question you are unlikely to find the real answer on dyadgame.com. Nor will you find it by watching trailers and commercials and gameplay videos on youtube. If you read the reviews responsible for giving Dyad an impressive 85 on metacritic, you'll probably end up with an impression that clouds more than it clarifies. But if you happen to know Shawn McGrath, creator of Dyad, and you ask him what Dyad is, you'll get an answer that sounds like Tetris Attack meets abstract racing meets philosophy and the unconscious mind. You'll get a swirling cocktail conversation of high concept and low level mechanics, and you'll down it in one gulp leaving you somewhat light headed. Listen for yourself in the video below.
Out of the above options, I'm confident that you'll get the best answer from the creator himself, and this is precisely why you shouldn't trust it; at least not completely. Authorial intent and messaging have always been handled carefully on this blog. One of the core aims of Critical-Gaming is to develop game design tools and language so anyone can analyze games for themselves. The idea is if we take our independent analysis and pair it up with what's being said, we'll achieve a result that's the best of both worlds. In this case, I do not regard Shawn's monadic source information worth grounding our perspective in. I'm going for a more dyadic approach.
Dyad is simply a word that means a pair or a group of two. To best understand what Dyad the video game is, we must take our Critical-tools and Critical-language and pair it with the game itself, the creator, and the discourse surrounding the game. It seems that such a pairing has been in the works since Shawn and I first made contact as evident by the subject of his first email to me in response to Critical-Gaming's 4 year anniversary: "Congrats on 4 years... and Dyad!"
We start the analysis with Dyad the game. Though this article series contains gameplay spoilers, I will not spoil the final level of the game.
Abstraction. Subtraction. Disassembly.
Dyad is mostly an abstract racing game with some abstract shoot 'em up (shmup) features. As I described in the 3rd part of Abstract on Abstraction, when creating Dyad Shawn went through a process of stripping away elements of a typical racing game. Call this process abstraction, subtraction, or disassembly. This process can be used to more effectively build a game around a solid core of interactivity and engaging gameplay.
The essence of racing contains the elements space, speed, and steering. Traditional vehicle racing games focus on tire physics, complex momentum, and variable brake and acceleration to give players control over the race. With this control players try to optimize their performance, shooting for the lowest times by driving as fast as possible. But because turns and corners and other track features are tricky to maneuver around at high speeds, players work to find and maintain the racing line; the optimal path. Some slow down. Some drift. Some take wider turns. The best option depends on the game, the car, and the player's skill.
The essence of a shmup gameplay is a ship, character, or unit that can shoot and dodge incoming targets and bullets. Some shmups feature independent shooting and moving, but the more traditional shmups fix the direction of shooting and guide the player along rails or fix sequences of obstacles. Seeing enemy elements coming, maneuvering around them, and aiming shots by lining up points in 2D space is the core shmup experience.
Dyad contains the essence of both these gameplay types. At times, I concentrate on carefully lining up and hitting my "shots" while simultaneously dodging incoming enemies. At other times, I put all of my effort into steering with analog sensitivity. At all times, I'm completely engaged with the well-rounded mechanics of Dyad and how they work together in harmony.
A random Dyad level if you've never seen it in action.
In Dyad you control a small squid like ship with only 3 mechanics; MOVE, HOOK, and LANCE. The simplest part of these mechanics are their controls. Though you can MOVE with the D-pad too, I recommend only using the left analog stick. The smooth analog control is necessary for accurate steering. Players can only MOVE horizontally inside of a tube-like racing tunnel. Within seconds of holding either left or right you'll loop right back where you started. Instead of rotating around the screen, the entire tube and all objects inside that tube rotate instead to achieve the equivalent effect of steering using relative positioning.
With just a push of the cross button HOOK onto enemies as you travel down the infinite tube. HOOKing is the mechanic that gives Dyad that shmup like feel. Line up your "shot" with enemy targets by aiming straight down the tube. Then press the cross button. It's really that simple. The range for lining up HOOK shots is slightly wider than your ship making it easier to HOOK enemies and still avoid colliding with them. HOOKing is the primary way to gain speed in Dyad. In general, HOOK one enemy for a small boost in speed and hook a pair of like-colored enemies for a significant boost. HOOKing also has a range of dynamic effects on enemy elements that I'll cover in part 2.
The LANCE mechanic is about as simple as HOOK. With enough energy and a push of the square button, the ship gains invincibility and a speed boost giving players a way to fight through obstacles instead of simply avoiding them.
Because of their simplicity, Dyad's mechanics easily achieve the four mechanics qualities (intuitive, individual, direct, and dynamic). More importantly, MOVE, HOOK, and LANCE are well-rounded giving the gameplay a strong foundation to work on. Well-rounded design is essentially efficiently designed elements that stress as much of a game's design space as possible. Being aracing-shmup style game, moving through space, avoiding, and attacking targets are the actions the entire game is built around. The core mechanics fo Dyad are focused around these actions.
Putting it all together and Dyad creates a racing experience on an endless track where peering deep into the tube is the best way to understand what's happening around you. MOVE left and right to HOOK enemies to increase speed. As you travel faster, it becomes more difficult to react, aim, and dodge upcoming enemies. As I described above, the essence of racing is always a battle between your ability to control speed as you gain it. The racing line that you aim for in Dyad is not created by the physical limitations of track and turf. The racing line is simply created around the influence and arrangement of enemy elements. And because you aim and HOOK enemies for basic acceleration you may find yourself in a very shmup gameplay frame of mine. You might concentrate more on hitting shots and dodging enemies. This is only the core of Dyad.
If you want to understand Dyad, you should play it for yourself. But if you're looking for a way to wrap your head around Dyad, you might draw comparisons to other games. While many reviewers seem utterly at a lost of words to describe Dyad, I find it easy to compare it to other gameplay experiences. The following are 20 games that provide Dyad like gameplay or Dyad like experiences.
This playlist contains footage from 20 games. Feel free to skip around in each video.
1-2. Super Mario Galaxy 2: Tall Trunk Slide. Though more of an obstacle course than a race, this level features a tube like track. In several sections Mario can slide along the walls and ceiling just like in Dyad. Coins are used to encourage players to steer more precisely, and enemies are used to influence Mario to dodge. At the same time, players can aim using their Wiimote pointer to snag the colorful star bits and even shoot star bits to hit enemies and other targets.
3. Bust N Rush. Zoom down an endless randomly generated obstacle course. The basic gameplay centers around survival and endurance. Avoid red objects and RUSH through blue objects. Bust N Rush gradually gets faster, yet you can control you speed somewhat by holding or releasing RUSH. Though the lateral movement is quantified into 3 lanes and there's the added dimension of verticality, Bust N Rush is similar to Dyad in how it uses enemies to influence and define an optimal line.
4. 1... 2... 3... KICK IT! Race down an endless column of obstacles that are randomly generated or generated based on the music you upload. Like grazing in Dyad (which I'll explain in part 2) players are encouraged to come close to hitting obstacles. In 1...2...3... KICK IT! the narrow misses are rewarded with points. Like Dyad and Super Mario Galaxy 2, there is a shooting element that adds an extra wrinkle.
5. F-Zero GX. Being a high speed racing game F-Zero has a lot in common with Dyad. But the first level in the video especially reminds me of Dyad because it's a long tube that players can loop around horizontally.
6-7. Sonic 2 Special Stage & Sonic Rush. A classic example of tube obstacle course gameplay and a more modern take on it.
8-9. Rock Band Blitz & Frequency. In these rhythm-action games the player presses buttons in rhythm according to the gems on one lane at a time. Like Bust N Rush players can switch between lanes to adjust the difficulty. For some modes in Rock Band Blitz, players have to keep track of extra factors like a pinball that bounces around the field. In this way the gameplay is similar to Dyad in that players can strategize around the upcoming obstacles while paying close attention to unpredictable real-time hazards. The level layout of Frequency is more reminiscent of Dyad in that it features a tube course that players can loop around.
10. Tempest. I had never heard of this game until it was compared to Dyad. In some levels, players can rotate around a tube to shoot incoming enemies. It appears to be more of a shooter action game than a racing game.
11. Bit Generations: Light Trax. In this simple racing game players have to steer their colored line around obstacles and toward boosts. Whenever you make any turn (left/right movement) your speed temporarily decreases. Riding in the trailing "zip line" of your opponents slows you down. But get close and you can build a slip stream like speed boost. This design is similar to grazing and zip lines in Dyad. Furthermore, the 3D camera design gives some parts of Light Trax a very Dyad like visual style.
12. Sonic Rush. The RUSH mechanic in this game is like LANCE in Dyad. It gives the players a boost in speed and temporary invincibility. When RUSHing it's generally good to run into enemies to extend the RUSH meter. Also, doing tricks and attacking enemies without RUSHing is a good way to maintain the RUSH meter. When racing at high speeds in Sonic, sometimes RUSHing is the only thing that keeps you alive and your head in the game.
13. Zoo Keeper. In this Bejeweled like puzzle game, players work to make matches of at least 3 animals in a row. Though the point is to make matches of 3, the only moves that are accepted are moves that direct create at least 1 match. In terms of puzzle gameplay, Dyad is much closer to Zoo Keeper than puzzle games like Tetris attack in that the core gameplay involves making simple matches. Even if Dyad wanted to feature a more complex puzzle matching system, the random level arrangements and the speed you move past them would make even matches of 3 difficult for players.
14. Sound Voyager. In this art style game, players navigate through space by controlling their horizontal position. The point is to navigate purely with sound. There's a trophy level in Dyad where players have to match pairs of enemies based on sound alone.
15. DigiDrive. The overdrive bonus mode in this game challenges players to sort colored pieces into four slots as the game slowly increases in speed. The faster the game speed the harder it is to react. At some point you'll reach your breaking point. And as your execution breaks down you better understand the limitations of your conscious effort. Dyad achieves a similar effect with its high speed racing.
16-18. Geometry Wars, Space Giraffe, Rez. I picked these games for visual style similarities more than anything else. The visual presentation of Geometry Wars gets really cluttered when the action picks up. With all the firework like explosions going off as you destroy dozens of enemies per section, it can be very hard to tell what's going on.
19. Ikaruga. Ikaruga is famous for its design of absorbing polarized enemy bullets. By flipping to the black ship mode you can absorb the black bullets you collide with, and visa vera for white. Depending on when and how you switch between polarities opportunities and hazards open and close dynamically. Furthermore, depending on the difficulty mode you select, when you kill enemies they fire back a random spray of bullets. Dyad features gameplay like this primarily with the invincible powerups in the later levels. After grabbing the orange invincibility powerup players have to avoid touching blue flow enemies; and visa vera for yellow. The etcher and charger enemies have a fire back affect when "shot" or HOOKed.
20. VVVVVV. In many was the Super Gravitron in VVVVVV is like Dyad in that it puts players in an endless tube. Instead of flowing forward in this tube, the enemies constantly flow toward and around the player. Also, the randomized level design achieves similar effects to Dyad's random level arrangements.
When you abstract and reduce a game down to the essence of a genre (or two genres in Dyad's case [get it?]) it becomes easy to compare it to other games designed around the same kinds of core experiences. Though Dyad is similar to the games listed above, it's only most similar at its core. From here, the enemy complexities and level design of Dyad make it more and more unique. We've only begun to understand Dyad.
The hook of Dyad exists on a level much higher than its mechanics. We'll explore the duality of Dyad through level design in part 2.