Shawn McGrath

PlayStation 3 exclusive Dyad blends music, shooting, racing, and simulated drug use

PlayStation 3 exclusive Dyad blends music, shooting, racing, and simulated drug use

The $15 PlayStation Network exclusive Dyad, available in today's update, is a game of pairs and contradictions. The game's levels challenge you to target and “hook” pairs of colored nodes while building up two meters that unleash a “lance” attack, but the theme of duality continues outside the game as well. The game is both simple and complex, welcoming and challenging, and easily understood but indescribable. You have to play the game to truly understand it, according creator Shawn McGrath. McGrath worked on Dyad for four years, as both programmer and designer, and he called those years “hellish, but in a hilarious way.” As the sole creator of the game, McGrath did as he liked whenever he liked. He experimented, implemented, and refined the experience of Dyad meticulously. “I wanted to explore the central concept as thoroughly as possible,” McGrath told the Penny Arcade Report. “I cut out everything that wasn't perfect.”

How you play

I played the 27 core Dyad levels, jumped once or twice to the Remix and Trophy stages, and came away feeling as though I had played a game that was just as McGrath described: thorough. The basic premise is simple, and at first the game is easy to describe and access. Your avatar travels inside a tube, with nodes placed in front of, beside, and above you. The left analog stick glides you around the entirety of the tube's surface, with your crosshairs always out front. Target nodes and press X to “hook” them and pull yourself along on the track. Hooking creates a noise that matches background music, and at this point the game feels similar to Amplitude, though that's not by design. “I never played Amplitude, and I never even knew of the game until people told me I copied it,” McGrath said. “I didn't really have any idea of what I wanted the game to be when I started. I would put stuff into the game and then just play it, basically. Figure out what was good about it, what was bad about it, and just kept playing it over and over again until it felt good.”At one point, Dyad was 25 times the size it is now. “All the mechanics existed in one level before it was split into 27 levels. It was one half-hour long level, and it had all the mechanics in it the way they are now, and it didn't introduce anything slowly. I had to figure out how to split it up,” McGrath said. Now, the game “starts out super, super simple, and then it gets to be the most complicated game ever.” That sense of progression in complexity and challenge is satisfying. As you advance from level to level, more rules pile on. Hooking two nodes of the same color in a row gives a speed boost. Nodes become enemies. Enemies fire projectiles and move. You can press X to hook an enemy and glide nearby to fill up a lance meter. Press square to use the lance attack to destroy enemies or zipline even faster. While lancing, hit an extender-type enemy to chain combos. It sounds complicated, and it is, but it's also hypnotic and intuitive. The rhythmic alternating between X and square for movement and attacks is particularly satisfying. It's a game that teaches you how to play, layering each mechanic on top of the last. The controls and goals of each level are complemented by the game's visuals, which are bright, vivid and trance-inducing, almost granting a sense of synesthesia. McGrath even described Dyad's visuals in terms of touch. “If you walk through a forest, you can touch all the trees, and it feels really nice. When you play a video game, they never feel good. Or they often don't feel good,” McGrath said. “So how everything felt was really important to me, and the visuals make everything really reactive, so you touch things and then they react to how you touch them. The visuals came by trying to make it as tactile as possible.”

It's something you have to play to understand, and it's worth playing

Dyad has visuals described by way of touch, and it sits in an undefinable genre. I tried to think of what to call Dyad as I played it. Is it a tube-racing shooter? A music-based puzzler? I couldn't decide, so I asked McGrath how he would describe it. “I don't know,” he said. “I can't describe it either. And I think that's good.” The only way to fully leverage an art form is to create something that couldn't be done with another medium. “Alan Moore talked about how he hates [movies based on his comics],” McGrath said. “He made Watchmen so that he used the medium, the comic medium, as the main expression for what he wanted to say, and translating that into something else doesn't work for him. I think it's the same case for Dyad. Every time you try to translate it into words or into video or into screenshots or anything other than sitting down and playing it, it just doesn't translate. It's something that only exists as a video game.” That's an ironic statement to make, as McGrath's wants to turn Igor Stravinsky's “Rite of Spring” – a song infamous for the riots it incited – into a text-less, save-less RPG. McGrath wants to tell the story of a girl, a ballet dancer, who sacrifices herself to her god of music and dance. He wants it, like Dyad, to defy expectations and description. “Like the most horrific thing possible and the most beautiful thing possible at the same time,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. That sentence is perhaps the best insight into McGrath's mind, and the games he wants to make. It is both frustrating and satisfying that I can't properly explain Dyad. The sense of motion and rhythm is impressive, the game play is simple but challenging, and there is a strange sense of simultaneous relaxation and tension. The inability to property describe the game play is the best evidence that McGrath succeeded in creating the game he had in his mind.