At the end of the Game Developers Conference, everyone is usually exhausted. I sure was — it had been five long days of standing and walking, of typing and recording and listening, of engaging in long, heated conversations about video games. Also long, heated conversations about Buffy, which seemed to be the most popular non-game subject for the conference.
But by the end of the day Friday, I was beat. I had one more appointment — to meet with Shawn McGrath and David Kanaga to spend an hour playing Dyad. It was an intense, jarring, tripped-out, and weirdly soothing experience, and wound up being a great way to end the week. This is a game to watch, and to play when it comes out.
I've written about Dyad before on Kotaku Melodic, but that was before I'd played the game. Now that I have, I can report that it is indeed fantastic, and also that it's yet another game that aims (and succeeds) at simulating an intense drug trip. The video above gives a good breakdown of how it works — stick around after the title screen to see some gameplay.
Created by McGrath with music by Kanaga (who has also done music for the IGF-nominated Proteus), Dyad is a racing game that is as much about inertia as it is about speed. You race as an organism that can reach out and latch onto "enemies," which are orange or blue glowing orbs lining the racetrack ahead of you. Each time you latch onto one, you pull yourself along; latching onto a pair of the same colour gives you a boost. In many of the levels, grazing enemies will give you the energy you need to perform a "Lance", which sends you blasting forward, propelled by how many enemies you can careen through.
Dyad is not an easy game. That's because there's no real way to just hit the accelerator and power through the level. If you want to get any kind of speed going, you'll have to be really smart about how you navigate the level, perfectly hitting enemies, timing lances and maximising overdrive to fly through.
I played for a long time by myself, trying to get better and examining how its central mechanics work. With a game like this, it can be really hard to tell whether it's a controlled freak-out or just a mess. Dyad regularly edges right up to that line, and that's what's so interesting about it. A fellow critic who'd played the game described it to me as a game where "You're always just on the edge of completely losing control." I like that description.
Kanaga's music is a huge part of the game, and goes against tradition in a number of important ways. Dyad's music is reactive, changing as you push your way through the level. Each enemy you hit causes a tone to sound, and the tone palate changes depending on what kind of music is playing underneath it. But it's not as simple as, say, Child of Eden, where a single, developing song plays for the entire level.
In Dyad, the music makes some extreme shifts with no warning, which contributes to a sense of visual and aural disorientation. Tempos drop and increase, and hitting the "Lance" button can cause an entirely new type of music to start playing, warping the visuals into a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour. It's beautiful, and distinctly trippy.
Speaking with McGrath after playing the game, I allowed that I couldn't really talk to him about the game without talking at least a bit about drugs. Parts of Dyad seems to be directly influenced by the swirling colours and melting sensations brought on by hallucinogenic mushrooms. McGrath confirmed that yes, a particularly strong 'shrooming experience did inform/inspire part of the game, though he doesn't regularly take mushrooms these days.
I'm struck by how effectively Dyad channels the experience of a drug high without leaning on it overmuch. There is a whole culture surrounding video games and drugs that people don't talk about very much, though there are more than a few lists out there of, say, "The best games to play while stoned."
Dyad is less a game to play while high than it is a game that makes you feel high. Evan may have felt as though Datura is a trippy game, but I believe that Dyad is far more directly hallucinogenic.
But then, drug-experience simulation isn't the point of the game — any trippy aspects are secondary to its racing engine. I mentioned earlier that Dyad is very difficult, and it is — I did fine at most of the levels, but there was a point at which I couldn't quit keep up. At that point, I gave McGrath the controller and watched him play his own game — and it was remarkable.
With a sure hand and amazing focus, he blasted through a few levels, perfectly grazing every enemy, maximising every lance. The game as I'd seen it was transformed into a cornucopia of sound, colour, and motion. No question about it: Some people are going to get seriously good at Dyad and their playthroughs of the game will be spectacular.
Dyad will be coming to the PS3 as a downloadable game at some unannounced point in the not-too-distant future. McGrath has been working on it for four years, and will be publishing it himself on the PSN. Keep an eye on this one.