Dyad is a sensual experience. It makes full use of the visual and the aural to bombard the player with a mesmerising mixture of technicolour foregrounds and dark, shifting backgrounds, using both to create an impossibly deep contrast that focuses your eyes on the very centre of the tube in which you race. As you do, the world shifts around the centre of the tube—the bright, shiny hooks and enemies slipping through the tube with long tails of motion blur as you spin swiftly out of the way of a dangerous, bright and sharp laser blast; the flailing octopus at the bottom of the screen that you play as lancing its way forward impossibly fast: so fast that now and then the whole tube—the whole world—fades with the dark background of the tube into a bright, static-filled white. Phew.
It’s an exhausting experience; a beautiful experience that is as brutal as it is hypnotising.
Not to be out done, the music is an incredible mixture of solid, punchy percussion and enchanting synthesiser noises. Metallic tings and deep, crushing whooshing noises form the sound effects. Together they transform the soundtrack from simply being a solid bit of electronic music to be enjoyed in the background into a vital, original part of the experience that is sometimes just as important as the visual style is to even simply playing the game on a basic level.
Often, hooks (the player must “shoot” them for a speed boost) of the same colour can be connected (“shoot” two of the same colour in a row) for an extra speed boost, or, for example, to create a zipline on which the player can rapidly accelerate, and sometimes each colour of hook has its own unique sound. One trophy level (trophy levels are unlocked once you three star the level to which the trophy level belongs) actually requires you to link together hooks of the same colour with one conceit—the hooks are not coloured, so you must base your decisions on sound alone. It’s a moment of genius which shows that Shawn McGrath has a knack for taking what one might expect out of a game, and turning it completely on its head.
An even better example of this is another trophy level in which the player must link together a certain number of hooks without crashing three times. Sounds easy enough, right? But, each two hooks that you link together makes you move progressively faster through the tube, so if you play it as you normally would (as a racer) then the challenge of linking together hooks without colliding with any of them three times becomes increasingly greater which means that, without a time limit, it is a better strategy for you to very carefully link the hooks together one by one, allowing yourself post-hook to lose momentum so that you grind almost to a halt.
Maybe this was not the intention, but making playing as the tortoise advantageous when in the vast majority of the rest of Dyad you are well and truly the hare, seemed like another subversively clever trick that showed Dyad at its absolute best—when it is completely fucking with you.
But unfortunately these moments are contained mostly in the trophy levels which must be unlocked. The majority of the main levels almost feel like tutorials at times, explaining to you the basics of how the trophy level will function; even if half of them do completely turn what the level that must be three starred to unlock the trophy level contained, on its heads. This would not be a problem if the main levels were as enjoyable as the trophy levels, but unfortunately when Dyad tries to present a more traditional racing experience it often falls strangely flat.
Dyad throws new concepts at you at a rate of knots; but until you’ve unlocked the trophy containing the concept in question it never does anything particularly interesting with them. Okay, in one level you might have to connect two hooks together and it will result in a speed boost; in another when you connect two hooks together it will create a zipline for you to race on, but the experience of racing through a level with ziplines to racing through a level where you automatically receive a speed boost for linking together hooks is effectively the same—ziplines only require you to be more accurate in that you have to carefully move from hook to hook. The cleverness of some of the trophy levels only helps to make the sameyness of the main levels all the more disappointing.
Yes, you also have to avoid progressively more enemies and dangerous obstacles, and you even have your own speed boosts (the previously mentioned lancing) which you can employ that can also be used to eat up enemies and recover health, but all of this simply asks the player to do the same thing that they’ve done since the beginning of the game, just a little bit better. And yes, that’s exactly how most traditional racing games evolve, but Dyad has one fatal flaw that effectively kills it as a traditional racing game: the layout of the tracks are composed seemingly at random.
Yep, the hooks and enemy placements are generated every time you start a race; this means there are no consistent lines to learn and no tracks to master—or perhaps that’s just an illusion, forcing you into improvisation where there need not be any, and diluting the possibility of both forethought and spontaneity in the process so that it seems as if the different gameplay concepts found in each level all amount to effectively the same thing (apart from in the trophy levels where the requirements for success are high enough to force the player back into rationality).
It’s a significant sticking point because of Dyad’s arcade structure. It’s all about trying to three star a level and then playing through the trophy level which you are rewarded with; or perhaps trying to beat your best time and climb places on the leaderboard. But where is the motivation to do so in the mechanics—or even the aesthetics—of the game itself if each time you play you feel as if you are effectively doing something different? It very rarely feels like you’re mastering a particular track, and due to the sameyness of the different gameplay concepts, it all feels a little bit hopeless.
Hopeless except for in the trophy levels. Because they have their own genuinely unique feel and style to them, it means that it’s satisfying trying to master them, and sometimes it’s even frustrating too; another feeling that is (perhaps mercifully) lacking from the normal levels.
Of course it’s reductive to try and analyse Dyad simply as a racer; or even a shooter for that matter. Indeed, both are valid interpretations of Dyad, but the clever gameplay mechanics have more depth to them than that: at times it can almost feel as if you’re playing a platforming game—not racing through the track, but jumping from hook to hook. And it’s this depth and huge potential that makes the trophy levels work so well; they take the unique mechanics and create gameplay concepts around them just as unique. All other interpretations feel like wasted potential.
At the risk of repeating myself (and revealing myself to be the idiot that I am), let us return for a moment to the randomisation: I found myself playing through the same level five or more times; thinking that I was moving from level to level which perfectly illustrates the greatest strength and weakness of the randomisation: endless, hypnotising replayability and an inescapable feeling of strangely personalityless, mass produced levels and stagnant gameplay generica, respectively.
But I said hopeless and not pointless earlier for a reason. Dyad is a sensuous experience, and there is genuine gravitas to be found in the way that the tube disintegrates before your eyes as you complete or fail a level; the music turning from a euphoric experience to a genuinely unpleasant drone (as a Ghola fan I say that as a compliment). It seens to follow perfectly the psychedelic visuals and the input from your very own hands as you direct the octopus forward. And despite the fact that the general aesthetic is nothing short of extreme sensory overload, there’s a strange sense of calm and callous, compulsory comfort while playing as if you’re the victim of some great dictator; nothing he says is for your own benefit, but God damn does he say it well.
I say victim for a reason: the final level is a grandiose, long, painful, and incredibly beautiful experience that can stand tall when compared even to the trophy levels, making full use of all aural and visual tricks that the player has experienced thus far and turning them up to eleven on the amplifier so that it seems as if it’s not just the tube disintegrating but the whole world—the whole illusion that you have been spoon fed by the great dictator; or whatever you wish to imagine as you provide your own context. The level names are an (inoffensive) Constrobuz-like collection of amusing non-sequiturs. Room for interpretation sits well here. But it’s no coincidence that stabbing ducks is the ultimate representation of Dyad, and could almost be completed without touching the controller.
Shawn McGrath famously said, “The people who like it [Dyad] really, really like it. The people who don’t get it just hate it. I’m okay with that.” Unfortunately I find myself in neither group, but somewhere in the middle: for all its incredible aural and visual design, much of the gameplay feels strangely intangible and lifeless; but not in some synthetic way that fits with the aesthetics involved—which is odd given the great synthesis between the visual, aural and gameplay experiences as they are first perceived.
But then the great dictator’s illusion begins to fade and the five fingers displayed waving in your face melt away with the background and four fingers are revealed: perhaps there was never a great synergy between the four elements at all, and your whole experience was simply part of the hypnotisation—the power of suggestion is a powerful thing even in the face of great evidence.
But once such a revelation has been reached, and the disparate elements that once seemed so whole have been severed asunder (Dyad is a fittingly misleading title in terms of quantity) then a little more enjoyment can be extracted from the gameplay. But perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to allow Remix mode to give away the whole game so easily. All dictators allow truth to be a tantalisingly obvious part of their great lie: and all great dictators have ultimately failed for that very reason—their ideals that once seemed a whole and powerful magnetic opiate for the masses are finally revealed to be little more than tobacco and paint vaporised in distorted glass tubes.
But that’s not for me discuss; I’m trapped firmly in the middle(class) where I can do little more than report those beside me to the secret police—if they don’t report me first!