How To Turn An Abstract Game Violent
Rowan Kaiser describes Dyad in the lexicon of a combat game.
Imagine a friend telling you this: “I was having a great Rock Band run on ‘No One Knows,’ but the enemies in the guitar solo section just killed me. I guess I need more practice in order to defeat them.” Or perhaps “My Tetris game was going great until one of the s-blocks turned to evil.” “Evil?” “Yes, I didn’t have a place to slot it in, so it was corrupt and evil, and I couldn’t slay it.” These may be comprehensible descriptions of the events taking place in the games, but the violent, confrontational language is bizarre.
This is the case with Dyad, the highly praised new indie game on the PlayStation Network. Dyad is part rhythm game, part racing game, part abstract challenge. Take a look at a screenshot, and nothing gives the game an obvious connection to reality. Shiny lights, bright colors, sun-shaped balls with halos, and at the center, a player-controlled squid-looking thing. Your primary interaction with the game is moving around inside of the cylindrical track, launching lines to grapple the balls, and occasionally making your squid pointy and fast.
Yet Dyad describes all those things using a language of combat. Those glowing orbs? They’re “Mine Enemies.” Your powerful move to speed through these mines? It’s a “Lance.” The language the game uses in each level maintains the combative tone. “Race 3 sectors, HOOKING as many Enemy Paids as possible while dodging Enemies and Bullets” says one level. Or “LANCE 100 Enemies as quickly as possible.”
This is totally optional. Yes, if you run directly into the “Mines” you get sent back a short ways and you lose your speed, which is a negative effect. But it’s one that exists in racing games with barriers (that aren’t enemies). You could easily frame Dyad as a sort of rock climbing simulator—grabbing two of the orbs is the equivalent of boosting yourself with a each hand on a protrusion. You wouldn’t want to hid your head on those protrusions, but it doesn’t make them enemies.
Recently on Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander noted the tendency of mainstream gaming sites to discuss Dyad as a “hardcore” title, instead of just an “indie.” The use of combat language isn’t mentioned in the piece, and it may not have caused the reviewers to talk about Dyad as something very different from, say, Journey. But it does, I think, indicate the goals of the designers. Dyad isn’t a game to simply be experienced, it’s a game to be conquered.