Shawn McGrath might be the mad scientist of Toronto’s independent game development scene.
While developing his upcoming game Dyad, he used scrap metal and bed-sheets to build a moving seat with a built-in projection screen that would swing the user back and forth during the ride. Usually seen in public wearing an ivory cowboy hat as though he’s just arrived from the Calgary Stampede, you’ll never be wanting for something new or surprising from McGrath.
Today, though, McGrath is in a fairly normal setting. He’s at the Sony PlayStation Spring Showcase, showing off his near-finished build of Dyad to journalists and staff alike. He isn’t wearing his hat, but that’s just because it’s a little warm inside.
With its pulsing palette of neon streaks of light and adaptive soft-techno soundtrack, Dyad looks a little out-of-place when compared to other Sony offerings such as Starhawk or Resistance: Burning Skies. But its unique flavour and psychedelic presentation are exactly what makes it stand out from the crowd.
According to McGrath, the game’s title is intrinsic to its gameplay and his own personal philosophy. “Dyad means group of two. Everything in the game has two meanings. The enemies in the game are the only good thing for you, and the only thing that are bad for you. There are two buttons, there are two interactions, and every enemy type behaves in two different ways, depending on what you do.”
We’re not kidding when we mention his personal philosophy, too. When he begins a long-term project (Dyad is currently in its fourth year of development), McGrath says he wants to “become the project,” putting all of his recent interests and knowledge into the creation of the game. “I change my life, my views and ideas for everything around the game,” he explains.
“Everything I value about video games right now is in Dyad,” he says, adding that whatever his next game is will similarly reflect his values at that time. McGrath’s current philosophy, meanwhile, has resulted in one of the most mesmerizing and trippy experiences we’ve ever seen in a videogame. With influences as diverse as Audiosurf, Rez and the obscure Japanese PSOne game iS: Internal Section, Dyad is a game with much more than two moving parts.
Dyad’s introductory levels are simple enough. You control a pulsing globule of light travelling down a path and/or tube highway, latching onto other balls of light, or “enemies,” that race towards you. You latch onto the lights to propel you ever faster forwards and latching onto two successive lights of the same colour earns you various bonuses. However, while you gain speed by just grazing past the baddies (a thin halo of light marks the “safe zone”), actually hitting them will hurt you, hence the dual nature of these help-you, hurt-you “enemies.”
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There’s an extreme amount of experimentation throughout the game’s 26 levels, each with different rules, objectives and variations on the core theme of two. Each level piles on something new, sometimes charging you with multiple objectives, to the point where Level 26 looks like a chaotic LSD nightmare of flashing lights and spinning tubes. McGrath likes to show the later levels of the game during preview videos and events to show just how nuts things can eventually get, although we’re not sure it helps a newcomer get a sense of what’s actually going on.
Playing the game in proper sequence thankfully makes a lot more sense. Each of the game’s 26 levels (some with such incomprehensible names a It’s a Steam Engine or The Jupiter Mission) layers on new obstacles and rules to the previous one, in much the same way that Audiosurf’s core gameplay can be altered with several game modes and difficulty settings.
Each level also has a separate “remix” version that puts a spin on the regular version’s rules, and a Trophy mode that has to be unlocked by first completing the level once. It would seem McGrath isn’t fond of throwing out meaningless participation trophies to the player.
Throughout the levels that I sampled at the PlayStation Spring Showcase, McGrath’s theme of two stood out. Much like how top-down shooter Ikaruga showered the player with points if he or she defeated enemies in groups of three, the same goes for Dyad with same-coloured pairs. It imposes a logical, yet flexible flow to the game that anchors the player amidst other, frankly absurd obstacles.
Even with the incremental difficulty curve, Dyad is hard. Later levels challenge you with grazing enemies in pairs, earning energy that allows you to briefly lance them instead for a burst of speed that blurs the entire screen. As the game gets faster, and more and more enemies fly towards the player, it becomes very difficult indeed, with far more at stake than the relatively sedate Audiosurf or Internal Section. Once you get past Level 10 or so, Dyad challenges the player get into a zen-type mindset to navigate the hallucinogenic light show without crashing into something.
If any of this seems a little out there as far as game design, it wasn’t lost on the loquacious McGrath who said that crafting proper tutorials and instructions for newcomers was the hardest part of Dyad’s development.
“FanExpo 2010 was the first time I showed it to anybody. I was sitting there taking notes the whole time watching people play and figuring out what I can do to make it so that they understand it better, and I did that for, like, two years… But through lots and lots of testing and making sure we were very careful about things, it’s not overwhelming.”
That is, not overwhelming “if you play it in a linear succession,” he clarifies. “If you jump around it’s crazy.”
Gamers will have to wait a little while longer to test out McGrath’s intentions. Dyad launches on the PlayStation 3, via the PlayStation Network, later this year.