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Dyad: Chasing the anxiety of influence at 100BPM

Dyad on PSN
Dyad on PSN

It's a racing game stripped of the convolutions of control, of inertia, of friction, of braking, of acceleration.

Dyad is what's left when you remove the mechanics of driving from a racer and douse the remnants in a lifetime of influence: influence of magic realism, influence of made-up philosophy, of surrealist movies, of games, of music.

There's a cowboy hat sitting on the dresser. It's taupe, maybe tan. It's hard to tell in the pulse of lights that coat the darkened room. I'm sitting across from it, on an over-stuffed bed, feet dangling above the carpeted floor. A PlayStation 3 controller rests lightly in my hands. Somewhere behind me a large man with a pony tail and a chest-length beard quietly sits watching me.

I've been playing Dyad for nearly an hour, my pulse matching the scattered beat of the game, so fixated on the spirals and blooms of color that my eyes grow dry and painful. But for now I sit staring at the center of the screen watching the final four minutes of Dyad.

I see the game deconstruct itself, the graphics, the sounds, and maybe just a little bit, the player.

Shawn McGrath, one of the game's maker, insists I watch the ending because, he says, I can't understand its creation or experience without seeing how it ends.

After the ending is over, McGrath turns on the lights and I swivel on the bed to talk through the experience, about this thing that is a sort of undefinable game.

"I don't know how to talk about it," McGrath confesses. "I don't know how to talk about it to people who haven't played it. I don't know what it is."

So we start with what it isn't, or rather what it started out as and later became the almost antithesis of.

"It's not a racing game," McGrath says. "It is what it is. Until you've played it and seen the ending we can't talk about that."

Dyad, which hits the PlayStation Network later this year, started out as an antidote to how boring racing games had become. Where fans of the genre might see nuanced controls, faithfully recreated physics, McGrath sees "convolutions of controls."

So in creating this anti-racing game McGrath took out the things that didn't interest him.

"So it's a racer with no friction, inertia, braking and acceleration?," I ask.

"True, but we replaced that with a bunch of cool stuff," he said. "It's not like we removed that and said ‘OK, we're done.'"

Dyad started out as a tube where you could interact with enemies. McGrath said he played around with that for awhile and decided there was something to that interaction. So he started building ideas on top of that until he came up with Dyad, a word that refers to a pair or duality.

Before we can talk about the game McGrath wants me to play it so we have a common experience to work from. When I arrived at McGrath's San Francisco hotel room earlier this week, he asked me how long I'd need with his game. He said he didn't want to be there when I played it.

I asked for 45 minutes, he gave me a bit more.

Alone in his room, I sat down on the end of the bed and dropped into the game.

In Dyad there is no traditional acceleration; instead, you pull your ephemeral, squid-like ship through a tube of melting, gelatinous colors by hooking amorphous enemies and avoiding their square bullets.

Playing through the game's 26 levels, the abilities and complexity of Dyad seems endlessly expansive. Soon I'm riding pulsing ziplines between hooked enemies as I swivel my ship 360 degrees around the tubular racecourse. Grazing enemy ships charges up the ability to bisect enemies with my ship, zooming me through the course. Chaining hooks, lances, ziplines results in a swirl of play-powered colors and sounds.

As the complexity of the game increases level by level, I start to notice an equally complex mix of metaphors and ideas starting to surface.

That's a big part of Dyad, McGrath says.

"There is no such thing as original ideas," he tells me after my play session. "I believe that everything you are is a summation of everything you experienced in life. The way you think of things, deconstruct things and abstract ideas is based on your experience."

Instead of trying to avoid what literary critic Harold Bloom calls the anxiety of influence, McGrath embraced it. The result is an eclectic, sometimes almost schizophrenic mash of ideas, each pinned to a different, oddly named level.

"I believe that everything you are is a summation of everything you experienced in life."

There are 26 levels in Dyad, each named after something that deeply shaped McGrath's creative experience.

So "Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime" is a reference to philosopher Immanuel Kant's observations on beauty and how it can only exist, McGrath says, "with the tension of horror." So that level builds up to big angry Igor Stravinsky musical finale.

"Morphic Resonance," McGrath says, is a reference to the "pseudo-science" of Rupert Sheldrake who believes that all ideas exist permanently in a morphic field. Tapping into that field through morphic resonance allows a person to come up with creative ideas.

"It's a crackpot idea that I like," McGrath says.

"The Winds of the Dawn that is My Crown" is a reference to a bit of fictional, magic realism philosophy created by a friend of McGrath's. The movement's lead, but still imaginary, philosopher is a man named Michael Brown. Devotees, McGrath says, identify each other with a sort of pass phrase. One asks, "Do you know Michael Brown?" And the other responds "Yes, I know Michael Brown, winds of the dawn that is my crown."

"The Eye of the Duck," the name of the game's 26th and last level, is perhaps most relevant to the game's creation and its many deeper meanings.

That final title is a reference to a something filmmaker David Lynch once said, that you can't get an overall sense of the duck until you see its eye. Every film, Lynch argued, has its own eye of the duck, a key moment that pulls everything together and helps it make sense to a viewer.

"That's how I feel about the game," McGrath tells me as we discuss the ending of his game and its beginning. "There has to be a moment where it all comes together and makes everything a coherent piece."

And that's the point of the game's ending, something McGrath asks me not to describe in any detail.

"It should recontextualize the whole thing," he said.

McGrath himself hadn't experienced the game as a whole, completed creation until last week when he sat down and played through the six to eight hour PSN game three times.

"When I did it, it was the most amazing experience of my life," he said. "It was more different as a complete play-through then I expected it to be."

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