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Competitive Spirit: The Abstraction of Play in Dyad

July 24, 2012

By Joel Jordon

The artist Wassily Kandinsky‘s energetic abstract compositions are a clear antecedent to Dyad‘s visuals. After the first time I experienced Dyad‘s aesthetic at PAX East, I handed the controller back to the game’s creator, Shawn McGrath, who asked me what I thought of it. The game had had such a strong visceral effect on me that I was having trouble saying anything, so I just laughed. This must be a testament to the effect well-composed abstraction can have on a person.

But Kandinsky seems to have provided more than just visual inspiration for the game—the essence of the philosophy he applied to painting is applied here to videogames. In the same way that Kandinsky’s abstract paintings condensed visual expression down to nonrepresentational forms and colors, Dyad condenses play down to its fundamentals.

David Kanaga, who designed the music for Dyad, wrote the following in a blog post (which in part takes its title from a book by Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art):

Rich competitive structures are considered holy by many game designers and players. And, it’s true, competitions can reveal amazing seemingly endless vistas to our senses of possibility. This openness points toward the divine. Then—the feeling shuts off when we realize that the possibilities can be ranked by order of their usefulness. We will be more likely to succeed if we behave in certain ways. The problem here is that the conditions of success, and sometimes the methods for achieving success, are pre-determined by the game’s design. The game imposes a value system on our experience.

Dyad‘s mechanics encourage competitive play. A lot of stages introduce new mechanics with names so esoteric as to give the game its own private abstract language—there are enemy types like chargers, triads, and etchers and skills like hooking, grazing, and lancing—and these mechanics must be learned and used correctly if the player is to succeed. Success means achieving explicit goals that include racing to the end of the level in a certain amount of time, reaching a certain maximum speed, and riding a certain number of zip lines. Depending on how well the player conforms to each of these goals, he or she can earn from one to three stars for each level and will also be ranked in a position on a high-score list against everyone else who has played each level. Earning three stars on a stage unlocks a trophy level, which usually urges the player to reach a stricter, more difficult goal.

The always-looming goals and the rewards that awaited me upon reaching them led naturally to my experience of some anxiety about my potential for failure. The brilliant visuals and audio, although serving to create a physical experience unlike anything else in any other videogame, became in some levels little more than distractions that obscured the mechanics I needed to engage with to achieve these goals.

As the game nears its end, however, the difficulty shifts. The middle part of the game is actually the most challenging. Near the end, there are easy stages like “Giraffes? Giraffes! In Outer Space,” which can be zoomed through quickly by repeatedly tapping the square button and then spinning around in the level’s tube to run through enemies and gain energy that can be used to continue flying ahead. The visuals in this stage are so overwhelming and the player’s movement so quick as to hinder any of the purposeful, skillful play the game has trained the player to engage in, but the play that’s left to enjoy creates a spectacular aural and visual show unmatched by anything else the game has up to this point presented.

The game’s final stage, “Eye of the Duck,” takes this further. This stage has no goal, and it’s impossible to fail; running into enemies doesn’t even cause the usual punishment of slowdown. The play becomes entirely about the audiovisual experience. As I settled into it, I gradually forgot the anxiety I’d experienced while playing to achieve goals and simply experimented with the audio and visuals I could create. Control was slowly taken away from me, and a transfixing sequence of audio and video played. After a while, I attempted again to interact with what was on-screen by pressing different buttons, and I found that L2 and R2 allowed me some manipulation. In Dyad‘s final act, the player is left to discover on his or her own and then play with an interactive music visualizer.

Kanaga continues in his blog post with a description of what a “utopian state of play” might be:

All possibilities are ranked as highly as possible; each, when chosen, introduces an entirely new set of possibilities, each of which is also ranked as highly as possible. In this setting, the word “ranked” loses its meaning; infinities open and give way to new infinities, and so on. The life of the game is the life of the spirit.

Dyad, when played not for the achievement of its explicit goals, comes close to fitting this definition. The audio and video that plays at any given time can seem to change in an almost infinite variety of ways with every action the player chooses to perform. In “Eye of the Duck,” the player’s ability to choose is most free because his or her choices are not ranked according to how useful they are in the tasks of earning stars or placing high on a list of scores. Every choice is as valuable as any other, and the player is allowed to experiment with the visuals and the audio free from constraint. Play becomes the expression of creativity.

Dyad shows us play in different forms. In its competitive form, success—playing correctly to achieve explicitly outlined goals—is rewarded with an audiovisual rush that can have an exhilaratingly visceral impact, but failure is punished with an unpleasant slowing that can eventually pile up and cause frustration. In the other form that Dyad shows us, play is like the triangle pulsating at the center of “Eye of the Duck”: creating great depth, it is pure, meditative, spiritual.

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