Shawn McGrath, Dyad Extraordinaire

When it first hit a few weeks ago, Dyad left everyone who played it mesmerized. Just spending five minutes with it made your mind flood with a thousand questions. Thankfully, we were recently able to spend some time with its creator Shawn McGrath and get our most pressing questions answered. We thought about asking one thousand of them, but decided that could be construed as cruel, so we pared the number down a bit.

[Hardcore Gamer] Where did the ‘pairing’ gameplay mechanic come from?

[Shawn McGrath] There was a lot of indiscreet steps that led to it.  It started with a basic interaction for enemies, which was “vampire” towards the beginning, where you would steal speed from enemies, which eventually became a binary “hook” action.  Polarity is a very simple way to add a lot of complexity and potential to enemies, so seeing how polarity would work in the game was a pretty natural thing to do. Pairing actually came after zip lines, and another mechanic that got cut called “gates” (similar to gates in downhill slalom skiing). Pairing was added as a way to gradually introduce polarity and zip lines to players.
[HG]The crazy visuals remind me of Child of Eden, while the rhythmic gameplay remind me of Rez – did those games inspire you? If so, were you out to top them, or just try to put your own spin on the rhythmic shooter concept?
[SM]Rez was certainly inspiring, but not from a gameplay perspective — it’s actually a terribly designed game!  Rez was inspiring to me mainly from an aesthetics perspective. I really like the colours and demoscene-esque effects in Rez.  Child of Eden came way too late for me, Dyad was done conceptually when I first played Child of Eden.  Gameplay-wise neither of those games are even close to Dyad.
[HG]Back to those crazy visuals – did you have to jump through any kind of hoops in development to make sure that the game wasn’t too crazy visually to the point where it would be too much for players to handle, or was that something you were able to keep an eye on throughout development and avoid any problems with when it launched?
[SM]Oh god, the amount of tricks and restrictions done in each level to make it understandable is crazy!
The game’s fast… like really fast.  It’s too fast to discern shape.  Colour is the fastest thing our brain can process and differentiate objects, so colour and colour relationships are used to create a visual language to understand what’s happening.  As you play you gradually learn the colour rules; there’s no explicit instruction.
Even with colour it’s still too fast to react to objects, so there’s two primary “hint” layers to give you an understanding of where things are on the tube.  First, the tube is lighter where there’s an enemy.  The lightness extends forward a fairly long distance so you can see where enemies are — you probably never consciously see this, but it helps subconsciously.  Next there’s a trail behind each enemy about 1/3 the distance of the tube lightening to lead your eye to an enemy.  These two visual cues help you understand where enemies are at super high speeds.
A few visual tricks are employed to enhance the sense of speed.  The three most prominent ones are: grid, curve, and double tube.  The grid gives you a fixed spacing, so you can both discern depth and instantaneously read how fast you’re accelerating.  The curvature of the tube is something that was really hard to get right.  If it’s completely flat then you don’t really feel how fast you’re moving, however if it’s too curved you can’t plan ahead, destroying the strategic element of the game.  Each level has a slightly different curve, balanced against its other graphics.  The double tube is probably the most important graphical feature of the game.  It allows for the tube to look much more dynamic, and feel like a real place, instead of just a tube going through some empty space, (there are a few levels that do this, but it’s a nice contrast against the ‘standard’ double tube.  The outside tube is highlighted the same way the inside tube is, and is offset such that they meet at the bottom of the tube.  This causes the two tubes to rotate at different speed, enhancing the perception of rotation speed, without distracting or making it difficult to read.
Because the game is so fast and has so many arcane rules the graphic options available were extremely limited.  Each level is right on the edge of incomprehensibility, but the reasons for the incomprehensibility differ from level to level.  The graphics also warp based on what you’re doing to enhance readability and sense of speed.  I did a lot of research into how our brains process images and how graphic designers create visual languages to communicate.  Making the game understandable was very difficult.
[HG]How long did the game take to develop from when pen was put to paper until it hit PSN?
[SM]There was never any paper 😉  the whole game was made by playing.  I’d think of some abstract thing, program it, play it, repeat.  That process took 4 years.
[HG]Beyond other games, what served to inspire the concept of Dyad?
[SM]2001 – A Space Odyssey was probably the biggest influence.  I can’t explain all ways I love that movie.  “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” “Infinite Jest” “Ulysses” anything by TS Elliot, Hunter S Thompson, Alan Moore, and a million other authors were hugely inspiring.  I find authors have a better understanding of their medium than artists in other forms.  Perhaps I don’t understand music or painting or whatever enough, but I feel like writers have a uniquely deep understanding of the nuances that exist in the medium and are able to play certain mind games and really get inside the head of readers.  I wanted to do that with Dyad.
[HG]Have you received any crazy curses from players trying to beat the trophy stages, and if so, would you mind sharing one of them with us?
[SM]LOL no.  Some people find the trophies really easy!  One thing that’s interesting, but something I expected is that the levels that people find particularly easy or hard differ by the person.  The hardest level for one person is one of the easiest for another.  Dyad tests a fairly broad spectrum of skills, so this isn’t surprising to me, but it certainly makes for interesting discussion about the game