Imagine you are a particle travelling through the Large Hadron Collider, how would the world appear to you? That is the question Shaun McGrath poses with Dyad, a synesthetic tube-racing puzzler. The answer, it would seem, is like gliding at warp speed through a never-ending display of fireworks, observed through a kaleidoscope.
Dyad is experiential; the kind of videogame that looks more like a hyperactive music visualizer to the outside observer, as its principles and mechanics are difficult to discern through observation. They are easily conveyed, however, through touch and feel, as smooth simple movements form the basis of play. In this respect it’s reminiscent of Rez or Space Giraffe, but there’s a feeling of those F-Zero style tube races when spiralling around each tunnel.
‘Hooking’ is your particle’s primary means of propulsion, allowing you to latch onto distant stationary enemies and accelerate towards them. Hooking two of the same colour gives you an even greater boost, and is an essential skill in meeting time constraints and other objectives. ‘Grazing’ through the highlighted ring of a hooked particle builds energy in one of two ‘lancing’ meters, which, when full, allow you to perform a quick invincible speed boost through as many enemies as possible.
These are the basic actions around which Dyad is structured, and it doesn’t take long for the flow of movement and button presses necessary to speed up and avoid collisions to bore their way into your digits and mind. There is a deeper layer of abilities – nucleic enemies blocked by destructive electrons fire out speed boosting zip line tracks if hooked – but the simple actions of ‘hooking’, ‘grazing’ and ‘lancing’ form the basis of play around which the majority of progression is structured.
Avoiding a variety of enemy particles, but remaining close enough to absorb their lancing power quickly becomes second nature. It sounds simple, but McGrath consistently introduces new objectives to freshen up each tunnel: time constraints, collecting items and distance survival are just some of the varied challenges set throughout 27 levels, each of which can be remixed once complete with a number of sound, visual and mechanical options turned on or off.
There is challenge to be had in beating its many objectives, especially considering the three-tiered star rating of your performance, but failing to do so will never ruin the experience. You’ll likely come out of every play session with an air of hypnotic relaxation, absorbed by the wonderful plinking electronica and twinkly jazz trance beats that hum throughout.
Indeed, Dyad can often leave you with the impression that the game is on autopilot; as your speed builds the psychadelic visuals obscure much of the on-screen mechanical happenings, making it difficult to figure out exactly where to place yourself. At times it feels like McGrath wants us to sit back and revel in the bloom and flamboyance of his brilliantly constructed light show rather than assert control.
Dyad is never abrasive; even in moments of failure when you collide with an opposing particle and are rewound a short distance your momentum and trajectory are kept intact. And it’s this smoothness in tandem with its relative simplicity and engrossing ethereality that makes Dyad an utterly addicting experience.
An experience, more than anything else, is exactly what Dyad aims to be. It’s physically impossible for human perception to exist on the scale of a single accelerated particle, but I have no doubt that McGrath’s work wonderfully conveys the raw energy and sheer magnificence of it all. And yet, although it very occasionally obscures player agency, there’s a deep and compelling set of mechanics, harkening back to the days of Tempest lying underneath. Dyad walks that fine line between artistic evocation and arcade addiction, emerging in a blinding euphoria of brilliant light at the end of its tunnel.
Nine out of ten