Music game Dyad is a new high for videogames.

Forget the unveiling of the latest iPad, and the crowning of the best indie games at the Independent Game Festival at the Game Developers Conference 2012. The most impressive tech in San Francisco in this very tech-centric week was two blocks away from the buzz, shown in a dimly lit suite of the Westin Hotel.

I’m talking about Dyad, an upcoming Playstation Network game that may induce altered states. What is Dyad? Plainly speaking, it is a musical racing game, with a heritage in games like Wipeout and Tempest and Rez. But it is so much more. It is interactive art. It’s the strangest music instrument that I’ve ever played. It is the rave scene if the rave scene had lived on and became exponentially more awesome. It is cyberpunk. It is meditating with monks in a Himalayan cave. Ryan, who I had the fortune of seeing the game with, tweeted: Legal ecstasy has been achieved. 

To adequately talk about Dyad requires a level of sensationalism (see Ryan’s post below for that) I usually frown on. So I’ll just describe things as they happened. We were left alone in the hotel for about an hour to play the game. Before leaving, Shawn McGrath, one of the game’s two creators—the soundtrack is by David Kanaga— warned us not to play if we were prone to epileptic seizures. 

Dyad is beautiful, if bewildering, to look at. Soon, our initial confusion gave way to a giddy sensation and a lot of delighted laughter. This mood was eventually surpassed by the uplifting feeling of participating in a religious rite. As the game adds more complex sound arrangements—which can actually be “played,” instead of just having to push a button when you are told—the backgrounds shift in between cyberspace as described in Neuromancer, and what I imagine a monk sees after meditating for a week straight. Dyad gives the feeling that it is pulling you in. You find yourself inching closer and closer to the screen. I don’t think I blinked the whole time. 

With its history of ’60s counterculture, and the free spirit that came with it, San Francisco is the perfect backdrop for Dyad. The Haight district is filled with head shops, boutiques sporting clothing that post-Sgt. Peppers era Beatles would wear. Unbathed hippies and lazy dogs lie on the sidewalk. At Golden Gate Park, where I wrote most of this article, everyone around me was smoking up. (Yes, I was skipping the afternoon seminars, but at that point, why go? Everything else seemed boring compared to Dyad.) 

When Shawn came back to the room, he told us that he smokes “24/7.” He has a gaint black beard and sometimes wears a cowboy hat. He talked about how Dyad created real play, instead of the menial tasks found in other games. We all struggled to put into words what we thought of it, but agreed it was very special. Shawn began flipping through the levels, pointing out features we might not have seen. They had provocative names.

“What the fuck is Relative Distortion?” Ryan asked.

“It’s what happens when you approach the speed of light.”

Jason Johnson

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Dyad is the videogame I’ve always wanted to play. In the post-apocalyptic film Children of Men, there’s a brief but quietly terrifying scene in which a child plays with a futuristic toy—something like a Rubik’s Cube attached with pins and servos to his fingers—totally absorbed by this small appendage that sucks all of his awareness away from the people sitting next to him. This is the pessimistic extrapolation of what videogames often feel like today, mechanical experiences that even at their most absorbing are little more fulfilling than parking a car. Dyad is the first sign of a better future, one where technology can take us higher. It’s the real shit. It’s the game Rez and Child of Eden creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi would sure like to make. I once jokingly described the ideal videogames of the future as “a cybernetic gospel choir in outer space,” and that is what this is. Playing Dyad does not feel like any sort of subjugation to an automated machine or a hyperrational system. Instead it’s a humbling act in which you pass the controller to your companion, press the Square button to trigger your own highs over and over and over like pumping morphine into your vein, and are left breathless and gasping.

That’s not hyperbole—not the breathlessness. The act of “lancing” and maneuvering your ship through the game’s shining orbs—causing the ship and screen to speed up, like a visual invocation of a head rush—literally takes your breath away; as the illusion of movement into the screen, combined with the surreal bending and blurring of David Kanaga’s already twisted rave soundtrack, is very much like a drug experience. It’s a virtuoso act of coding and coloring.

McGrath, who has also been a painter, says he wanted to “paint in code,” and for once that statement can be taken seriously. He cites Jackson Pollock as one painter he deeply admires. Even if Pollock isn’t an explicit influence on the game (refreshingly, he says top-down design—versus aesthetic intuition and pursuit—was a “zero” factor in how the game turned out), he’s an excellent reference point. Looking at a Pollock painting is an act of becoming increasingly lost in and enraptured by the interwoven trails of color, like having your spirit whipped through the air by a brighter person than you. So it is with Dyad, whose multiple levels and stages are, according to McGrath, an extended tutorial for understanding the true aesthetic experience of the game, which is its ending. 

Besides bursting with artistic clarity and intention, Dyad achieves a freedom of form that can only have resulted from four years of wrangling with hard code. Its mechanics, which encourage you to weave and then tear through the world, feel slippery—teasing, provoking, and finally inspiring, rather than conditioning your reflexes—challenging not your capacity to continue playing, but the limits of your very desire. In short, McGrath has brought the life-affirming sensation of looking at a great painting, watching an incredible film, witnessing a rare performance; having your understanding of the world violently reinvented; whatever, they are all the one thing called art, into the acts of moving a stick and pressing a button. Videogames have made profound observations and statements, but as things for anyone to simply behold in wonder, they have faltered. This is a first for videogames.

Ryan Kuo