Hey Baby, Do You Dyad? A Letter Series

By Leigh Alexander,Quintin Smith

Girl Game Critic, ambivalent about Dyad, meets Boy Game Critic, Dyad fan. What follows is their exchange of letters (emails, really, but "letters" sounds nicer) on the game. The following probably contains some insight on how people evaluate, understand and interpret games in the context of real life, and thoughts on how irrelevant ideas of "good" and "bad" are to our relationships with them. Also sex mishaps, drug mishaps, and Twilight references. Read at your own risk.

From: Leigh Alexander
To: Quintin Smith
Subject: dyad

Hi, Quinns,

So remember when you and Brendan and I went on those silly carnival rides? The ones that spin you around and nauseate you, where the best sort of pleasure they can produce is the adrenal giddiness that comes from your body knowing something unnatural is being forced on it?

And you totally kept going "woooo, Dyad?"

I mean, surely we were all pretty drunk by then. We had our own separate fifths of bourbon in our coats. And while we're flying through the air, mud and revelers blurring lazily below, and you are going wooo, Dyad I thought -- well, I mean, firstly I thought omg, stop it Quinns -- but besides that, I thought I caused this. And then, I can't believe he likes this game so much.

It's funny, right? It was totally me who insisted we all go on the stupid rides, the ones that left us mostly just bruised and stumbling. (Remember how I ended up with this long scratch down the front of my torso that looked like a Boss scar?! That was cool). And it was me who laughed the loudest, because you know me and how I am too proud to admit I've made kind of a bad call.

And it was totally me who let you use my PSN account so that you could play Dyad, and I even said that I'd probably call it one of my top ten for the year. I caused this.

And you played the shit out of it. You became engrossed, and the more I watch you play it the more I think about when I played it myself, and about what it is -- this hallucinogenic migraine, pressing the same button over and over in a sequence that seems to lack purpose or precision, while this scintilla screams in your face. Fucking techno.

Last night after playing that one level for as long as you could, you pressed your fingers to your eyelids and roared my eyes, like someone'd thrown acid in them. Was that fun?

Oh, yeah, the acid thing. I have this theory that anything remotely edgy and art directed makes gamers presume it's cool. You should know I played a lot of Wipeout (oops, I mean wipE'out") on my Saturn back in the day. That was a cool racing game, even with the techno, because it was 1996. You were ten years old then, right?

Sorry, digression. The other thing that gets me about you and Dyad is that you complain the whole time you play it. You express that the leveling curve is shit, so that you have to persist through a lot of tedium before it becomes remotely clear what the game can do (I agree, which is why I got bored with it and stopped playing). You say the game can't decide what it wants to be and keeps changing its formula in later levels. These do not seem like good traits to me.

I tell you I find the game's visual language unclear, overwhelming, scattershot, sacrificing clear feedback in favor of the whoa dude carnival ride. And you agree. It's not like the thing's even fooling you.

Remember we were wandering around that muddy carnival and there was that little bounce house for children with the bleak, Silent Hill-ish pastels, squatted out of the way in the dark, lonesome with just a spotlight shining on it and an ominous man guarding its front? It looked like the least-appealing thing ever, and you were seriously trying to get us to go in it, and if I hadn't had such precarious heels on you probably would have forced the issue?

You've told me Dyad is about beating yourself. Is the pleasure you get from self-surpassing enhanced the more illogical and surreal the circumstances are? Do you get some kind of gratification from searing your retinas in front of a broken system screaming techno at you?

My favorite thing about this game is the multichromatic FAILED screen. You get it a lot.

Are you a masochist, Quintin? Is there something you haven't told me?

Why, why, why do you keep playing Dyad?

Xx,

L

From: Quintin Smith
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: dyad

Dear Leigh,

For starters, Dyad has TWO buttons. Not one. You're thinking of the action button, used to hook enemies, spin ziplines, and pester lasers, and forgetting the less-used lance button, which is used to skewer enemies, bypass ziplines, and ignore lasers. You must hook to lance, but while lancing it's also important to hook. Though the main purpose of lancing is arguably that you're invulnerable outside of invulnerability pickups, though you can extend a pickup invulnerability by picking up the invulnerability pickups while lancing, at which point you might forget to hook.

Here's the thing.

You're asking a lot of questions about masochism. About whether I love Dyad as explicitly as I do (bellowing its name as a carnival ride spins me round the night) because it's abusive of the player. To put on my wank-hat a bit early, if that's what you're wondering, you're looking at me the way you look at Dyad. Flatly. You've got to travel deeper down our tunnels.

When you, me and Brendan were stood in a line, peering across that muddy field at the portentous terror of the Bounce House, I wasn't saying we have to go in because I genuinely thought we'd take one step inside and immediately be accosted by monsters, all matted hair and fibrous limbs. I wanted to go inside because we were belly laughing from just looking at it. I was imagining us going inside, drunkenly staggering about, and then collapsing in hysterics as Brendan slipped down some rubbery cleft. "IT'S WET," he might have screamed in genuine terror. But we'll never know.

We went on carnival rides that were genuinely fun that night. Quoting GTA as we rammed bumper cars at each other, being hurled around by hydraulic whatevers.

But the ride that makes me smile today, as I write this, is the broken one. The one that left you scarred. An ancient, spinning chairlift that, by the time we climbed aboard it, was too exhausted to lift us up, simply spinning us round and round, forcing you and Brendan into my bony hips. It was agonizing. After 60 seconds of mounting confusion and pain, being forced sideways in a tinnitus ozone of VERY LOUD CHART MUSIC, I was crying with laughter.

I don't want to compare Dyad to a broken carnival ride, but it makes for an absurd experience (and an even better memory) in the same way. It makes you learn mechanics, then removes or reshuffles them. It rockets you, the unblinking pilot, down kaleidoscopic tunnels for minutes on end.

Yeah, I complain about it. I clutch my aching eyes and groan. But that's all surface froth. What I'm really doing is searing exciting memories into my head. I play Dyad for 12 minutes, and can turn that memory over in my head forever, something it has in common with Super Hexagon. I played Darksiders II for 12 hours, and I got nothing.

Here's the other thing I've been dying to express to you, ever since I first snatched Dyad from your American PSN account to my lung-coloured English living room. I was playing it last night, breaking my way into the later levels, and I was laughing.

I'm a big ol' saucer-eyed Wipeout HD fan, and the difference I'd be quickest to point out between the two is that Dyad is funny. The Wipeout games were born in the toilet of a English rave club in the '90s. It's all banging tunes and future-sports. Dyad is post-all of that.

One of the later levels is genuinely disgusting. The level-specific music, which always sounds so good on the main menu, is reduced to a purgatory of gassy synth the moment you start playing. And in the midst of Dyad's glossy aesthetic, there's a super vulgar airhorn that goes off when you hit a certain speed, which always makes me burst out laughing.

That joy is another emotion I can socket into the overburdened power strip of feelings I experience when I play Dyad. I'm not a masochist. I'm a junkie, trying to get as high as he got when he was a kid.

Um. Not that junkies are usually kids.

Which sums up why I have feelings for Dyad, but it skirts the problem of you simply not liking it. The lack of feedback when you shoot, or of an obvious objective, or satisfying structure. It speaks volumes that your favorite screen is the fail state.

Do you sympathize with me now? Or am I frustrating you?

Write me back. I'm away to play Dyad.

xox,

Quinns


From: Leigh Alexander
To: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: dyad

Quinns --

Oh, right, TWO buttons. How could I be even slightly confused when your explanation makes it sound so crisp and intuitive?

Some of my favorite games are the ones where it's hardest to explain why they're good. Or why I like them. So here's another question: Are "I like this" and "this is good" the same thing?

Because I'm having a hard time deciding something about Dyad. I want to say "it might be good, but I don't like it" or "I might like it, in spite of the fact it isn't good," and I can't decide which of these is true.

That's part of the reason I'm picking your brain about why you like it. Because it's so absurd it makes you laugh? That's what you said about music. You also said that about sex. Do you get the same absurd humor from sex as you do from, say, your vivid mental image of Brendan falling into a wet, rubbery cleft?

Maybe you really were a junkie as a kid and this is the consequence.

I think people laugh a lot to avoid intimacy. That's also why they get high, incidentally, because feelings are scary. That Bounce House was scary. Dyad is scary! Like a broken carnival ride. I don't think you were that far off.

As I write this you're at my place, in my living room on my marigold corduroy couch and you are making incredibly tortured noises. I can hear you even though my door is shut. You are distinctly not laughing. I once saw a guy shoot up at a party, rubber strap between his teeth. He made a noise like that.

So it gets you high to throw yourself against absurd infrastructures. Does that mean Dyad is a good video game? Do you like it?

If I went in there right now, slapped your face, erased all things Dyad from my PSN account, would any part of you, however small, experience secret relief?

Jonesing for your reply,

Leigh

PS: "You've got to travel deeper down our tunnels?" What were you thinking when you wrote that?!

From: Quintin Smith
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: dyad

Dear Leigh,

I stand by the fact that sex is funny. It can be tender, yes. It's an expression of love, sure. It's also a haphazard meeting of tumescent organs and cardiovascular exercise that we should be warned about by our parents in the same breath as running with scissors. I know a guy who twanged his boner against a bedframe during sex and couldn't walk straight for a week.

As far as the question of whether "liking" something necessitates you thinking it's good, you like something that's a much stronger case study than Dyad. I enjoy Dyad, and think it's pretty good. You, though, will tell people you adore the Twilight books and films, even though you "know" they're shit.

You've told me you're interested in them for their cultural relevance, and how they represent a fantasy that's interesting for its disregard of contemporary feminism. But I don't think that's entirely right. I also know you love Kristen Stewart. I think your love of Twilight is complicated, but I think, Leigh Alexander: Pro Hipster feels the need to justify what she enjoys.

This is why Dyad bugs you. Is it cool? Well, it's got this badass logo, and it's kinda beautiful and abstract, but you're also repulsed by it. Is it a good game? You don't know, because it's not your thing. I love it because I like its intensity and enjoy chasing high scores, but you're on uncertain ground. Is it innovative? Hmm. Well, it's a tunnel racer. And they've been done before, but not for a while, so...?

In Tim Rogers' amazing Dyad infomercial there's the following exchange:

"Dyad will blow your mind."

"Will it give it back?"

"Eventually!!"

I think Dyad's blown your mind, and you want it back. Or, to put it another way, you want to pin down a game that's more interested in being abstruse. Me? I'm happy to just laugh at it, to squirm beneath its neon, and call it a funny game.

Write me back!

Quintin

From: Quintin Smith
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: dyad

Quintin:

Whoa. You kind of went to a weird place fast -- I'm going to delicately ignore your friend's tumescent accident, and how you choose to get your cardiovascular exercise is entirely your business.

You brought up Twilight!! And KStew. Hang on. Need to Google some pictures of her before I can continue. Okay. Phew, needed a hit, good now.

Yes, I am a Twilight fan, despite the fact that by any metric, Twilight is shit. To any intelligent person, let alone to any forward-thinking feminist, Twilight is shit. But it's explosively popular shit. You might have noticed that I'm obsessively interested in finding out why other people like things, and so I dug into Twilight to find out why such shit was so explosive.

I decided it's because the story of an utterly plain, embarrassingly unremarkable girl stumbling helplessly into a war among supernaturally beautiful men who threaten her with their anger and sexuality is probably an escape for women from the powderkeg of modern feminism.

In an era where we must embrace the mantle of strength we've fought so long for and finally earned -- it's our responsibility, our obligation -- Twilight is a fantasy that lets some women admit that they're still scared of boys, that they might want a man to take care of them forever, even when sex is off the table.

That they might want to wear heels and not go in the scary house. Or to NOT be the one to buy the carnival tickets for the boys --

Er, um, where was I going with this?

Right. Dyad, but we need to talk about the "Pro Hipster" thing. "Hipster" is one of those words I don't really care for, because it doesn't really mean anything. On one hand, it accuses people of being defined by their external interests, of borrowing cultural signifiers without understanding what they mean.

But people tend to only accuse others of being hipsters based on some constellation of external factors ("aha, that young man's curly mustache is definitely 'ironic!'") when they can't possibly guess at what those things might mean to that person. Borrowing and repurposing aesthetics is an important way today's twenty-somethings define and understand each other in the social media age, anyway.

I don't really care for this conveniently-recent New York Times op-ed that seems to suggest that all cultural borrowing is cynical and insincere. But one thing it does do is come closest to defining what people mean when they say "hipster" -- a person who, when asked to explain why she likes something, can only shrug and say "because it's cool", and "because it's funny." Seeking good justification is kind of the opposite of a Pro Hipster trait.

If "hipster" is a thing, then it's someone who likes awful things because he thinks awful things are funny; someone who decorates himself with terrible allegiances from eras he never himself experienced because it helps him avoid intimacy and the frightening challenge of being truthful about what he really likes, loves, wants at present.

So back to Dyad, this terrible thing that you insist on locking horns with because it makes you laugh.

Yesterday you were playing it again, and you said something like how it looks like the kind of game people in the 1990s thought we'd be playing today: Abstract, inscrutable, minimalist, fast. The whole "whoa, he's in the game"-type stuff from the 1990s movies that began glamorizing gaming and normalizing futurism as totally hip and radical.

You even talked about how you wanted to do some kind of humor video where some neon hat guy in leather pants and goggles challenges a girl he wants to date by going "HEY BABY, DO YOU DYAD?" as a reference to that sort of era. I know how you liked Tim Rogers' humor video.

Weren't you four years old in 1990?

Holy shit, you're an ironic Dyad fan! You hipster!!

You like Dyad despite the fact it's got a poor experience curve, is weak at communicating with the player, has poor feel, has a weak matrix from which to derive a sense of mastery, weak at all the things I'd associate with a good game. I've decided I think it's actually ugly and uncool to look at, too. That MDMA aesthetic is for small-town kids, or something. It's tacky.

But I'm kidding about calling you a hipster. Your relationship with the game is clearly genuine and personal. It's pleasing you. And you know I refuse to write "reviews" most of the time because our relationships to games, whether they satisfy us or not, tend to have little to do with whether or not the game is shit.

I think "good or bad" is an irrelevant way to discuss games; it ignores the context of how we play them, think about them and talk about them. That's why I asked you to do these letters with me.

Talking with you helped me decide I don't like Dyad. Maybe you're right and it, like, totes burned a hole in my brain, brah. But I see why you like it, too. I like seeing you having fun, even if your fun seems to involve wincing, roaring, and laughing to yourself.

I consent to allow you to show me that last level you've been going on about.

Also, would you like to take me to the movies to see Breaking Dawn: Part 2?

<333

L


From: Quintin Smith
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: dyad

Dear Leigh,

I am broken by your polycultural artillery barrage. This is me crawling out from my foxhole and offering a shaky salute.

Just let me speak one piece about the design of Dyad as a game. A game we can play with our hands and eyes, rather than our mouths and literacy.

When you talk about it having poor feel, communication and structure, I wouldn't say that you're wrong. What you're doing, though, is using conventional metrics to judge a non-conventional game, the same thinking that led to Space Giraffe falling down a Metacritic pit.

Let's return to the pulsing silhouette of Wipeout HD. When you start that game, in the Venom or Flash speed classes, you're playing a racer. Dragging your ship's momentous frame around a track, eyeing each corner nervously. But as you move up to Rapier class, Phantom class and beyond, or experiment with the nauseous joy of Zone Mode, you literally cannot react fast enough. You have to operate on instinct and muscle memory, entering a zen state which -- when you realize you're doing it -- is a breathtaking rush.

When you say Dyad's feel and communication are poor, it's because the game's built for those same high speeds. Take my word for it -- on the latest levels, there couldn't be anything else going on. If there was, the game would be unplayable for all the signposts you're whipping past.

...I think. I'm pretty sure I'm right on this. It's like how F1 cars are actually un-drivable until their tires get hot. Dyad is un-enjoyable unless you are awesome.

But I accept your challenge. In an utterly lopsided cultural exchange, I'll go and see Breaking Dawn: Part 2 with you and you just sit with me through Dyad's final level.

That is, if you can handle it. Do you Dyad, baby? Come over. I'll show you what's what.

x

Quintin

From: Leigh Alexander
To: Quintin Smith
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: dyad

Quinns,

As I type this I'm sitting next to you on the couch while you play this absurd last level, "Eye of the Duck." At first it was pretty, and now I fear having a seizure. Seriously, that's kind of a real fear right now. I keep closing my eyes. I honestly am nauseated. I feel assaulted.

I won't spoil the ending, but everyone should try to get there. It's a thing.

So when I was just out of high school I dropped a tab of acid under ill-advised circumstances. I felt nothing for a good hour, so I figured it was a bad tab. I did another one and decided to drive the ten minutes home, so I'd be in my room if anything happened, instead of at this shit house with these terrible people. One of the terrible people asked me for a ride. I said yes, thinking he lived in the neighborhood.

Let me lance ahead to the scene a couple hours later: It is January; it is snowing. I have crossed the state line and my little blue Civic is the only car parked in a market's empty lot. I am hiding behind the car so that I can pee over the frozen pavement.

It's 1:00 AM, dead quiet. I'm not sure exactly where I am. I am tripping my face off.

I shiver, violently cold, in the back seat of my car where I'm naively trying to sleep it off. But when I close my eyes, I have the sensation that a great black object is roaring slowly past where I lie, again and again. Its sound is small and distant, then grows like a wave rolling toward me. It fades, begins again. If I do not pay attention it will accelerate.

Wow, a video game can recreate that sensation perfectly, and now I think it's actually triggered a migraine, too. My fingers are a little numb, which tends to suggest an oncoming aura. Woo, Dyad!

Seriously though, that's kind of cool, if only for how miserable it is.

Anyway. On the ill-advised LSD, morning found me in a hospital with hypothermia and my mother terrified and furious. I was bundled into warm blankets; the numbness ebbed like her anger and the worst of the hallucinations, and all I experienced was complete, soft relief.

I felt like I'd survived something. It was simultaneously unsettling and funny. You can laugh.

When I think back on that, I think I get how you feel about Dyad. And you describe the mechanical appeal, such as it is, really well. Still hate it. Wait, I started this conversation being unsure if I liked Dyad, and end it being sure that I hate it? What've you done to me?

"No, honey, I don't Dyad. Not after what I've been through. I don't wanna see you get lost in the gameworld, too."

Ugh. Okay, let's go to Breaking Dawn. We can sneak in box wine like you and Brendan did back in London.

Thanks for doing this with me,

L

From: Quintin Smith
To: Leigh Alexander
Subject: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: dyad

I think I've got my answer.

Why do I like Dyad? Because it facilitates conversations like this. Because, as a games writer whose job often demands the bolting of an irrelevant number onto the end of a review like a vestigial bone, Dyad defies me.

I don't know what it is. I couldn't give it a number. And for all the sweat and tears Dyad needles out from me, that fills me with the sweetest relief.

[Leigh Alexander is editor-at-large for Gamasutra and contributor to Edge, Thought Catalog, Vice Creator's Project and numerous others. She blogs irregularly at Sexy Videogameland. Quintin Smith is a freelance games writer for Eurogamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and editor of Shut Up & Sit Down.]

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