For most games, the term "derivative gameplay" is a criticism at best. Not so for dRive by Alex Snyder of Twig Games, the only calculus-themed entry into our 5th game design competition (CGDC5) and quite possibly the first calculus-themed game to get a review on this site.
Hang on, though, don't go fleeing for the high country quite yet. Yes, dRive is based in calculus, but that doesn't mean it's going to make your brain hurt. You don't need to understand the math to play the game, and if you've been having trouble with the math, playing dRive might even help.
At its core, dRive is a simple "catch the falling objects" game. Use the [left] and [right] arrows to move side-to-side, and catch the falling squares. Catch several in a row to start a combo, which increases the value of each square you catch. The larger squares are worth even more points, but don't touch the big dark ones, or you'll lose a life.
When you first start dRive, you're playing on the left-hand third of the window. After you rack up enough points, the board will upgrade, giving you a second screen, and this is where the math enters in. Use up and down to switch screens, but you can only control one screen at a time. The other screen is still active, and its movements are based on the screen you're on. If you're on the left screen, your movement changes where your ship on the right screen is. If you're on the right screen, it's your position that affects how the ship on the left moves. If you do know the math, you'll understand when I say that the left screen is position, and the right screen is its first derivative, velocity. If that went over your head, just play with it a bit and you'll get the basic rules of movement before long.
Once you've done well enough with two screens, dRive adds a third, acceleration, on the right. The same rules apply as before, but if you're on one of the end screens, you have no direct control over the far screen at all: everything gets filtered through the center screen. As such you may be tempted to control only the center screen, but if you try it, you may find that the right hand screen offers you more control. And there's an extra bonus to controlling that one directly: it's worth 4x as many points as the left screen, and twice the center.
As you play dRive, you'll also run into three more types of falling blocks. The (+) increases your speed, but only when you take control of the screen you caught it on. The (-) decreases your speed in the same way. And the smaller pink squares are extra lives, catch them to keep the dark squares from knocking off your screens.
Analysis: In some ways, dRive is hard to classify. Although it certainly acts like a game in many ways, the simple graphics, slow pace early on, and the fact that there are only 6 types of falling objects all combine to give the impression that it's more a learning tool or toy than a full game. This does not, however, mean that it's boring, especially if you expand your attention to all three screens instead of focusing on one and letting the others fend for themselves.
If there were a category for greatest innovation within the competition, dRive would have won it hands-down. It takes a lot of chutzpah to turn what many people consider a difficult subject into a game, and a lot of talent to pull it off. And the math geek in me rejoices at the thought that some time spent playing dRive might help struggling students get a visceral feel for the basic concepts of calculus.
It may not have won any prizes, but dRive is still innovative and fascinating, and we hope to see more from Twig Games in the future. Go ahead, give it a try. Despite its shortcomings, it's fun, and who knows? You might actually learn something.
Update: Well, maybe it won a prize after all! Lars A. Doucet has donated $250 of his 2nd place prize to dRive. Way to go, Lars, and congratulations to Alex!