Lost & Hound, as described by its creator Brian Fairbanks, is a ‘scent-tracking rescue dog game’. In it, you play as a little corgi that must use the power of your nose (but really, the power of your ears) to save the freakin’ day. It’s an adorable tale of saving lives while also being a very good doggy.
“The way that I frame it for people,” Fairbanks explains, “is to think Okami meets L.A. Noire. You have all the fun of playing as an animal, combined with this very natural and real-world application of scent tracking.”
Something notable about Lost & Hound is that upon starting the game, the UI is narrated to you. This is because Lost & Hound has not only been made with sighted players in mind but also blind and sight-impaired players (don’t worry, if the UI narration is a little overwhelming it’s VERY easy to turn off).
When Fairbanks started in the game dev world, it was not as a programmer or developer, but actually as an audio freelancer. “I was doing sound and music and some voice processing, and voice acting a little bit,” Fairbanks says. “I suddenly became aware of something called an Audio Game Jam.” Audio games, for those unaware, are a genre of games made with blind players in mind.
Fairbanks continues, “The games that came out of it were all by sighted people for blind people, and their hearts were in the right place, bless them, but they were just the wrong answer. As an example, one of them was audio Frogger. You know, the game Frogger where you literally just try to survive through traffic? Well, thinking as a blind person, traffic has to be probably one of the most stressful parts of your day, getting through traffic and not getting hit by a car. There has to be some stress there.”
And that’s a great point, why would you want to play a game that makes you relive an experience in your day-to-day life, albeit while being a frog, that just so happens to be an incredibly stressful experience? As Fairbanks says, while the developer’s heart was in the right place, “This probably isn’t a fun thing to gamify.”
That was the point when he realised he couldn’t knock something without trying to find a better solution. So that’s where Lost & Hound started: as a desire to make an audio game that relays an enjoyable experience. And Fairbanks, somebody who has two dogs that he loves dearly, saw another opportunity.
In a way, this game is similar to Stray in the sense that there’s an element of love and understanding for man’s best friend. Not only do you play a dog, but the main tools within the game are ones used by a dog, so eventually you really do feel like you’re a little corgi. Fairbanks explains that while walking his two dogs, he’d notice that their noses would always lead the way.
“Walking one dog is very random, they just kind of poke around erratically. Walking two dogs, they’ll all converge on a point, and you can see what they’re smelling in a way. The game idea grew out of that because when you have two dogs, there’s an organization to what they’re pointing to and you can be like, ‘Oh yeah, something smelly happened over there. That’s cool.’ And there’s a whole world of information that humans don’t have access to.”
While playing the game, I found myself having to take a moment to change the way I approached gameplay. Rather than wholly relying on what I could see, I had to keep an ear out for the scent trail. This isn’t the first time that a mechanic like this has been used in games, with Fairbanks giving examples like Left 4 Dead 2 and Overwatch of games where you’ll “hear a specific noise and alter your gameplay immediately”. Lost & Hound takes that concept and gives it to you from the get-go.
Now all this being said, Lost & Hound isn’t just a ‘game for blind people’, and I think that’s a misconception that a lot of people will have when hearing about it. Really, at its core, Lost & Hound is a game for everybody. That includes sighted people, blind people, sight-impaired people, and deaf and hearing-impaired people as well.
“There’s a dog in-game, Luna, that you choose as a companion,” Fairbanks says, “She translates all of the game’s audio information that the player needs to know into visuals. So if you’re on the scent trail and you go off it, the colours start to pale a bit. And she’s the deaf accessibility representation.” When I asked what was needed to make a game that’s playable by as many people as possible, a large part of it for him was empathy, and having accessibility in mind from the start of development rather than at the end of it.
“I think the way that we [game developers] do it is we finish a game and we’re like, ‘Cool. Now, what can we do to make it accessible?’ And it’s retrofitting and it’s clumsy. 99% of the time it’s done with UI, which as you mentioned earlier in a slightly different context, has this sense of other. When you give accessibility UI to a player, you’re saying, ‘Okay, you are different. Here’s what you need to know.’ And that’s cool because it is inclusive at the end of the day, but it’s also a little patronizing and it’s also a little fragmenting.”
When playing Lost & Hound as a sighted person, you’ll realise just how over-reliant you are on visuals when playing games. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not for you. I really enjoyed having to switch my shit up and learn how to play a game from a different perspective. Through five years of development, Lost & Hound has not only manifested as a game where you play a funny little corgi saving the day, but also an interactive lesson in empathy.
Lost & Hound is truly a game made for everyone at its core, and thanks to the prior expertise of the developer in audio engineering, is a masterclass in the use of sound to drive home the main gameplay mechanic. My advice? Play it with headphones. The use of directional sound is mindblowing, especially in a section of the game where you’re in a harsh storm environment and you’re really relying on your wet little nose.
Sure, I will say that the graphics aren’t mindblowing, but they’re still quite cutesy and colourful and they do the job. Where Lost & Hound thrives is everything it does outside of the visuals, and makes a case for the argument that great games aren’t made purely from their graphics. If you’ve got a good concept and a desire to make a game playable even by those that can’t see the screen, you can make it work. And Lost & Hound makes it work.
The game is a finalist for Excellence in Accessibility at the Australian Game Developer Awards this year, which Fairbanks described as a “real moment of arrival”. After playing Lost & Hound, a great little dog simulator that shifted the way I approach gameplay and provided just enough of a challenge that it kept me engaged without frustrating me, I can say confidently that the nomination is well-deserved.
Lost & Hound is available now on PC.
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