Accessible Game Feature – Lost and Hound

Brian4 minute read

Lost and Hound is a scent tracking simulator with a deep narrative, where you play as a dog and track people who are lost or in trouble, help solve mysteries and crimes. It plays with the drama of human safety, but does so without utilising violence. 

It was built around blind accessibility, which was a great marriage because scent tracking dogs don’t use their eyes much. Scent is represented by a low humming sound that automatically plays when the character walks over the path taken previously by something else in the level. Also, I’m a sound designer by trade originally, so this game is a way for me to truly use sound as a mechanic, and not simply the followup or pairing to a visual. But to expand upon the accessibility part, each level needs a few things for it to truly work for blind people. One, it needs the scent trail, of course. Two, it needs a way to find the scent trail if it’s lost: that’s where sniffing comes in. Press the sniff button, and a sound is heard in the distance, like a sonar ping. You can find your way to it by deciding if it’s more in the left or right ear then making it equal in both, then running towards it. That’s the scent trail. Third, each level needs an anchor, or a way for the player to build the map in their head. In the first level of the game, it’s the river. You can hear it from almost anywhere in the level with the dynamic audio system that mimics a dogs ears. More on that later. Fourth, you need little signifiers that you’re going the right way. In this case, Hayden (Biscuit’s owner) finds little clues and calls your attention to them, telling you you’re on the right path.

The dynamic audio system also helps players visualise a map of the level in their head. When you’re walking, you’re sniffing the ground. Your head is pointed down, you can really only hear the trail and your footsteps. When you stop walking, your head pops up and your ears are facing forward. You can now hear in front of you for a very long way. Check the video out here:

I’ve taken the game to PAX East and PAX Aus, and it is always received very well. I think something that the game does, that people aren’t yet talking about in the world of game accessibility, is that it is accessible without patronising the player. I am thrilled that more game developers than ever are thinking about accessibility measure they can take, but so often they choose measures that scale or remove the game’s challenges, and this is a mistake. A game without challenge isn’t fun in most genres, and it’s insulting to the player. It’s essentially saying “your disability has been considered, and here is something that won’t challenge you, you’re welcome.”

That bothers me deeply. Lost and Hound is really challenging, equally to blind and sighted players. I’ve seen young children succeed, and 30+ year-old adults give up. I’ve heard reports of playthroughs from blind people who have succeeded, and sighted people that struggled. It’s a game that uses audio heavily to inform your decisions, and that’s like picking something up with a muscle we rarely use: the weight of the object doesn’t matter, because the activity feels so new. 

I think this is the next step for accessibility, finding ways to not patronise your audience. I stumbled into it through my love of audio, but someone pointed out to me that it was nice to see that the game didn’t insult or undermine my disabled fans at all, and now it has me thinking of other accessibility measures I can take: I’m looking into building a system for deaf people, so that when they’re not on the scent trail, the colours of the world are slightly dull, even moving towards black and white, and when they’re on the scent trail, the world blooms with vibrant colours. I think game devs have to ask themselves, how can I reward my player apart from in-game systems like achievements and currency? 

As for a summary of the game, you play as Biscuit, the scent tracking Corgi. In the first level, you are practicing scent tracking with your owner out in the woods and a woman comes up and begs you to help find her son, who ran away while they were camping. So you’re thrust into the role of rescuer, and you have to follow the clues along his scent trail to find him. The game expands upon the bond between the dog and the owner, each level having its own self contained story and an overarching part of the main story as well. There are mini-levels which allow you to earn money: herding farm animals, acting as a game dog for hunters, finding truffles on a truffle farm, etc. You use this money to pay for fuel, unlocking main levels that are further away from home. Eventually, Biscuit and Hayden become a kind of privatized scent tracking service, called in to do everything from identifying criminals through smell, to finding survivors in a building collapse. 

The game plays with the feeling of loss, heavily. If the player pays attention to the dog’s owner Hayden, they’ll see his life is falling apart. He has recently been laid off, his fiance left him and he is estranged from his family, so he withdraws from interaction. The rest of the narrative has to do with finding his purpose, and Biscuit’s as well. 

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Accessibility evangelist, @lostandhound1, developer, audio specialist, #a11y, Oxford comma enthusiast. He/him. Hire me!

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