Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromiel

Caring for animals in the frozen north is the heart of Dog Sled Saga

Caring for animals in the frozen north is the heart of Dog Sled Saga

The opening trailer for Dog Sled Saga is more poetic than I'm used to seeing from a Kickstarter video. The narrator waxes philosophically about the relationship a person has with their dog, and the loyalty that a dog gives in return.

Dog Sled Saga is a simulation game similar in style to Game Dev Story, about mushers competing with a squad of hounds in Iditarod-style races. However, I came to find out that it's also a game about the relationships we build with the animals that are close to us, and the environment that strains and strengthens that kinship.

Man and beast

“Even though the game is about dogs, I'm generalizing it in my mind to all pets,” said Dan FitzGerald, one the two creators behind the game. “My dog passed away about five years ago, but I'm a cat owner and I have a lot of strong feelings about being a cat owner and a pet owner.

“It's hard to put into words, but the thing I love about being a pet owner is learning the sort of vocabulary they have. The way they meow or bark or whatever. The non-verbal stuff, and how to interact with them in a way that works for both of you.”

It might sound a little silly to people who haven't spent years with an animal as a housemate or developing a bond with any animal, but there's a sort of language that develops between man and beast over time. Not often in spoken language, but in the way you learn to live together and help each other get what you need to get through the day.

“I always have moments when I'm weirded out by pets being different animals,” said Lisa Bromiel, artist and co-creator of Dog Sled Saga. “All of the sudden I'll just realize like, whoa, you're an animal and you're in my house. And we're dependent on each other's friendship.”

It's this co-dependency that forms one of the centers of Dog Sled Saga. The dogs and the racers are a unit, and both have needs. You're more responsible for the dogs' health, but you certainly couldn't win a sled race without them being healthy, either.

Dog Sled Saga reflects that relationship in its game play as well as you'll need to constantly be caring for your dogs and keeping them well fed and healthy. Dogs who aren't cared for slowly begin to lose their edge.

“The biggest challenge for us is designing the way the skills and long-term properties of the dogs work, so that in your head you're actually thinking about how what you're doing affects this dog that you know. You know their name, and what you've done together. We want to design it in a way that you're alert to its systems in a way that reflects having a pet.”

The way the dogs move and breath are things that are meant to give you clues to their health and well-being, and if you're not being an attentive companion then you'll suffer as well.

The cold north

The poetic monologue about caring for animals is bookended by scenes of two mushers, as dog sled racers are known, sitting around a campfire in the middle of nowhere. This represents the other main theme of the game: the peaceful seclusion of a dark sky and a bright fire in the far north.

“I grew up as a boy scout and somebody who likes to be out in the woods a lot, and having campfires in people's backyards and whatnot. That picture is actually from a photograph of us when we were sitting around at a campfire in Lansing, Iowa, and it felt like just the perfect place where these people would be stopped at.”

The scene is meant to paint a picture in your mind and help set the mood for the rest of Dog Sled Saga.

“That's me kind of remembering campfires I was at when I was a kid. That whole late night heart-to-heart at a campfire thing, said FitzGerald. “I couldn't specify any memory in particular, but that's something I grew up with.”

The game's location of Mt. Saint Something is a character unto itself, and lore has specifically been built into the game in order to enhance its sense of place and history. It's like a lonely, frozen version of Canabalt's alien apocalypse. It tells a small, simple lesson that enhances the mood.

Dog Sled Saga has raised its funding goal on Kickstarter, and then some.