Video Game Difficulty Is An Accessibility Issue
In the weeks following the release of FromSoftware’s latest game for masochists, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, there’s been plenty of online discussion about difficulty in games, and whether more games should offer adjustable settings to alter the challenge. Accessibility is often discussed in regards to specific options and hardware – difficulty also plays a substantial role.
This difficulty discussion was stoked by a Forbes article proposing that Sekiro needs an “easy mode” to cater for more players, resulting in a wide debate about the merits of difficulty settings, accessibility, and whether these factors impact game developers’ creative visions.
Defining Difficulty And Accessibility
Much of the current discussion has created visible confusion as to what the concepts of difficulty and accessibility are within the context of games. Ian Hamilton, an independent accessibility specialist who has worked with AAA and independent developers, and contributed to the living Game Accessibility Guidelines document, says that difficulty is more than an option you select on a menu.
“Difficulty is a relative term,” Hamilton said. “It’s what you experience as a result of the balance between your own abilities and the barriers that a game presents.”
Accessibility, on the other hand, is about avoiding mismatches between abilities and barriers. When some kind of impairment comes up against an unnecessary barrier, that mismatch is disabling – in the context of games, it causes extra difficulty, which can be exclusionary for some players.
“While ‘accessibility’ and ‘difficulty’ are not interchangeable, all difficulty options are beneficial for accessibility, and all accessibility options modify difficulty,” Hamilton said.
Another games accessibility expert, Cherry Thompson, wrote for IGN that difficulty settings are just one of many accessibility tools, and that Sekiro is arguably the most accessible FromSoftware game yet. Some other increasingly used accessibility tools in games include controller remapping and user interface (UI) adjustments.
The fact anyone can benefit from these settings is why Thompson believes players shouldn’t be segregated based on what they use:
All. Options. Are. Accessibility.
Please let’s move on from separating ‘accessibility options’ and ‘options’. I firmly believe what we’ve seen this past week is in part a symptom of the stigmatization that Othering and separating disability needs
— Cherry [Rae] is a cyberpunk (@cherryrae) April 4, 2019
Is This “Easy Mode”?
Historically, games have approached difficulty in many different ways, most commonly through the binary “easy” through to “hard” mode presets that adjust various parameters according to the genre. It’s an imperfect system, as Derek Yu, creator of Spelunky, notes:
A fundamental problem with difficulty options in games is that there are many players between obvious skill levels. This means:
1. Players have to immediately make an important decision without adequate knowledge.
2. Players will continue to question that decision during play.
— Derek Yu (@mossmouth) March 31, 2019
When planning these systems, Hamilton encourages developers to design with transparency and clarity for players in mind.
“Be clear about what your options do,” Hamilton said. “Give players a chance to try them out without fear of being locked in for the whole playthrough, don’t make players start again or lose achievements just to get to the experience that works for them.”
“The designers of games that people view [as hard], whether it’s Sekiro, Cuphead, Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Celeste and so on have a shared design intent, and it isn’t ‘hard’ – it’s success through persistence”
Aside from clearly communicating the specifics of what different settings change, Hamilton ultimately describes rigid easy or hard modes as a “really blunt instrument”, which can cause players to slip through the cracks, disability or no.
“Someone having slow reaction speeds doesn’t mean they also automatically have difficulty outsmarting AI or managing ammo, yet that’s often the kind of thing that broad difficulty settings assume,” Hamilton said.
He wishes to see more games offer customisation beyond preset difficulty modes, pointing to games such as Way of the Passive Fist (currently $2 on Steam!) and sports games such as the FIFA series that offer detailed slider settings to give players more agency over their gaming experience.
Illustrating Hamilton’s point perfectly, Ubisoft updated Assassin’s Creed Origins on PC with the Animus Control Panel, a vault of presets and sliders giving players significant control over many variables. Hopefully this type of customisation extends to more games on more platforms.
According to the Game Accessibility Guidelines, the more variables available for players to fine tune, the better, citing Dishonored 2 as an example. Also, offering separate difficulty presets for different gameplay elements is another good method of introducing more accessible options – Silent Hill 2 did this back in 2001, offering separate modifiers for its action and puzzles respectively. More recently, 2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider included a similar concept, along with a clear explanation for each setting.
Often mentioned as the current benchmark of accessible difficulty settings is Celeste, a game I love, and winner of Best Independent Game at The Game Awards 2018. The challenging 2D platforming game is highly regarded for many reasons, one being its Assist Mode, a cluster of bespoke settings aimed at empowering anyone to scale the game’s titular mountain.
Celeste's "Assist Mode" is such a clever way of making a difficult game accessible to a wider audience. It's framed perfectly too – not insulting, not condescending, just accepting. pic.twitter.com/errjcE5TcQ
— Matt Rowlabo (@matt_roly) January 25, 2018
Although two very different-looking games on the surface, Celeste and Sekiro share similar design philosophies according to Hamilton – and it’s not being “hard” games, which is often a reductive term.
“The designers of games that people view [as hard], whether it’s Sekiro, Cuphead, Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, Celeste and so on have a shared design intent, and it isn’t ‘hard’ – it’s success through persistence,” Hamilton said.
“Where Sekiro varies a bit is in having a conflicting design goal of players having all tackled similar barriers so they can have easily relatable discussions with each other. It’s about community. That’s the specific reason why they don’t have as many options as those other examples.”
Player Agency Versus Creative Intent
Player feedback has become an integral component of game development post-launch, now more than ever due to the ability to push online updates. Dodge Roll, the team behind 2016 indie hit Enter the Gungeon, released a major free content update titled Advanced Gungeons & Draguns in 2018, implementing player feedback and other additions to give the game a facelift. Although Enter the Gungeon is a unique case, due to its random-number-generator roguelike structure influencing difficulty on a floating scale, Dodge Roll’s Dave Crooks said at PAX Australia 2018 that many players struggled with the base game’s difficulty.
Without compromising the challenging nature of Enter the Gungeon, Dodge Roll rolled out the Advanced Gungeons & Draguns update to, in Crooks’ words, make “the player more powerful more often”. The cleverly designed enemies and bullet-shaped bastard bosses still require perseverance to be bested, but the challenge is now more accessible to more players – a shift in design philosophy Crooks believes led to a better game.
Another example of player feedback informing game design came recently from The Game Bakers, the studio behind the tough boss-fight marathon Furi, releasing the “Freedom Update”. This included options to skip fight sections, weaken bosses, or even become invincible to help practice and learn combat patterns in a low-risk environment.
A low-risk environment for making mistakes and learning is where Sekiro stands out from Demon/Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Early in the game, you meet an undying sparring partner with whom you can practice techniques without fear of dying – a feature praised by Thompson in their IGN article. Additionally, Sekiro’s resurrection ability encourages persistence by allowing you to immediately respawn once during combat but then needs recharging before another use.
However, Sekiro remains an intimidating prospect for many potential players. Celeste developer Matt Thorson weighed in on Twitter to share what Assist Mode-like system could look like in Sekiro:
If Sekiro had a Celeste-style Assist mode:
-Combat Speed (50-100%, sets game speed while enemies are aggro'd)
-Resurrections (+1, or infinite)
-Invisible While Sneaking
-Invincible (while drinking gourd, or always)
— Matt Thorson 🍂 (@MattThorson) April 3, 2019
Extra or unlimited resurrections has also been suggested by Lance McDonald, a YouTuber known for hacking into FromSoftware games to uncover cut content. However, McDonald feels that other tweaks would drastically change the core gameplay, especially considering his view that Sekiro’s approach to difficulty is vastly different to the studio’s previous games, due to an increased focus on blocking, parrying and movement.
“Sekiro also lets you run away from most boss encounters, and pause the game to reassign items during combat,” McDonald said. “Sekiro‘s difficulty mostly comes from overcoming the dramatically increased sense of failure that comes with death in this new title.”
Accessibility isn’t there to conflict with your vision, it’s there to support it.
Conversely, fathering a daughter with a disability, McDonald notices she succeeds most when playing games that “are just designed without failure being a game-state”, like Fez. Considering this, Sekiro’s sparring area is of great importance, removing failure entirely, which may be of great benefit to those who need time to hone their skills, in addition to any other accessibility tweaks that could be implemented — an idea McDonald fully supports.
“I think that, with regard to accessibility, it would be nice if there were ways to tweak certain aspects of the game that might be considered adjacent to ‘difficulty’ by players without disabilities.”
As for potentially tampering with the vision and intent of games like Sekiro, Hamilton questions whether options that change a game’s core experience are an issue, as the altered experience likely still holds value. He adds that there are many different aspects of modern games players find valuable and that every experience is unique to them – one of the highlights of the medium.
“At a basic level though there shouldn’t be a balance between vision and accessibility,” Hamilton said. “Accessibility isn’t there to conflict with your vision, it’s there to support it. To avoid unnecessary barriers between players and the experience that you want them to have.”
“There’s a great deal to appreciate in today’s games, lots of different angles on what someone would find to be a valuable experience.”
Adding to the perspective of increased player agency being a good thing, Waypoint’s Patrick Klepek posits that we as players have been pushing against intended game design for years, such as using mods and looking up walkthroughs, dispelling the argument of game developers’ artistic vision being sacred and untouchable. Furthermore, Jake Solomon, designer on hardcore sci-fi strategy games XCOM and XCOM 2, implores you to play the series however you want to:
In regards to easy modes: Over 80% of XCOM players choose our Easy and Normal modes. 80%! Play the game the way that’s fun for you. Period.
— Jake Solomon (@SolomonJake) April 4, 2019
Finally, Cory Barlog, director of 2018’s God of War, definitively shut down any argument that accessibility hinders artistic vision:
Accessibility has never and will never be a compromise to my vision.
— Cory Barlog 🎮 #BAFTAGames (@corybarlog) April 7, 2019
Trying to design for every potential human variation is impossible, but Hamilton says you don’t have to.
“Give people the tools, empower them to be able to do it themselves, to adjust the game to fit their own unique needs and preferences,” Hamilton said.
By empowering players to have agency over their gaming experiences, that’s what will generate more accessibility across all games.
After all, to quote Microsoft’s 2019 Super Bowl ad: when everybody plays, we all win.