Back in April, I kept bumping up against the internet flap about the difficulty in From Software's Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice. The whole topic infuriated me, but it took months of introspection to clarify and congeal my thoughts into what I hope will be a framework for discussing the basic problem from my vantage point. There seems to be another round of this sloshing around the internet, so I am kind of glad I waited and got my thoughts in order before I stepped in.
The online conversation around Sekiro focused on whether it should include difficulty settings less than "hard." But every game I play is already on "hard" mode. An entertaining challenge for some is physically impossible for me. Spending any time on my PC involves special keyboards and pointing technologies. I go between a trackball, a vertical mouse, and a regular mouse depending on the state of my body on any given day. I have to ration my time in Kingdom Hearts III because the Dualshock III controller is very cramped for me. Heck, I have to use an ergonomic stylus to play Merge Dragons on my iPad for more than a couple minutes because all the touching and dragging wears so badly on the joints and tendons in my fingers.
So when I read one author who didn't want an easy mode in Sekiro because they'd be tempted to use it instead of powering through the difficult battles, I lost my temper enough to step away from the keyboard. I'm not simplifying or discoloring the premise of the article, either; the last paragraph reads:
"Running up against a wall for hours in Sekiro is a rough ride, but one I wouldn’t trade for the world, and the seductive option to simply bypass something giving me a problem would almost certainly win out against Demon of Hatred or Isshin, the Sword Saint. Yes, they can be learned. Yes, they can be conquered. But after being busted into dust time after time, I know I’d be tempted, and cheat myself out of the nucleus of what makes From games truly magical."
It's not that I don't like a challenge, don't like From Software's style, or that I won't persevere. I finished Dark Souls and I loved it. It took me two frelling years to beat it, and it was by the skin of my teeth. But I did it. That was five years ago. Now, I wouldn't even attempt it. I haven't played the sequel, and I probably never will. My physical condition has changed enough that while I really enjoyed the lore, I cannot physically perform the tasks. Like Sekiro, Dark Souls does not provide any way to experience it that I can physically manage anymore.
While the ableist myopia and tone-deaf crowing online is maddening when you’re on the other side of the equation, I had chosen to keep my anger and frustration to myself because I understood that not everyone has the same battles as I. Accessibility is a very large, complex issue. But on my side of the keyboard, it's a very good thing my voice recognition software has had me shouting at it often enough that it can handle the difference in inflection in my voice.
When I even mention my issues, I am often dismissed. A response I've seen over and over is to "just do something." Like the casually tossed-out suggestion can't possibly be one I've already thought of, tried, and found that it doesn't actually fix the issue. It won't surprise you that those who thrust their just about simply don't understand the problem.
- Just use an adaptive controller! Assistive technologies do help with some issues, but not all. For example, it doesn't solve the fact that quickly hitting buttons repeatedly can be difficult or painful, regardless of the input scheme. It also doesn't solve gameplay that requires multi-key, accurate control combinations, at least not without adding another set of Byzantine controls to memorize. Besides, so much difficulty is built directly into the game's structure and cannot be adjusted or scaled simply by substituting the controller.
- Just try again (and again and again and again, ad infinitum)! If you're trying to get over a mobility challenge, handle what aging does to your twitch reflexes, or simply have a frickin' job/family/etc.,
practicingbeating your head against an insanely difficult fight for hours just to master the right dodge timing is simply not feasible for many people. There's no adaptive controller in the world that's going to give you that kind of time.
- You're just asking for accessibility! True. But making that distinction doesn't make sense since accessibility and difficulty are part and parcel of the same thing. If I have a control mobility issue that makes it so I can only press a button once every half-second, but an attack "charge up" mechanic requires me to hit the button twice as fast in order to strike before the bad guy eats me, then giving me a different button choice or a lever to press won't help. How about including a mode where the gauge fills faster with fewer/slower button hits to help those with the mobility issues who can’t hit the keys like Rachmaninoff? Not to mention those who have to have long, fancy fingernails for work (another issue often not thought about in game controller/usability design).
- You can do it just like that guy! No. Not everyone is the same. There are many different kinds of challenges that affect gameplay. That quadraplegic who rawked this game keeps coming up in this conversation, but they have a different set of challenges to overcome.
They've found a way to make things work within their paradigm and that's wonderful. What's not wonderful is the repellent crowing that since they could do it, everyone else can. Their solution doesn’t apply to everyone, and their success doesn't mean that others should be left out of consideration.
- Just watch someone else play! Yes, I can go watch streams of it. But that doesn’t have the same impact for me as getting to it on my own. Plus it feels like cheating. Would that be good enough for you?
It’s not rocket surgery. Some developers have put thought into this. Dishonored 2 has a great model for allowing each user to customize the difficulty of the challenge they are looking to face. And it doesn't even have to be that granular. The Kingdom Hearts games have a great way of disassociating different game styles away from some sort of better/worse hierarchy—they're just different ways to play, and all it takes is answering a couple questions while you're building your character.
I get it: finishing a hard game is a point of pride. I take pride in having completed the original Dark Souls. But I also take pride in not dying at the crashed airplane in the swamp part of Left for Dead 2 on easy mode (razzle-frazzin' mud men...). In any case, whether or not I can be prideful shouldn't have any bearing on this discussion. I don't understand how me finishing a game on a different mode in any way invalidates the achievement of anyone else finishing it on whatever mode they chose.
I’m not under any illusions that this is going to magically cause the industry to start putting more resources towards accessibility. We can ask for consideration in the design process, but we can't force anyone to do anything about it. I'll miss out on Sekiro. That's how From Software has chosen to make their games. But I'm hoping that by talking more about these issues, next time they (and other developers) will consider what it means to exclude those of us who want to try and learn and grow and experience their worlds, but simply cannot do it the same way.