Example of a game's screen for choosing difficulty

When Every Game is Hard Mode

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., practicing beating 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.


Good to have you back Colleen, I missed your contributions in the forums and on the front page!

dejanzie wrote:

Good to have you back Colleen, I missed your contributions in the forums and on the front page!


I clicked the forum link thinking this was going to be a just a thread and was very pleased to see an article!!!

I generally like Dan Tack but that article irked me as well. You're telling me there can't be a less demanding option in a completely single player game because of a weakness in your character that once acknowledged you could work on overcoming? Ugh, dude.

Every game should, at minimum, have an "almost God mode" easy difficulty level. Every game in which such a thing can reasonably be done. That has been my opinion for a long time, and it wasn't even about people with different physical abilities and unique challenges. The opinion was simply born from seeing non-gamers having something capture their attention and wanting to try it. You never know what game it is that will attract someone, and redirecting them to go try some other game because it's "better for beginners" is not an answer.

And once you've accepted the "almost God mode" difficulty is a thing to implement, it becomes trivial to also fill in the gaps between that and what you would previously have made the easiest difficulty with some additional in-between options.

Anyone whose argument against easy modes comes down to, "I don't have the self control to not use it myself" is just telling on themselves.

"Running up against a wall for hours in Sekiro is a rough ride, but one I wouldn’t trade for the world"

... "except if there was an easy mode, I would totally chump out." So much for not trading it for the world, huh?

Glad to have you back on the front page.

Thank you for the insightful article. I've been experiencing mobility issues with my wrists/hands/fingers this past year and as thus have had to tailor my time with video games. Less frequent. Shorter duration. Select games per my physical condition. It was quite a change. Glad to see some conversation on the subject.

Thanks for the article!

Thank you all for the welcome.

The topic is going to be evergreen, I fear. I wrote the first draft of this back in April, but just as this was making it through editorial this week the whole topic hit the fan again with Mark Kern weighing in on Twitter this last week because Kern's upset that Death Standing has included an Easy Mode designed to let people experience the story and Adam Savage basically telling him to go soak his head.

Does the Death Stranding easy mode explain what the hell you're seeing?

imbiginjapan wrote:

I generally like Dan Tack but that article irked me as well. You're telling me there can't be a less demanding option in a completely single player game because of a weakness in your character that once acknowledged you could work on overcoming? Ugh, dude.

That sort of argument really gets under my skin too. It’s just another variant of “I like it better this way, so this way must be better.” And it amazes me how many people fall into this trap. Like if he stopped to think for a second that an experience being meaningful for him doesn’t make it best for everyone, we wouldn’t even have this argument at all.

Anyway, excellent article, momgamer. Really enjoyed it.

I believe I previously held differing views to those I now have concerning difficulty. Also, the ability to pause, and aim assist. (I'm honestly unsure. It is somewhat trivial in the grand scheme, and I do prefer to look forward rather than backward. Nevertheless, it sounds accurate for a younger challenge seeking version of myself who could suffer from indecision and whimsy. Remove the choice so I wouldn't have to make the call myself, nor even ponder it.) Now, and for some time, I'm very much on board with broader choice and wider accessibility. I'm no longer paralyzed by choice (that's a real issue, somehow, that affected my everything for a long, long time) and with priorities changing, as well as wear and tear to my joints, I can see the benefits and embrace the ability to tailor to one's own experience.

I'm now also very much aware of how selfish my opposing stance was, and for such trivial/privileged/crisis of confidence/fear of missing out reasoning, no less, when compared to severe debilitating issues that literally cannot be remedied without these accessibility options.

I sort of just rambled there in an effort to get my head around where, perhaps, the naysayers may be coming from. Unless I'm being too naive, and too kind, in the face of gatekeepers looking to protect their git gud hardcore pro gamer superiority complex. Hopefully not.

Rat Boy wrote:

Does the Death Stranding easy mode explain what the hell you're seeing?

Not as far as I can tell. You know how Kojima is.

I've been playing these games for a long time and thought I knew the score, but the flaming whale popping up out of the desert in the last one was a giant WTHeck.

I actually don't just want Easy Mode. I want an Easy Mode that's still fun. This is from my Mass Effect experiences. Many reviewers and gamers often view ME2 as a poor cover shooter. Which it is. But that's only one aspect of the game, and if you stick to that, Insanity difficulty will seem insurmountable.

But if you play the combo game or the squad tactics game, it becomes so much better. I like that there are easy modes on Mass Effect, but I also wish it was more fun to play on Easy Mode. Easy should not mean less fun.

I'm currently on a Monster Hunter binge, and I like how they do it there. Yes, there actually is no difficulty setting. The monsters are as they are, period.

But you can gear up to trivialize many challenges, and if you're having difficulty with anything, you can team up with other players and perform other tasks helpful to the hunt but do not require the same skill set.

You can set up traps to control the monster, deploy at-range status effects, heal other players of status ailments, buff them, heal HP, and so on. And you can equip temporary buffs to make yourself unhittable or be extra tanky, so you can have a bit of that hitting action, too.

Past a certain point, this becomes untenable, but even the last story boss can be completed this way, and so much content is open for grinding afterwards that getting your gear on should be both fun and accessible.

I don't have any thoughts that haven't already been posted, but I want to say thank you for sharing your experiences.

*Legion* wrote:
"Running up against a wall for hours in Sekiro is a rough ride, but one I wouldn’t trade for the world"

... "except if there was an easy mode, I would totally chump out." So much for not trading it for the world, huh?

Exactly what I was going to post.

I've been thinking a bunch since reading this about the fuzzy grey line between the need for accessibility in games, and the preference for it.

To whit, I'm lucky enough to not have any impediment to playing games on Ultra Ridiculous difficulty other than the simple fact that it's not fun for me.

The more I thought about it, the less convinced I got that that fuzzy grey line really existed at all. Is there really much of an effective difference between me giving up on a game because I suck at it due to lack of practice or familiarity with the genre and someone else giving up on the game because their colorblindness makes it difficult to engage with?

Neither of us are having fun, but both of us might have done if there were some tweaks to game design.

Btw, if you're reading this thinking that you don't have any disabilities, and this post isn't really for you? Think real hard about that, likely-entering-middle-age-gamer-with-job. The older the player base gets, the more they're going to start running up against things like arthritis and neuro-muscular disorders that are going to make these modes necessary for them.

Cooncidence? Polygon recently posted an opinion piece on the subject.


I accidentally stumbled across this marvelous article today, and it echoes things I have been yapping about on forums for years. As I aged and my reaction time slowed, I had to give up more and more games I used to enjoy. First it was multiplayer shooters, as I lost the ability to maintain a steady mouse aim. That was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as my shooting got worse, multiplayer games got more toxic.

Next was RTS games. I just couldn’t keep up. This was a real drag for me as they were among my favorite games. Even games that included an “easy” mode either didn’t make it easy enough, or they couched the difficulty setting in insulting terms. Nothing makes me drop a game faster than when it insults me.

I started suggesting to anyone who would listen that if a game is going to include an easy mode, it should be SUPER easy. Mass Effect made it simpler to make my case when it included “narrative” mode. An actual easy setting that acknowledges the player’s preference without being insulting!

The way I see it, developers who fail to include a proper easy difficulty are just leaving money on the table. They’re throwing away money from people with physical issues and people like me who aren’t looking for a challenge and just want to kick back and have an interactive audio visual experience. I know there is a development cost associated with configuring, testing, and making customers aware of a special difficulty mode, but I wonder if anyone is bothering to do the cost benefit analysis. Also, it will only get more profitable with the graying of the population that grew up playing games.