‘Difficulty’ in games is entirely relative to individual players; what’s ‘ultra hard’ and ‘unplayable’ for one is ‘too easy’ and ‘boring’ for another. Meaning, it’s a construct of the realities that game designers create, delicately tailored to the perceptions of their audience. And accessibility – my focus as a consultant on games, working with AAA developers like Guerrilla to Indies like Gambrinous – is an area of game design that’s often deeply misunderstood; it’s about barriers, not difficulty. So, by focusing on “difficulty modes” we might miss wider opportunities of being able to welcome more players because they may perceive any number of barriers to playing well or pain/stress free as ‘difficulty’. I’m here not just as an expert trying to shed some light, but also as a passionate fan of gruelling games like Souls-likes who wouldn’t want to see any of their defining qualities diminished.
Punishment, But It Feels So Good
Before I launch into the thick of it, it’s important I explore why I like punishing myself so much with said gruelling games. It’s fundamental to understanding why on Earth anyone else would want in on that.
I have physical and cognitive disabilities with overly complicated medical names, but it boils down to muscle strength and pain. My joints dislocate and I injure easily (more pain). I’ve had strokes that affect things like memory along with brain fog, and I’m also autistic and have ADHD which all affect my ability to process any kind of information, organize tasks, and think quickly. Because playing any kind of game isn’t just a physical task, but a cognitive one too.
So, I’m disabled and I completed Bloodborne solo, beating most bosses in around two to five attempts. It was an intensely emotional experience; harrowing at times, uplifting, damning, terrifying, beautiful, shocking, and painful. It’s a method of storytelling that’s unique, affecting, and quite indescribable. For me, this is the heart of Souls-like games, and it draws me in again and again. The Surge is the only game in 30+ years of playing games that I’ve completed three times! Quite the statement for a player with ADHD.
The experience of a Souls-like leaves me raw and vulnerable in a way no other game does. The act of repeatedly failing, combined with seemingly unbeatable odds is beautifully contrasted with my natural abilities to persist, find strength amongst weakness, and learn. I’m a heavily determined person, often much to my own detriment, and these games reward that.
Despite my cleverness and absolutely dogged resolve to succeed, I’m left exhausted and utterly vulnerable. I’m frequently beaten to within an inch of flailing despondently, but I find a way to come back victorious. Or, that’s how a good Souls-like ingeniously makes me feel through subtly crafted mechanics and near-invisible guidance. While I’m on the verge of tears, utterly broken, shakily mumbling ‘I can’t do this’, I have a breakthrough; I scrounge up the last of my courage, grit, and strength and… I win. Just like that.
It’s a truly fascinating psychological and physical journey because there’s more to it – it’s the intimate relationship between mechanics and story. The stories at their core are always about transcending the darkest times, beating the odds, and striving to come back from nothing short of desolation. The way the punishing gameplay echoes the storytelling is so commanding, it can only be experienced by playing. It’s such a simultaneously ugly and beautiful representation of life and existentialism.
For me, these games are special because it’s so much like my life. Being disabled is about navigating the world in permanent Hard Mode; constantly facing barriers, threats, and the painful realities of existence, yet I’m a survivor because I’m human. It says a lot about the concept of difficulty that I can even make that analogy.
Sure, there are some things I can’t do, and that’s okay; it’s life, for everyone. But for disabled people, we often can’t join in just because no one thought of us. It’s unbearably isolating and sad to be faced with other people’s palpable joy and camaraderie when you have to watch from the sidelines, again. It’s also not always an all-or-nothing situation of can or can’t. Sometimes, doing the thing is painful or extra exhausting (i.e. harder than it should be). So, yes, I completed Bloodborne, but in doing so I was left with hand injuries that took months to heal – and I’m not being hyperbolic. Playing exhausted me, both mentally and physically. It made me hyper-aware of my limitations as a disabled player.
When a game like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is released, the discussion often turns to “difficulty modes” in part because people want to join in, in a healthy way that works for their needs. They’re tired of being shut out completely or being made to feel inadequate because of their limitations. They desperately want to be a part of the hype. Missing out on the latest big deal really hurts, especially when it happens as often as it does for disabled people.
Accessibility is an area of game design that’s often deeply misunderstood; it’s about barriers, not difficulty.
With the screams of ‘Git Gud’ comes the fundamental misunderstanding of what accessibility actually is. Is it “difficulty modes”? That’s sometimes a small part of it, but it’s also so much more. Difficulty options are just one potential axis in which to solve unintentional barriers that disabled – and plenty of non-disabled – players face, but they’re not always the best way to solve them. In my job, I actively encourage teams to approach the subject with nuance and creativity because there’s the affronting misconception that disabled players can just, well, “play on easy”.
Hold up: what’s an ‘unintentional barrier’? Games are, at their core, a set of barriers arranged to create a challenge, mixed with the illusion that you’re solving it all yourself. There are times, however, where developers might have created barriers we don’t realize are there. It’s why we playtest, and it’s how we end up accidentally excluding players, especially disabled players, who we’d like to include. We deliberately mitigate and remove barriers all the time in the course of game design (Sekiro does this through its frequent checkpoint idols and the stealth indicators, for example) but if we don’t design and test with the full spectrum of our player base in mind, we’ll inevitably have unintentional barriers.
This is where accessibility comes in – we work to intentionally include as much of our audience as possible. We may not be able to remove all barriers and still have the game we want to make, so then it becomes about making the experience as consistent as possible to as much of our audience as possible.
It’s about making the experience as consistent as possible to as much of our audience as possible.
It’s important to understand that when players ask for “difficulty options” it might just be because that’s the simplest way for them to communicate their needs. It’s not their job to figure out the ideal solution to the barriers, but it is their role to voice their concerns of not being able to play at all, and statements about a game being ‘too hard’ are valid. Again, difficulty is relative to the individual, and it’s an abstract design concept that can be deeply connected to the way our bodies or minds function. We’ve become accustomed to the easy/medium/hard/ultra-mega-hard values through proliferation, but ultimately… they’re meaningless (look, I’m an existentialist, okay?).
If there’s anything I’ve learned in playing Souls-likes, it’s that there are 10 different ways to crack an egg (or a boss). This a fundamental truth of game design too, and if players are finding the barriers much too steep for them, then maybe we can take a deeper look at why that is and what accessibility in games looks like. Here are some truths I like to throw around:
Disability is normal human variation, so we’re already in every player base.
Some who need accessibility don’t identify as disabled (RSI, arthritis, back injury, broken arms, ADHD, overworked, tired, etc.).
There are hard and soft barriers (both = “too hard”):
Hard = Can’t play at all due to physical, cognitive and sensory barriers.
Soft = Playing is painful/exhausting/stressful/”difficult”.
Every option or setting is accessibility for someone.
Accessibility often happens accidentally (organically).
Accessibility doesn’t have to fundamentally alter the core experience for others or affect artistic vision.
FromSoftware Has Already Made Strides in Accessibility
FromSoftware has made a lot of improvements to its household formula since its early games, which shows that there’s plenty of room and definitely a place for further accessibility. As a fan, it feels like the developers are continuously refining the ultimate experience of persistence. Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think the Souls games are really about skill, but about encouraging people to face their demons, understand consequence, and keep going. It’s also probably a little about futility, but that’s for another article. There have been a lot of Quality-of-Life (QoL) improvements over From’s games and this is a root of accessibility as a concept. QoL is about making sure players have a smooth experience and don’t burn out before we want them to. This is important for all players, but especially disabled players as we sometimes have less energy, more pain or bigger limitations to begin with.
FromSoftware has made a lot of improvements to its household formula since its early games.
For example, since the first Dark Souls there’s been a very subtle but very important nugget of accessibility: audio sliders. I have something called sensory processing disorder where sounds, visuals, and haptics all overwhelm my brain; it shuts down and I stop processing information altogether. You can probably imagine the impact that would have on any game, much less a punishing one. It’s not about my level of skill. The boss music in Bloodborne is sublime, but it made the fights nearly impossible for me. So, I set the music at 2/10. The sound effects were vital to the cues for moves (my visual processing is slow), so I left those up, but I also turned down the voice because it included screams and roars. That was my secret to beating most of the bosses in two to five attempts.
There have been big leaps from Bloodborne to Sekiro alone. The most significant is controller remapping – I can now avoid injuring my hands and make the control scheme more accessible for me. Although sadly, the controls do use every single button and so remapping one frequently-used action means sacrificing a different one, such as eavesdrop and target-lock on enemies. Via settings, I control my experience in order to make it more accessible; to adapt and conquer.
Likewise, the UI (menus, HUD, tutorials, skill upgrades, etc.) has been greatly improved in Sekiro. It’s not perfect, but the text size, layout simplicity, and density are better than in any of From’s previous games. How accessible the UI is can really impact my ability to play a super-grueling game. If I’m fatiguing out on reading dense text or trying to parse character stats, by the time I get to any kind of fight I’m already halfway worn down. So, QoL improvements are straight-up accessibility. It’s not about skill.
Moreover, I’m still pretty early in Sekiro, but so far it does a much better job at introducing things to me in a clear way without it confusing me or tiring me out. Again, I know from other people sharing their frustrating experiences there’s still room for improvement here – more information about how to play could be given to those new to the genre but not to veterans who don’t need it, for instance. The training area at the very beginning is also a really important accessibility tool because it allows people a safe area (without risk of losing) to practice their timing and get to grips with the controls.
I’m not here to write a full accessibility report of Sekiro (after all, as The Joker taught us, if you’re good at something you never do it for free) but these are a few solid examples of settings or features that help with accessibility without being a “difficulty mode”; challenging the idea of what difficulty is. Pretty much all of the QoL improvements and existing settings lower the ‘difficulty’ for me, making Sekiro both more accessible and approachable (yes, they’re different, too). I could say the same thing about how much more forgiving the game design in Sekiro is, from timing to controls and the multiple possible play styles (stealth, charging, finesse, parrying, bashing). The fact that if I’m early for a parry most of the time that becomes a block is huge for me because I’m often way too early. Hey, I’m a jumpy wee thing with slow reactions to compensate for, what I can I say.
But like I said, there’s still room in a game like Sekiro for more accessibility. A glance at the meager settings menus should be enough to see that. Nothing is perfect and creators are always trying to improve and come closer to the vision they have for their players. We can achieve a lot with player-defined settings and it doesn’t have to be an ‘easy-mode’ per se. There are several avenues for more improvement and the fact we have so many people talking about how they want to play but can’t, should have us asking how. My hope is for us to move beyond the concept of difficulty all together into being more understanding of the spectrum of human experience.
Empowerment, Understanding, And Acceptance
Ultimately, accessibility in games is about empowering as many different types of players as possible to have pre-defined experiences. Reality dictates that we’re not all homogenous and so we’ll need to change some things in order for it to fit us. We don’t all go and buy the same sized pair of jeans! Difficulty is a construct and illusion of game design, and every setting can alter the perceived ‘difficulty’ for a given player. If the camera sensitivity is too high and it makes someone motion sick, suddenly the game is unreasonably difficult; even for someone we might consider highly skilled.
Difficulty is a construct and illusion of game design, and every setting can alter the perceived ‘difficulty’ for a given player.
As a wider community, we should also aim to foster a more welcoming space. It’s such an incredible thing to share a profound experience with other people. Isn’t it time we start listening to each other and understanding what our various struggles are? I feel for the people who can’t play or who hurt too much when they do because I’ve been there. Being told something this big, exciting, fun, challenging and wonderful isn’t for you hurts deeply, especially when it could be.
Importantly, I don’t want to fundamentally change games like this for everyone, I want to empower more players to curate their own challenge. I want to establish trust in the players so that they know what they want and need to access a similar experience and challenge themselves to face these grueling themes. Perhaps we can move on to acknowledge that options for things like button mashing are really no different than inverting controls or adjusting sensitivity. It’s all just adapting the experience for our individual bodies and minds. It’s brilliant when it’s as magically woven into the fabric of challenging games as the core gameplay.
Cherry Thompson works on accessibility in games and practices ultra-violence with feelings as a public speaker. They have a one-eyed cat called Odin who’s really good at designing his own games. You can follow them on Twitter @cherryrae.