Of hard games, accessibility and Easy Modes

It’s this time of the year again. FROMSOFTWARE, japanese gamedev studio most famously known for their “Dark Souls” series have made another game.
And just like Christmas happening every year, this too caused the ever same reaction to their releases since their first iteration of “Dark Souls” hit mainstream appeal in 2011.

It opened the floodgates of the “Hard games” debate.

Does Walking in Shadows need an easy mode?!

Let me explain. FROMSOFTWARE was never shy to create exceptionally hard games.
In most of their mainline franchises such as “King’s Field”, “Armored Core” or the aforementioned “Dark Souls”, the player is often faced with odds clearly stacked against them.
Enemies are seldom pushovers and offer a considerable challenge from start to finish.
And even their approach to equipment isn’t always “traditional”.
Dark Souls for instance directly links your mobility to your gear, turning your nimble and far reaching dodge roll into clumsy tumble the heavier your loadout gets.
So, do you take the extra protection and forfeit the chance to avoid damage entirely by quick evasive maneuvers, or do you fancy the gamble of being a lightning bruiser, rolling around the arena, avoiding damage left and right but always knowing that should you get hit, you’re toast?
The same goes for Armored Core. You build your giant mech out of several components, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Each part comes with weight, energy consumption, heat generation etc.
Building your mech is a game in and off itself.
Does my generator produce enough energy to support all parts and still put out enough power to support my thrusters and weapons?
All that armor plating is great, but can my radiator keep everything cool even in a fire fight?
Can my thrusters eben lift that hunk of metal without killing the generator?

You know, just the bare minimum of information needed for a new pair a thrusters… (Armored Core V)

FROMSOFTWARE rarely offers a “best” solution in their games.
No matter how you deck out your character, at the end of the day, it comes down to how you, the player, use it.
And this design mentality was the birthing ground of “Git Gud”.

Just what the doctor ordered. And they should know best.

Git Gud”, a meme now frowned upon as being “toxic” or “gatekeeping” was the usual answer to those that sought help in a FROMSOFTWARE game.
And frankly…in most cases, it was the only viable answer to the respective problem.
Get good at the game.
When no amount of gear, leveling and stat build helps, the only thing left is to improve your own skills.

Capcom’s “Monster Hunter” series follows a very similar approach. The gear in this game is exclusively handcrafted from parts of the very same monsters you try to slay.
In turn, this means that you need to overcome these beasts first to get your new armor and weapon upgrades. Until then, you have to do with what you already have.

Progression is entirely player driven, with gear only offering marginal boosts and is often only picked for secondary perks, like immunity to loud roars for instance,  rather than their core stats.

Alternative Title: “Groundhog Day – The press complains every time”

FROMSOFTWARE‘s latest game, “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” goes one step further still.
Equipment and character levels are gone for good.
The only character progression offered are mostly passive perks, like increased effectiveness of healing items, a handful of combat moves and defense options and “prosthetic upgrades”.
The latter boil down to situational special attacks using a variety of gadgets.
For instance, one of the earliest upgrades you get is the Shinobi Axe. It attaches a small hand axe to your prosthetic arm, allowing you to execute a slow, overhead swing with it, breaking an enemies guard.

But other than that, what you see is what you get.
Sekiro’s core gameplay is laser focused on a few, yet tightly knit mechanics, making for a much more “arcady” apprach, rather than an RPG number crunching session.

One of these mechanics, and arguably it’s most important one, is “deflection”.
It’s a fancy term for hitting the guard button the moment an enemy attack would have hit you, deflecting rather than flatout blocking their attack.
This does not only prevents you from taking damage, it also causes so called “posture damage” to the enemy. And this is where Sekiro differs from it’s peers it is so often compared to.

It is all about breaking an enemies posture, represented by a bar at the top of the screen that gradually fills whenever you deflect an enemy attack or hit an enemy directly.
Once that bar is filled, the enemy stumbles and you get a prompt to execute a deathblow.

Depending on the enemy, this could end the encounter immediately. Other enemies might require several deathblows to finally bite the dust for good.
But that’s it, it’s not about whacking your enemy to death, slowly draining their HP bar, it’s about getting into rhythm, deflecting their combos, landing your own blows during their recovery periods and eventually breaking their posture.
And all of this requires immense amounts of focus, patience, split-second decision making and fast reaction times.

And as stated at the beginning, this approach to game design has drawn the ire of certain people since 2011.

You’ll get used to it eventually…

It is “too hard”, it is “gatekeeping” players, “Git Gud” is a toxic response and the newest spin:
It’s not inclusive for disabled gamers.

Let me start by saying this:
There is plenty room for improvement when it comes to inclusivity in gaming.
Microsoft is currently leading with a good example in terms of a modular controller setup, which can be customized to fit a disabled gamers needs, getting rid of physical hurdles and enabling them to operate their game to the best of their abilities.

Bildergebnis für Microsoft inclusivity controller
Interested? Check it out here!

But it needs much more than this. While things like epilepsy warnings have become a standard, avoiding epilepsy hazards outright hasn’t. And it would often require nothing more than an option to disable screen flashes or change their color hue.
The same goes for color blindness. An issue, that could be fixed easily is often absent, even in games that incorporate color-coded mechanics and gimmicks.

The indie game scene is much more open to these changes. Many of them going out of their way to include any available option to get rid of these hurdles, consulting gamers with said disabilities to offer feedback and suggestions and often designing their games in a way, to avoid these pitfalls in the first place.
The same can’t be said about the AAA-market though. Which is an interesting situation, considering that they are most often the ones shouting the loudest when it comes to proclaiming how important inclusivity is for them.

Again, think what you will about Microsoft, but they are actually making a difference.

Halfcoordinated – SGDQ2016: Momodora: RutM – Insane Difficulty
LimitlessQuad – Sekiro: “Corrupted Monk” Boss fight

But what does all that have to do with a games difficulty?
The short answer: Nothing.

To think that, just because a game is exceptionally difficult, it must automatically mean that disabled gamers are unable to play it is, at least in my eyes, utterly disgusting, discouraging and condescending.

Ironically enough, shortly after the torrent of articles claiming that these games need an “Easy Mode” to be inclusive, gamer “LimitlessQuad”, a C5-C6 quadriplegic (Paralysis from the neck downwards, often with only minimal motor functions for arms but not hands), released a video of him nonchalantly beating one Sekiro’s harder bosses, the “Corrupted Monk” titled:
Disabled quadriplegic shows why Sekiro doesn’t need an easy mode”.

And he isn’t the only example. Not by a long shot. Gamer “Halfcoordinated” of GDQ-Speedrunning fame is another, more well known example.
Due to his hemiparesis (Paralysis of one half of the body vertically) he plays games one handed and regularly pulls of feets, many abled gamers couldn’t even come close to achieving.

Those are only two examples of exceptional people that are proof that disabilities is a hurdle, but in no way a roadblock. Far from it.
They are just as able as any abled gamer to overcome a games challenges. They simply take different routes getting there.

To me, this shows a stark dissonance between actually disabled gamers and those that claim to speak on their behalf.
While the earlier mentioned fixes for visual impairments for instance get almost no exposure whatsoever and require word of mouth to even get known, the gaming press is seldom shy of releasing articles after articles claiming what people can’t do.

And it’s a disgusting, crying shame really. Instead of having the spine to use your platform to say “I wasn’t able to beat this game, but look at this guy, he’s rocking it despite his circumstances. If he can do it, everyone can with enough practice”, it’s used to paint disabled gamers as completely unable or incompetent.

…but only if we make it!”
“It’s just that kinda game…

But to top it all off, there is always a dash of hypocrisy to be found.
Vlambeer, an indie game studio known for the Twin-Stick Roguelite shooter “Nuclear Throne” got asked a very similar question about their game, which is also known to be exceptionally difficult:
One user on Twitter asked Vlambeer in 2016:
Any chance for a difficulty setting in the future? 25 hours in, never made it past the ice level. (Stages 9-11 from a total of 15) Starting to lose interest
At which Rami Ismail, one of the two developers replied:
There won’t be – 25 hours to the ice world isn’t bad at all, though. It’s just that kinda game.”

It’s just that kinda game”. An interesting take from someone who now feels the need to chime in on the difficulty debate, mocking those that share a very similar opinion he held back in 2016 himself…it’s just that kinda game…

And again, he is far from the only example of bigotry and hypocrisy.
A common change of course regards the topic of exactly “who” said game was made for.
During the rise in popularity of so called “Walking Simulators”, entirely narrative driven adventure games, many gamers voiced their disinterest about the general lack of gameplay depth. The usual reply was: “Well, it wasn’t made for people like you”. And that’s perfectly fair.
But using that very same retort for FROMSOFTWARE’s games usually nets you a much different response. Suddenly, these games need to be made for everyone, and “need to respect their audience” by including crutches so that gamers of every skill level can play it.
And as pointed out above, said skill level has no correlation to a person’s physical abilities.

Bildergebnis für Prinny

I think a good closing statement to that whole mess would be:
Never let anyone else tell you what you can and can’t do. Never let them tell you that others have to cater to your circumstances, because they assume you are unable to defy the odds.
Never let anyone tell you that your hurdles are the end of the line, use them as a boost to get on top.

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