Difficulty and accessibility in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is a difficult, beautiful, frustrating game. It makes me want to throw my PS4 controller across the room, and curse the $60 I spent on it. Next to the ultra-realistic racing simulations I “enjoy,” it’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.

It’s also my first FromSoftware game. Fighting Gyoubu made me scream so ferociously that my dog came in to check on me, something she only does when she thinks that I’m in extreme emotional agony. It’s a punishing game, and I’ve only just started it. Simultaneously, it’s so good that I think everyone should be able to experience it, and that it’s up to the individual gamer to define the parameters of their experience.

A great deal of the discourse around Sekiro and difficulty revolves around the phrase “easy mode”. The Forbes article by David Thier that kicked this debate off used the term, along with the loaded assessment that FromSoftware wouldn’t be respecting their players if they didn’t add an “easy mode”. But difficulty is a complicated thing, and “easy” and “hard” are both socially constructed oversimplifications.

A Social Construct

What do I mean when I say “socially constructed”? There are whole books written on the subject, but I’ll try to summarize. Concepts that are socially constructed are defined in relation to their environment.

Sekiro is considered hard because of the relative difficulties of other games. It wouldn’t have been considered unusually difficult back in the NES or early arcade era of games, because the relative difficulty of games was much higher.

Also, human experience is highly variable; what’s easy for one person may be very hard to another person, and that comes down to each person’s individual ability. So for folks who are saying “Come on, Sekiro isn’t really that hard, you guys!” guess what? You’re right! It’s not hard for you. That’s a great example of how difficulty is socially constructed. 

We usually think about game difficulty only in terms of the relative abilities of folks without disabilities. But what if your joints are super mobile due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)? What if you have a neurological disability that reduces the speed of your reflexes? What if you have hemiparesis, which makes one side of your body weaker than the other?

Disability is also socially constructed - our entire society looks the way it does because it was built for people without disabilities. A world designed for people who use wheelchairs would look entirely different, and in it, folks who use wheelchairs wouldn’t be considered disabled at all. 

In a terrific Twitter thread, Steven Spohn, COO of Ablegamers, talks a bit about this issue.

So how do we create an “equal mode” that will let more people enjoy games?

What is difficulty, really?

First of all, “difficulty” is a hugely reductive term. Due to how video games present difficulty, we’ve been trained to see it as a simple “easy, medium, hard, mega super extreme” slider. But difficulty actually consists of adjusting a number of variables related to different barriers that exist in game, such as number of enemies, enemy health, aggression, damage, your health, your damage, etc. (Most games aren’t built with sliders for each individual aspect of gameplay, but I think it would be great if they were. More on this in a bit.)

I’ve read articles by folks like Cherry Thompson, who has dislocated fingers while playing games. They badly hurt their hands beating Bloodborne. The screams of “GIT GUD!” are completely absurd in the face of someone who has sacrificed their health for glory in a game. That’s a small group of individuals that includes folks in the NHL, the NFL, and Cherry Thompson.

The main takeaway is that “hard” means different things to different people. As people without disabilities, we don’t always think about barriers like the size of the text on screen, control complexity, controller shape & size, etc. These are barriers we can easily overcome, but which can stop a player with disabilities midway through a game or prevent them from playing the game entirely. But we can, and should, ask developers to think about these things, even if they don’t affect us.

Game development and accessibility

Accessibility poses a unique challenge for developers, but talented teams like FromSoftware can do it. Far from being a compromise to their artistic vision, it would allow a wider variety of folks engage with that vision. Vice’s Waypoint Radio put together a great podcast about some of these issues. One of the podcast’s key points is that developers should think about these issues as they develop their game.

The Witness has puzzles that can’t be completed by colorblind or hearing-impaired players. These puzzles aren’t mandatory to complete the game, but these are pitfalls that can be avoided if a game is designed with accessibility in mind. These sorts of things are easier to deal with during development than after the game is already done.

Gamers with disabilities are speaking up on their own behalf via organizations like Ablegamers. There are also terrific resources available online for developers who want to make their games accessible as possible. This year’s GA Conference just ended, but you can keep up with them via their website for next year. Gamers without disabilities might not think about them this way, but accessibility options already exist to some degree in many games.

For example, Bloodborne’s boss fight music made the game almost impossible for Thompson due to a sensory processing disorder, so they lowered the volume. Shadow of the Tomb Raider has difficulty sliders for puzzles and combat. Heroes of the Storm has colorblind options that change enemy and ally healthbar colors. Microsoft recently released the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which makes user input easier.

For years, racing games have had a variety of adjustable settings, including traction control, anti-lock brakes, stability control, driving and braking assists designed to allow you to dial in the experience you want to have, tailored to your capabilities as a driver. Having that level of granular adjustment in all games could open them up to new audiences.

Matt Thorson, developer of Celeste, added Assists Mode to the challenging platformer, and has a list of suggestions on how to make Sekiro more accessible. This is already a discussion that game devs are having (though admittedly not enough), and I’m happy to see that. It means more people can be a part of gaming, and that’s a good thing.

Games as community

Games, at their core, are about fun (even if they’re the “bash your face into a brick wall” type fun that FromSoftware provides). From an ethical perspective, a world where more people are able to have more fun is a better, more inclusive world. When devs empower players to control their gaming experience, they meaningfully increase the number of players in their community. From a financial perspective, more people buying more games means more money for devs to make more games.

For the game’s community, it means more people that you can meet, connect to, and share experiences with about a game that you’re both passionate about. Accessibility is a win-win! Folks defending Sekiro’s difficulty level have often whipped out the phrase: “This isn’t the game for you. Play something else.” That is a pretty lousy thing to say.

Cherry Thompson put it best in their IGN article: “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.” No one should want to shove another person onto the sidelines.

And if you, for some reason, still want to do that, keep in mind that disability is a space that many of us will enter via old age. It’s one of the only marginalized communities that privileged people eventually join.

As we grow old, our brains slow down and we lose reaction time. Joints degrade and eyesight starts to fail. All of these things make gaming harder, and none of these problems will be alleviated by someone screaming GIT GUD! at you. If we stand in the way of accessibility now, we are only making it harder for ourselves in the future. The generation that grew up with games will be entering old age relatively soon.

As a part of that generation, I don’t want to stop gaming in my retirement! Do you?

Games as competition

There’s an undercurrent of exclusion and competition in the discourse around Sekiro. Some fans seem to want to form an exclusive club that consists of them alone, and excludes people who don’t play the way they do. This is utterly bizarre for a few reasons. Why would you want fewer people in the world who love what you love? That’s fewer people you can talk to and nerd out with. That’s fewer people buying games, and fewer people looking forward to the next release.

From a financial point of view, the more exclusive and niche your passion is, the less likely it is that it’ll survive. FromSoftware has done well for decades, but the gaming industry is fragile and turns on a dime. There’s no such thing as “too many sales”.

For non-disabled folks who are against “easy mode” because you feel like it makes your Sekiro victory less worthwhile: recognize that you are playing life on easy mode. Society is built around your mental capabilities and physical capacities. Is your life somehow less worthwhile because someone with disabilities is facing serious challenges that you are not?

Folks with disabilities who are asking for accessibility are already facing tremendous challenges every day, and just like you, they want to come home and have fun. They want to enjoy what you enjoy. That doesn’t, and shouldn’t hurt you.

Also, beating a single-player action game is a very weird thing to form territorial meritocratic self-assessments about. Sekiro’s AI is designed to lose to you. Its attack patterns are meant to be read, adapted to, and overcome. FromSoftware wants you to win. Sekiro was meant to be a good time even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes.

On the other hand, fighting games, racing games, and multiplayer shooters are full of real, live humans that read your actions and adjust their strategy. They don’t care if you have a good time, and their victory is often contingent upon denying that to you.

That guy in the blue car? He doesn’t give a DAMN if the guy in the yellow car has fun.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to look down the mountain, so to speak, at people who think FromSoftware games are too hard, please know that there are mid-level multiplayer competitive gamers in metaphorical space stations, looking down at you. Speaking of competitive games, a lot of people defend lack of accessibility by citing Brolylegs, the amazing competitive Street Fighter player who plays the game with his mouth. If he can do it, why can’t you? But that misses the point of accessibility.

Not every disability is the same. Not everyone faces the same barriers. And just because one person with a disability is able to be competitive in Street Fighter doesn’t mean that every player suddenly has equal access to every game. Also, he’s sponsored by Ablegamers, so I look askance at anyone who cites him as the reason why developers should ignore gamers with disabilities.

But what about artistic intent!? 

There is simultaneously a lot and very little to unpack here. First of all, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s intent is not merely to create a difficult game. In his own words, his goal is “to create a sense of accomplishment through overcoming difficulties… and setting a relatively higher difficulty level is only one of the answers to meet that goal.” Remember when I said difficulty is socially constructed?

Sekiro is a great game, and its underlying “success through persistence” theme and accompanying mechanics are well-executed. But there are folks in the world who, through no fault of their own, cannot suceed at Sekiro, no matter how persistent they are. They cannot actually experience the artist’s intended vision. Allowing users to tweak different aspects of the game to create that experience is actually more in line with Miyazaki’s intention. 

And regarding artistic integrity: nobody seems concerned about artistic intent when developers nerf your favorite character or weapon class. People are either infuriated or relieved that the meta has finally changed. Think about how many times Overwatch has changed over the course of its existence. Tank meta, GOAT meta, whatever. Just someone play a healer, PLEASE.

Few, if any, complained when Dark Souls Remastered could be played at 60fps instead of the original 30fps, even though that makes the game meaningfully easier because more frames per second means more time to enter the proper input.

Does a fan-created 4K texture pack for a 1080p game damage a game’s artistic intent? They definitely aren’t the textures the game shipped with.

Was artistic intent enough to justify Mass Effect 3’s godforsaken “3 colors” ending? Of course not, and we screamed until we got the extended ending, which was better (though not wholly sufficient).

Subtitles are an accessibility option. Sekiro’s native language is Japanese. Is it an artistic compromise to let non-Japanese speakers understand the spoken dialogue? Why is this concession acceptable, but other concessions that will allow even more players to enjoy the game not acceptable? High quality localization costs money. Why is this development cost acceptable, but other costs not acceptable?

Here’s a chestnut that pokes a few current issues in gaming. Sim racing games like Project Cars 2 and Assetto Corsa Competizione are meant to mirror the actual experience of driving a car as much as possible.

Playing with a force feedback-enabled racing wheel is simultaneously more in-line with the developer’s artistic intent, and also extremely expensive (good belt-driven racing wheels can cost as much as a console and direct-drive wheels cost more than a high-end gaming PC). Playing with a wheel will almost immediately make you better, shaving seconds off of your lap time.

Is this a pay-to-win situation? Is a pad player compromising the developer’s artistic vision by not playing on a wheel? If a pad player plays with assists enabled, are they cheating? Do assists compromise the dev’s vision of how driving a particular car should feel? Or is it every player’s right to define how they want to play a game that they enjoy?

Artistic intent only represents half of what art is. Art always changes when it reaches the hands of its audience. It means different things to different people - that’s part of what makes art a wonderful component of human existence. If someone else interacts with art differently than you do, why does that damage your experience? And in response to this controversy, prominent game devs like Cory Barlog are tweeting the phrase “Accessibility has never and will never be a compromise to my vision.”

Also, Sekiro’s combat challenge is not all there is to the art of this game. There’s the level design, the character design, the well-constructed world, and the story. These are all aspects of the game that are worth engaging with, and players are doing so. I’ve heard arguments that gamers asking for accessibility are missing the point.

But let’s not assume that we know what the point of the game is for everyone. People are going to engage with this game in the way that makes them happiest.

We’re gonna cheese it anyway

Gamers have always created our own “easy” modes. If someone clips a wall, finds a shortcut, holds their PSP in a way that provides an advantage, or exploits a gap in an enemy’s AI, we almost universally applaud it. The entire speedrunning subculture is built around exploiting these interesting advantages.

I doubt Miyazaki intended Vermont Boy’s hilariously cheesy solution to this boss character, but here we are. Loosen up, y’all.

And the PC mod for Sekiro already exists. I sent it to someone who was looking for 20% slower gameplay - a game that was not accessible to them is now playable. We’re all going to have fun differently, but we can all have fun together.

Lead with your open heart

In the end, a lot of anti-accessibility sentiment comes from fear. Fear that if someone else is accommodated, that you won’t be. Fear that your favorite company won’t create something you love anymore (As a Bioware fan, boy howdy do I feel this.).

I’d say, don’t be afraid. I’d say move forward with your heart open, ready to listen. Let gaming be a big tent that includes everyone who wants to be in it. There are people who have been historically ignored who really need their voices raised (to use Ablegamers’ hashtag) #soeveryonecangame.

Gaming is beautiful. Let’s share it.