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Sekiro: difficulty, challenge and empathy

How to truly share the beauty of a great game.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice may be a bit of a departure for From Software, but, like all the studio's recent work, it's resurrected the discussion regarding difficulty in video games.

Most commonly expressed, there is a fear that lowering difficulty levels would somehow detract from the quality of the game. A lot of the discussion around difficulty is simplistic, to say the least. It's often as simplistic as "git gud". Today I'd like to examine difficulty and a game's sense of challenge specifically through the lens of disability. Disabled gamers adapt to challenges every day, so why stop at games?

The way I see it, an easy mode designed with disabled gamers in mind should basically group various accessibility options together to allow disabled gamers to enjoy the same experiences as other players. Game designers want people to play their games. Accessibility enables challenging games to be made playable by removing the unnecessary barriers forced upon us. It's not making the game easier, but rather tailoring the experience to the broadest range of players.

Crucially, the accessibility to play does not mean the accessibility to complete a game without engagement. That comes down to an individual's commitment to a game.

If I know I want to play a game that would be physically taxing, I firstly research every single detail around the control layout and then work out the optimal button remaps. It's a challenge in itself, and not one the designers intended. Advocating for accessibility doesn't mean forcing developers to allow disabled gamers to beat every single game they play, absolutely not, we just want to be given the opportunity to at least try to the extent of our abilities. It's down to respecting From Software's vision, the team's blood, sweat and tears going into creating an experience. After all, the difficulty is only one dimension of Sekiro. Grasping onto it deprives us of the fantastic world-building and environmental storytelling.

This is much broader than any one game. Sekiro, Dark Souls, Celeste and other skill-based single player games are intentionally designed to be challenging, but for many gamers learning the game isn't the problem. It's physical ability. Adding an "easy mode" to these games wouldn't magically eradicate the role of a challenge. Instead, it would adapt difficulty around your abilities. Think about "Narrative Modes" in RPGs, designed for people who want the story without the combat stopping them from progressing. Take the newly released Devil May Cry 5, also known for its vaunted difficulty: it comes with multiple difficulty levels and even an option to play using simplified button presses. Evidently, adding accessibility features has not lessened the team's true vision. In fact, it's probably increased sales.

A lot of players may often forget that they may already play with certain accessibility options activated, like an inverted axis, southpaw, subtitles or sensitivity. As a player, it's your prerogative to turn those features on or off, similarly it's your choice to use the easy mode.

Enjoyment shouldn't be restricted; all gamers want to have a good time. Kicking back with your buddies talking Sekiro, sharing tips and exchanging those epic stories you fought through: that's what you miss out on when you're excluded, the relationships formed through the medium of gaming.

Personally, I enjoy playing difficult games. I completed the Last Of Us on Grounded mode: it was physically and mentally taxing. It was a huge struggle but isn't that part of the beauty of gaming? Learning the necessary skills to beat it, with the tangible knowledge that you did it with both your hands. Overcoming that struggle actually teaches me about myself, it validates my strengths and highlights weaknesses.

Disabled gamers understand challenges, we live with them every day but we adapt. Similarly, in gaming, I completed Red Dead Redemption without Dead-Eye and Spider-Man without using suit abilities. My condition forced me to play games in a harder way. I admit I'm terrible at multiplayer shooters so I choose not to play them, fast twitch reflex actions are physically impossible for me but those barriers I can accept. However, poor design or unnecessary difficulty are not acceptable.

Super Meat Boy Forever, the auto-runner sequel to the super-hard Super Meat Boy, was shown at PAX East 2019. It's designed to be incredibly challenging, but it's also accessible, with two-button controls. This is great evidence of game developers starting to recognise the distinction between difficulty and accessibility.

I'll end with words perfectly encapsulating this topic from the accessibility expert Steve Spohn of Ablegamers fame. "The battle comes down to one thing: empathy," he says. "We, as gamers, should be uniting together to bring that feeling to everyone. We should be practicing empathy."

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About the Author
Vivek Gohil avatar

Vivek Gohil


Vivek Gohil is a gaming accessibility consultant and comic nerd. If he's not out killing aliens or smashing faces, then you'll find him gaming using his adapted controller.

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