My friend Chrissy and I are madly in love with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. We’ve spent nearly 140 hours combined adventuring through the scenic landscapes of ancient Greece. It’s one of our favorite things to talk about and I’ve lost track of the number of hours we’ve spent discussing the game. But there’s always an underlying theme to our conversations. While we both adore Odyssey, the ways that we play it are considerably different.
Chrissy is particularly fond of finding and killing members of the cult, while I enjoy fighting in the arena and climbing the mercenary ranks. She relishes in the intricacies of blocking, dodging, and parrying in combat while I enjoy the simplicity of brute force killing without all the strategy. Chrissy plays on Nightmare difficulty and I play on Easy.
Despite having completed the main story on two different difficulty levels, our experiences were nearly identical and we’re both extremely proud of beating the game.
Playing on different difficulties
When the controversy around Sekiro broke, the idea of it needing an “easy mode” seemed silly to me. I had just won the title of Global Gaming Citizen at The Game Awards in December, a recognition for the positive work I’ve done in our industry including my life’s work at AbleGamers. In its 15 years of existence, our charity has never been busier, having contracts with almost every major publisher in the industry and working on all kinds of cool, secret things that I can’t talk about without an army of robots jumping out of my closet and beating me down. Surely with all the progress we’ve been making, no one would be against adding accessibility to a video game?
I was wrong.
I responded to the outrage with several of my own tweets explaining how games like Sekiro and Dark Souls can be made more accessible without harming the creator’s intent. That quickly turned into half the internet screaming about how accessibility would ruin their game. “The point of Souls is to GIT GUD,” an angry tweeter replied.
That attitude is something you’ll encounter often in gaming. Sekiro and other skill-based games tend to attract players that pride themselves on their ability to beat a very difficult game. This strong sense of pride comes from repeated failed attempts that, with enough persistence and determination, result in sweet triumph. Like a glorious Hollywood movie, they went through the training montage after being beaten down in the beginning, only to come out on top before the end credits roll.
But that “Git Gud” mentality doesn’t work for everyone.
In a February interview with GameSpot, Hidetaka Miyazaki, president and director of From Software explained their resistance to difficulty levels.
“We don’t want to include a difficulty selection because we want to bring everyone to the same level of discussion and the same level of enjoyment,” Miyazaki said. “So we want everyone … to first face that challenge and to overcome it in some way that suits them as a player.”
Sadly, Miyazaki and the many others who share those sentiments are not taking into account that for people with disabilities, the playing field doesn’t start everyone off on the same level.
“Ideally I wanted players to feel despair at first and then tiny hope while facing bosses,” Miyazaki said in a separate interview. “…without a tiny piece of hope players may give up facing [the fight] …”
There are ways to make games more accessible that don’t change the experience and don’t hinder the development process.
The idea behind FromSoftware’s game difficulty is that you face a challenge, possibly die doing it, and then repeatedly try until you learn how to overcome it. But for many players with disabilities, there is no feeling of hope. No matter how much some disabled gamers study a fight, the physical demands of the confrontation are too much and there’s no way to overcome the challenge. This leads to the exact thing the creators of Sekiro want to avoid — people becoming frustrated with their limitation and quitting the game before they can achieve that feeling of victory.
There are ways to make games more accessible that don’t change the experience and don’t hinder the development process. The AbleGamers’ APX is a free resource available to developers that explains how to add accessibility options that do not affect gameplay unless they are turned on.
I asked AbleGamers vice president, Dr. Chris Power, to explain in further detail.
“In the end, it is the experience of the game that players are seeking to have in a game like Sekiro,” said Power. “For players with disabilities, there are Access options that are often necessary in order for players to interact with the game, such as being able to swing a sword with controls that are the same but different, or reading the dialogue in the game through captions in a second channel of information.”
I'm honestly getting tired of repeating myself. So this is my last Twitter statement on this
People, influential people, journalists and the media outlets are making this confusing by continuing to use the language "easy mode" – Accessibility means options, not easy gameplay
— Steve Spohn (@stevenspohn) April 5, 2019
“In our Accessible Player Experiences design patterns, these are captured by our Access patterns, and developers who use them know that while they give access, they have little to no appreciable effect on the actual challenge of the game,” he continued.
“Beyond this fundamental level of access, sometimes there is a need to tune the challenges of the game to an individual, to move the impossible to possible, not easy. For example, in our Challenge patterns we find many of the features discussed by Matt Thorson of Celeste, came with options to Slow it Down by adjusting the combat speed, or providing a Helping Hand via things like increased numbers of resurrections. When these types of things are available, more players can have the type of experience that the designers want them to have, in the end increasing the reach of the creators’ vision.”
Matt Thorson, developer of Celeste suggested adding these options to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice which can be turned on or off at the player’s will.
- Combat Speed (50-100%, sets game speed while enemies are aggro’d)
- Resurrections (+1, or infinite)
- Invisible While Sneaking
- Infinite Posture
- Invincible (while drinking gourd, or always)
Seems reasonable. Add accessibility options for those that need them. If someone doesn’t need them, they won’t even notice the options exist. But what is the counterargument? Well, there are several and I’m going to address the main ones.
Argument #1: Games are art
This is the classic argument against accessibility in general. The idea here is that if we are to add accessibility options such as difficulty settings, aim assist, FOV sliders, etc., that the game is changed and moved away from the vision of the creator. That in some way accessibility compromises what the director was attempting to accomplish when making the game.
This has been a top-tier concern for all accessibility advocates as we push the narrative that accessibility must be added to all video games. In every single instance, reasonable accessibility advocates request options to be added. Options is the key here. For anyone who wants to experience any game exactly as the creator intended, with no allowances for anyone regardless of their ability, can do so by playing the game in its default state.
Moreover, most developers say their vision is not compromised by accessibility. Case in point, Cory Barlog, Director, God of War. “Accessibility has never and will never be a compromise to my vision.”
Argument #2: Git gud
The battle cry of the toxic player. People with this mantra generally believe those asking for difficulty levels are just not applying themselves. They believe with enough practice and effort you can beat the game, just like they did.
Unfortunately, for players with physical disabilities, learning the fights and willingness to put in the time required to grind or get good at a videogame is rarely the problem. More often than not, disabled gamers who need accessibility options like the ones listed above will give up on a game if they are simply unable to play it or unable to play it to the level needed to advance in the game.
Not to mention players with cognitive disabilities may not be able to learn the fights at all. You can love the lore of the game, how it feels, how it plays, and be able to react in plenty of time, but your cognitive disability might stop you from learning how to do the fight.
In either case, whether it be a physical or cognitive disability, a barrier beyond your control is preventing you from being able to enjoy a game you love. Accessibility options can solve that.
Argument #3: Other disabled gamers beat the game
“I saw a gamer XYZ play [insert game name here] so the game IS accessible and doesn’t need any more accessibility. If they can do it, you can too!“
Gaming is for everyone. That attitude is called gatekeeping.
The problem is gamers with disabilities are not spark plugs. We aren’t interchangeable inanimate objects that all have the same challenges. We are human beings with various disability-related challenges that each of us face, even within the same disability. Just because one person can do something, doesn’t mean everyone else can.
While there are disabled gamers out there who have overcome very difficult barriers to beat very difficult games, I celebrate their achievement, but accessibility options aren’t there for them. Accessibility is there for those who need them and not every person who is disabled needs every or any accessibility options.
Argument #4: All games aren’t meant for everyone
The most heartbreaking of all the arguments. Games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice just aren’t meant for everybody. They say it’s meant for a very specific group of people, and if you aren’t in that group, you just have to find a new game.
Gaming is for everyone. That attitude is called gatekeeping. As gamers, we understand the stigma that can be associated with the tag “gamer.” We know the pain of being judged and stereotyped. While everybody has a different flavor of game they enjoy, everyone should be given the option to play the game they’re interested in.
Argument #5: Adding accessibility will take away time from developing content
A secondary argument against adding accessibility features in Sekiro and other games is that it will take time away from adding content or even interfere with launching a title on time.
Truth is most accessibility can be added easily. Especially when implemented in the early stages of the development cycle. Accessibility options can be included with very little additional development time. Just ask Blizzard, Activision, or any of the other dozens of game studios that have worked with AbleGamers, APX, or independent accessibility consultants.
Argument #6: Accessibility is not difficulty levels
One of the most common arguments is that difficulty levels are not considered accessibility.
Truth is most accessibility can be added easily.
In short, yes. Yes, they are. Difficulty levels have been included in accessibility for as long as advocates have been imploring game studios to include these options. In fact, Includification, which was released by AbleGamers nearly a decade ago, included difficulty levels as one of the top advised options because it helps those with both physical and cognitive disabilities.
Argument #7: Accessibility options will ruin the culture and the game
Some people have chosen to believe that having the option to make the game “easier” will ruin the game entirely. Although it’s easy to see why people who enjoy a videogame like Sekiro bond over having defeated a very difficult experience, it would not affect people who don’t use the accessibility options. For those who don’t need any accessibility and wish to have the experience developers recommend, leaving settings on default will yield the same experience as if the options didn’t exist.
Again, these features are optional, not mandatory. If you don’t need or want to use them, whether you are disabled or not, don’t use them.
Argument #8: Some people who are not disabled might use these features
It’s true. Some people who are not disabled may use accessibility features. In fact, in Assassin’s Creed Origins over 60% of people turned on subtitles. Microsoft refers to this phenomenon as “the baby in the room scenario” in which someone turns on subtitles but does not need them for accessibility reasons, instead they need them because the environment they are in doesn’t allow sound.
If someone decides to use an accessibility feature it’s because they need it, whether it’s because they are disabled or not.
Ultimately, if someone decides to use an accessibility feature it’s because they need it, whether it’s because they are disabled or not.
Your Favorite Pie
I really enjoy a good apple pie. It’s sweet and delicious and just the right consistency. My family prefers blueberry pie. Personally, I don’t understand why anybody eats blueberry pies, but it doesn’t affect my experience eating the apple pie when my family consumes a blueberry pie. It’s from the same baker and it’s in the same box when I bring it home from the bakery, but my experience eating a pie from that bakery is just as good even if they enjoy a different flavor.
After several days of fielding valid concerns, worries, and in some cases, outrageous insults, I’ve listened to all of the pros and cons of adding an easy mode to the game. The conclusion?
Sekiro Doesn’t Need an Easy Mode, It Needs an Equal Mode
How you choose to play a single player game is not affected by how anyone else chooses to play the same single player game.
Accessibility options allow people who have physical or cognitive disabilities to participate on an even playing field. The entire notion of gamers with disabilities wanting to make a very difficult game extremely easy is what fired up so many people against accessibility. Very few people want to distort or change an experience like Sekiro where its main draw is the challenge of the game. But there’s also a very rich world of storytelling and lore just waiting to be discovered.
Calling requests for accessibility “Easy Mode” is an injustice to the idea. We all have different abilities. When I was working out as a nearly quadriplegic guy, my weightlifting experience was using rolls of quarters. My friend Dave was using 150 pound weights. By the end of our workouts, we would both be sweating, biceps burning, but we both had the same experience of working out as hard as we could.
Calling requests for accessibility “Easy Mode” is an injustice to the idea.
That’s what these calls for accessibility are all about. Lifting a roll of quarters was very difficult for me, but it would have been trivial to him. We didn’t water down my experience. I used an accessibility feature to make lifting weights as challenging for me as it was for him.
In the end, that’s all we want as gamers. We want to be able to share experiences and connect with one another over something as wonderful as Sekiro or whatever your favorite game is. That’s exactly what accessibility options allow us to do. #SoEveryoneCanGame
Steve Spohn is the Chief Operations Officer and Community Outreach Director for AbleGamers charity, award-winning author, and advocate for people with disabilities. Featured on CNN, NBC and other mainstream news outlets as an assistive technology and game accessibility expert, Steven brings all his knowledge and much more to championing for people with disabilities in the video game space as a means of defeating social isolation. Steve has also traveled the country speaking at various prestigious events. When not writing or doing charity work, you can find him gaming, reading the latest sci-fi novels or cracking jokes on social media @StevenSpohn or streaming on Twitch. He currently resides outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his large fluff ball of a cat Leia and adorable filthy puppy named Harley