Look down the blue glow of your television and remark in horror as your character dies for the 20th time to the same boss. Some variation of “Game Over” (YOU DIED/RESTART?/RELOAD?) flickers up, as you revert to a preset point or your last save point. God, I hope you saved.
Difficult is a dirty word in the modern game space, especially if the events of last month are anything to go by. With the release of a new FromSoftware game, the game journalism sphere exploded, again, about whether games can be hard. About whether you can get too much of the above. It’s a semi-regular event by now, that when any hard game releases, there is discussion about how making it so brutally hard is not okay. Recently the discussion was about whether games can be hard if it excludes people. Accessibility in games is a legitimate topic that needs to be discussed, but one not necessarily connected to difficulty.
Saying that difficulty and accessibility are one and the same misses the point of both director vision, and a legitimate issue in most games. Some developers make their games hard to reflect something or tell a story, to evoke a feeling beyond frustration. Accessibility meanwhile goes beyond ‘just make it easy,’ as motor control is not all there is to the game. Simply making a game “easier” won’t fix it, despite what has been said.
History of difficulty in games
A video game being hard isn’t anything new. From the earliest days, they were designed in such a way that the arcades could suck out every last cent from your wallet. The earliest consoles were hard too; to pad out the game and make the cost of the machine worthwhile. They both had one singular difficulty. As games got popular, difficulty levels were introduced. But most of these simply made the enemies hit harder and be able to soak up more damage. It wasn’t satisfying to play, as anyone who played a shooter from the late 2000’s can contest. On higher difficulties, some enemies became little more than a bullet sponge – frustrating as all hell to fight.
When Demon Souls came out in 2009, it established its own pseudo-genre: Souls-like. At its core, the game doesn’t hold your hand, as it’s designed to make you learn from your mistakes to do better next time. This wasn’t new to anyone who enjoyed the 2000’s flash game scene, but it did make difficult games a reality for big studios. The earliest Souls-like games were niche, and no one complained. But then hard became popular, and that’s where the problems started, because some people don’t understand just why these games are hard.
Shoving “it needs an easy mode” into game discussion completely disregards the concept of design and director vision, and how difficulty can be a part of that vision. Dark Souls doesn’t have a singular difficulty because the director is some sadist who likes suffering (He’s average at video games, apparently). He wants all players to have the same experience when they play, highlighting the solidarity of having experienced the same struggles as another person. Many people inspired by these games have the same idea: to make a world where the gameplay reflects the story they are trying to tell. The style of game doesn’t always work if the enemies are just easy.
There are games that are mostly stories, but the vast majority require some level of mechanical learning to be involved. While I believe as many people should play video games as possible, there will be cases where not all video games can be for every person. The fact that the most recent ‘hard’ game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, isn’t for everyone, triggered the thinking that sparked the current accessibility debate.
Accessibility in games
Recently the argument is that to “fix” the game is to make it easier, claiming accessibility. Statements have been made claiming that making games quick and hard, with no way to change them, excludes people with disabilities. This has been proven somewhat false with a quadriplegic man beating the Corrupted Monk in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice:
But disability isn’t universal. The man playing shows his hands moving; for some people with injuries that affect their hands, this can be a nightmare. The quick, repetitive motions of these games can be painful with a standard controller, requiring them to spend more money on special controllers just to enjoy it as many other people do. You can buy a converter so that the game can be played with a mouse and keyboard, or one of Microsoft’s accessibility controllers. These are a step forward for games to be accessible for everyone, but $139 dollars isn’t a small amount of money for any normal person to pay.
However, this is hardware, and easy mode is software. Like with a controller, there are other things that can be done to make these games more accessible. A colorblind setting is more inclusive, or a setting allowing a button mashing session to be replaced by holding the button down. Another example is having the option for a musical puzzle to present clues in a way for deaf people or making subtitles large and in a clear font for both people with vision and/or vision difficulties. Even the simple things, like allowing controls to be remapped would make a difference. Adding these options to games, while keeping the overall tone and difficulty, can make the game more enjoyable without simply adding an easy mode.
Perhaps accessibility is about making the game easier, sometimes. But in most cases, difficulty and accessibility are not the same thing. An easy mode band-aid won’t fix all, nor will shaming the developers for not adding it. Sometimes it comes down to the person playing. A lot of games require some level of persistence and adaptation to the style of game. If you can’t play the style, then you may just have to play a different game. It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of games similar to these really hard ones.
Joy and Rebirth
Of course, difficulty isn’t all that makes a game good. Many will quote the stories, graphics, and music (or even a synthesis of these) as the most important aspects. Some people just want to experience the world and the story. Ubisoft understands this, putting in a mode for Assassins Creed: Origins that lacks any combat, to explore their deeply detailed worlds.
Something most people don’t understand is that games are a product. If this product is not for you, for whatever reason, then there are many others to try. It is entertainment, but not like a movie or books. It makes you earn the entertainment actively, rather than passively.
I’m very bad at racing games, so no matter how popular they are, I don’t play them, or complain about them online. Yet with things like FromSoftware games or Cuphead, there is an intense Fear Of Missing Out involved. The idea that a product can be both popular and fit a niche seems to be a lost notion, and there are cries to make it “easier.”
Games being hard, or niche, isn’t a bad thing. Many artists and directors use difficulty in a way that provides a unique experience. Simply calling for an easy mode in Sekiro doesn’t work. As many better writers have said, these games would not be the beloved series that they are today if they had an “easy mode.” The world of Dark Souls and Sekiro wouldn’t be the greats they are without the challenge. There are many other dark fantasy and samurai games. Why can’t these ones be the way the director wants them to?
Difficulty in modern video games is not merely a tool anymore. It’s a way to experience stories.