After a decade of real progress, Sekiro got us heated over the next big step
When FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice released in early 2019, it spawned a solid copypasta and the most lively and divisive discussion on gaming accessibility in recent memory.
Some argued that game developers should have the freedom to create art according to their vision, even if that means that their art excludes some (or most) players for the sake of preserving a specific intended experience. The other side argued that game developers should provide options for players to tailor their experience to however they want, to the comfort level they prefer, or into a form that lets them play the game at all.
I lean more towards the latter myself but regardless of your stance, a lot of this discussion ignored just how normalised accessibility options have become throughout the 2010s. That this topic – as in, video games letting players adjust a game’s difficulty to their preference – is simply the natural next step in a longer chain of industry-wide attempts to make games more inclusive.
First of all, let’s define what it means to make a game “accessible”.
When someone attacks the idea of “accessibility” in a game (at least recently), they’re usually attacking the idea of players dictating a game’s difficulty regardless of a developer’s vision. After a decade of FromSoftware worship and celebration, any calls to change the Japanese studio’s games in any way – especially their difficulty – were always going to be seen as sacrilege in 2019. That changing FromSoftware’s games for the sake of accessibility would invariably dilute the intended experience, the art. It’s as if something was hypothetically inflicted on the developers; a destructive compromise that could bring the overall experience down.
Really, though, “accessibility” just means letting players customise their own experience to their own liking – which is exactly as broad and wide-reaching as it sounds. Subtitles? Colour-blind options? Difficulty settings? Language options? They all do the same thing: let the player tweak the game around their own abilities, preferences or comfort levels.
2019 managed to frame this as something new and impending, yet another encroaching doom alongside the blasphemous, never-ending horde of microtransactions, games-as-a-service overhauls and mobile spin-offs. But none of this new. It’s just another sensible way of making gaming even more inclusive – and in the long run, profitable – after a decade of meaningful strides forward.
The 2010s have seen all sorts of improvements to make video games more accessible.
For one, subtitles have become entirely standard. Now that stories in nearly every mainstream release are told through real-time dialogue and cutscenes instead of player-controlled text boxes and the like, dialogue needed to become as accessible as possible. Even for those without hearing impairment, subtitles have become almost essential as more games ask players to constantly split their focus between active gameplay and narrative.
Even then, subtitle implementation can still be a common problem. Forza Horizon 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2 have major issues, Destiny and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided suffered similar issues in both its readability and frequency and, even after updates, God of War has problems with its subtitles and dense UI. Both the Crash Bandicoot: N’Sane Trilogy and Spyro: Reignited Trilogy didn’t ship with subtitles at all, though at least Spyro had them patched in several months later. By comparison, games like Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted: Lost Legacy let players customise the colour, size and type (sound effects, character names) of their subtitles. There’s still room for improvement in this area but the 2010s has seen real progress in making games more accessible to the hearing impaired.
Colour-blind modes have become more common, too. We don’t see this feature as often and there’s much more room for improvement and access, but the introduction and development of these options is obviously important for the ease and comfort of colour-blind players.
The recent expiration of a legal waiver meant that games released in the US with “communication functionality” – as in, in-game text and voice chat and whatever UI elements control or access this – must be accessible to those with limited physical or mental ability, such as limited hearing, vision, motor function, cognitive or intellectual disabilities.
In 2018, Microsoft released its Xbox Adaptive Controller. Designed as a sort of combo controller/controller hub, it makes user input easier and more accessible to those with disabilities by giving these players far more range to customise their personal controller set-up. The Xbox One’s keyboard and mouse support is much the same. While it’s also an example of the Xbox platform slowly transforming Animorphs-style into faux-PC towers, and even if it’s limited to about twenty games right now, it’s still a genuine effort to let people play however they’re most comfortable.
Meanwhile, the introduction of virtual reality gaming represents a massive step forward in general player accessibility since it’s almost literally necessary that VR be customisable to an individual’s specific physical comfort levels. Oculus, Epic Games and Intel (among others) have all released detailed guides to the best practices for VR devs and highlight what should be included or adjusted to keep players comfortable – and therefore capable of playing VR at all. VR goes beyond just gaming but it means that game studios developing in VR need a far more empathetic perspective and approach than they usually would. Hopefully we’ll see this outlook bleed into the wider gaming market over time.
On that note, PC-specific options are yet another accessibility measure that lets players tweak and adjust their play experience to however they are most comfortable. This obviously isn’t exclusive to the 2010s but it’s worth mentioning anyway, especially as the major consoles (especially Xbox) trend towards more open platforms and the PC platform itself becomes easier and less of a hassle to jump into.
Worse visuals for a higher framerate? Toggling motion blur or chromatic aberration to keep from getting headaches? Higher resolution for the sake of visual clarity? On the higher end, these settings are a way of pushing both games and hardware to their limits and playing games at their peak technical and visual potential, but on the lower end, PCs have always made games inherently more accessible and inclusive than they are on more restrictive consoles. This has only been strengthened in the 2010s with all of Valve’s efforts to broaden the PC landscape (Steam Play, SteamOS, Big Picture Mode, Remote Play, Proton, and so on), native controller support through Windows 10 and Steam, and even freeware like Cheat Engine.
During the 2010s, consoles finally started to see similar options. Especially after the mid-gen refreshes (PS4 Pro and Xbox One X), new technical modes that favour visuals or framerate have become more popular alongside standardised options for tuning visual presentation and UI. Even though Unreal Tournament 3 technically did it first, Bethesda opening up the current-gen console versions of Skyrim and Fallout 4 to modding support is also a big step forward in facilitating community-made accessibility options.
With next-gen on the horizon and the Microsoft talking up improved load times, resolutions and gameplay at 120fps on the Series X, with a wider range of game access across different models (for example, Halo Infinite is somehow set to run on both the original Xbox One and the superpowered Series X) and devices (xCloud, Stadia, PSNow), the 2020s should see far more accessibility in the console space.
Everyone has their own limits
In the 2010s, developers have also become far more willing to let players tweak the balance and design of their games beyond difficulty levels alone, well before Sekiro made it a thing.
Especially after the developer’s tweet following Sekiro’s release, Matt Thorson’s Celeste became well-known for its Assist Mode, a variety of options that openly encourages players to customise and fine tune the difficult platformer to whatever they’re most comfortable with. While it has a default difficulty mode available for most players, it doesn’t prevent you from changing the experience to something more fitting.
If Sekiro had a Celeste-style Assist mode:
-Combat Speed (50-100%, sets game speed while enemies are aggro'd)
-Resurrections (+1, or infinite)
-Invisible While Sneaking
-Invincible (while drinking gourd, or always)
— Matt Thorson 🍂 (@MattThorson) April 3, 2019
This mode still stands as a prime example of accessibility options in games for two reasons. One, because it recognises that Celeste (and most every other game, too) has value beyond its difficulty alone; and two, because it recognises that what is and isn’t difficult changes from player to player. Whether it’s in the aesthetics, music, narrative, characters or gameplay mechanics, there are endless ways for someone to enjoy an individual title.
SOMA’s no-combat “Safe Mode” even finds value in eliminating stress and risk altogether from a game that was seemingly reliant on it, which arguably improved the game by bringing “further clarity to the themes and overtones of its story, as opposed to undermining them.”
Recent ultra-punishing masterpiece Pathologic 2 did something similar by adding 16 difficulty sliders that affect individual mechanics. Even though developer Ice-Pick Lodge was reluctant to add them in and said that it would prefer players keep to the core experience – “Pathologic 2 is supposed to feel almost unbearable” – these options are perhaps the most accessible a game could ever be on a design level. You can access them at any point in the game, they let you “tweak any aspect of the game that gives you trouble”, and are designed with a clear understanding that all players are different and that “everyone has their own limits to push”.
As a company that typically neglects these types of features and concerns, Nintendo has finally been improving, too. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe released with a Smart Steering feature that keeps players intelligently tethered to the track (which was new to the Deluxe version); Super Mario Odyssey had an “Assist Mode”, a basic accessibility mode that gave you more health, less penalties and constant direction; and even the Switch console itself is inherently more accessible by being a hybrid. Unfortunately the Switch and Nintendo’s titles still suffer from major issues for disabled gamers, but after these recent efforts, hopefully we’ll see some progress in their future releases.
Something that no other medium suffers from
Circling back, one argument that’s appeared throughout all this Sekiro talk is the idea that “some games just aren’t for everyone” and that less-capable players should simply accept that they can’t play all the games they want to (meanwhile, I’m sure the people making this argument won’t have much problem playing what they want).
That’s just not how art works. Art isn’t inherently exclusionary. It definitely presumes some level of physical or mental ability, like films using sound and images to create audio-visual experiences, novels relying on some level of literacy or a painting requiring eyesight, but these formats at least allow individuals with even partial ability to engage with the works on a basic level. Even if one is impaired in some way, they can still engage with and experience these texts on their own terms, especially when aspects of these works can be converted to other senses, like with subtitles or audiobooks.
Holding to a standard and inflexible difficulty is just stubborn and negligent in gaming, and it’s something that no other medium suffers from. By having a game rely on not just physical and mental acuity but at a high level as well, a large section of the player base is immediately excluded from experiencing more than just a taste of it. They lose the opportunity to engage with the game on their own terms.
Outside of reading reviews, the only alternative is watching someone else play the game, watching someone else experience the game. But that’s like reading an essay about a movie you’ve never seen, watching a speed run of a game you’ve never played, or having someone describe how good an album is to you. It’s a second-hand experience. By losing a game’s interactivity – the most unique and valuable aspect of the medium – you lose the ability to engage with it as an interactive text and to form your own opinion through personal experience. It doesn’t make those other experiences wrong or bad in any way, and it doesn’t mean you can’t meaningfully engage with a text through someone else’s lens, but people should always be free to choose between one or the other.
Physical or cognitive ability can limit someone’s ability to play a game on the exact same terms as others but adding options to include these players regardless of their personal ability or preferences can only ever help. This lets people access impactful and meaningful experiences they otherwise wouldn’t have – and everyone else gets the game they would have got in the first place. Everyone wins.
If the counter-argument is that this compromises a game as an explicit work of art (despite most games having difficulty levels of some sort), doesn’t that just undermine the value of everything else in the game? Doesn’t the music have value? The aesthetics? Story? Characters? If a player wants to experience these specific aspects of the game and feels comfortable foregoing an intended difficulty and experience to do so, why can’t they?
On top of that, for those who want the “purest” experience possible, what keeps developers from clearly identifying an intended setting like Pathologic 2 does? Or Halo or Alien: Isolation or the countless other games that already do this?
How can this “pure” experience be so integral to a game’s entire identity and value if the major argument against it (as far as I’ve read anyway) is a lack of self-control from more capable players? Why is the inability of some people to not alter the difficulty more valuable than the comfort and inclusion of other players altogether?
In the end, accessibility comes down to accommodating individual comfort levels and helping more people play everything a game has to offer. Whether this means tweaking the difficulty, visuals, controls or even just switching on subtitles, these options help a wider variety of players play and enjoy a game on their own level. To choose whatever lets them enjoy the product the way they want, or even lets them play the game at all.
With the rise of FromSoftware and its acclaimed brand of purposely difficult and obtuse action-RPGs and the improved accessibility options offered by companies all throughout the industry, the conversation around offering inclusivity on a deeper design-level finally hit the zeitgeist in 2019. Even if I obviously lean more to one side of the conversation than the other, I still believe it’s a worthwhile conversation to have as games are increasingly valued as art in their own right (something I talk about a lot here at Doublejump). For certain games, it will always be difficult to balance an envisioned experience and a potentially larger fanbase, and this is an issue for developers that’s worth acknowledging (especially smaller devs with less means to develop these options).
But as we move into the 2020s and next-gen, it’s worth remembering that accessibility isn’t about dumbing down games and the experiences they offer but about expanding those experiences to a wider range of potential fans. It may take some more work from developers but even then, there are cynical reasons why developers are open to this, too – more money, bb – and for the game-playing public, accessibility efforts foster the community and industry in the healthiest way imaginable. More people get to play and enjoy games, developers get more people playing their games, those devs have a better chance to make even more games, and everyone gets to play more games.
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