This post is going to offend many and possibly cost me quite a few followers. I’m fine with that. I’m not here to garner a following. I’m here to incite discussion by making arguments tempered by more than two decades of gaming and being an active part of the gaming community. That being said, my intention with this post, as with all posts, is not to offend but to give an informed opinion about topics in gaming. Really I didn’t want to write this post but I got tired of having the same argument over and over with different people on different platforms so I thought it would make more sense just to write it all out in one place and then link that to people rather than hash it all out for the umpteenth time.
Last month From Software, the makers of Dark Souls and Bloodborne, released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. This is a game that was teased a few years back with the rumor mill believing it was Bloodborne 2. Much later it was revealed that it was a new IP that would take a much different approach to the From Software formula while still delivering an authentic From Software experience. If the internet is any indicator, the studio succeeded in literally every way possible except for the lack of character creation options, which personally I’m fine with.
I have not yet played the release version of Sekiro. I played a pre-build at Taipei Game Show this year, which I discussed briefly in my blog post about the event. I will eventually play the full game though. From what the internet has expressed, Sekiro has all the iconic Soulsborne qualities. Beautiful settings, quality lore, and weird, random stuff. The only key differences between this and past games from the studio, within the same genre, are the presence of an actual character driven narrative and the inability to summon other players for help. The combat style is different, but it’s apparently no different than the difference between Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It’s just another take on that style of gameplay. But what’s most important is that for whatever reason Sekiro seems to be harder than any of their past games.
Difficulty is an interesting topic of discussion in games. What makes a game hard? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that question. Many developers have addressed this question in different ways. Some people think it’s the amount of life the player character has which is ultimately measured by the number of hits the player can take in a given battle. Others think it’s the amount of life the enemies have which is ultimately measured by the number of hits the player has to deal in a given battle. And still others would say it’s the number of enemies you have to face in a given battle. And this only applies to games where difficulty is measured in combat scenarios. There are many different genres of games that define difficulty in different ways. While most people can’t fully agree on what is or isn’t difficult, a majority of players can agree on one thing: From Software games are hard. And apparently everyone is also in agreement that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the hardest game From Software has ever made.
Sekiro is the fifth game in this genre by From Software but I couldn’t even tell you how many total games in this genre now exist. Other companies have started making these games as well such as Koei Tecmo with Nioh, currently my favorite game in the genre, and CI Games S.A. with Lords of the Fallen. So this genre is now well established and iconically difficult. It’s also important to consider that difficulty in games is both relative and comparative. A game is not difficult in a vacuum. It’s difficult compared to other games as defined by the overall experiences of a majority of players. The fact is that if you had never played any video games except games in this genre then you probably wouldn’t think Soulsborne games were hard. You would think they were normal difficulty. It’s only in the context of other games that Sekiro is considered ultra-hard.
Soulsborne games do not have a difficulty setting. Like with classic games such as Super Mario Bros., still one of the hardest games ever made, you just play the game as intended by the developers. There are no easier and harder default modes. The closest thing to a harder mode is new game +, which is completely optional once you’ve already completed it. There’s no hand holding or extra challenging way to play. The game just is. Difficulty levels were introduced to make games more accessible to different styles of play and different levels of ability, or at least that’s how it was sold. I actually think difficulty levels were introduced to games in order to encourage replays. In the arcade era you fed quarters into machines. Games were hard because they wanted to steal your money. But once home consoles became a thing, quarters became a non-factor. Instead games were measured in play hours. So questions about how you keep people playing a game after they’ve already beaten it came up. In my opinion, difficulty levels was one of many answers to this question. But not the only answer. Replay value as a concept is something that developers are constantly trying to figure out in new ways.
The issue we’re now facing is that Sekiro seems to have finally pushed the difficulty barrier too far. A vocal minority of people are claiming the game is just too hard and that an easy mode should be added. Now you have to understand the context in which this discussion is occurring to truly understand the nuances of it. The semi-official motto of Soulsborne games is “Prepare to Die” or “You Will Die”. The point being that From Software markets their games as being difficult as defined by the number of times you will fail before you finally succeed is much higher than in most games in the market today. I’d still say I’ve died more times playing Super Mario Bros. than in any singular Soulsborne title though. But the unofficial motto of Soulsborne games is “git gud” or “get good” if you want a formal English translation. The community sees the games as difficult and relishes that fact. The games are not “too hard”. They simply are hard and you as the player need to get better. Because of this culture of the genre, the idea of demanding From Software, specifically, to add an easy mode has caused a large debate within the community of people who claim to play video games. I worded that in that way intentionally.
Let’s be very honest about who started this “movement”. It was noobs. People who either through a lack of experience, a lack of patience, or a general lack of skill simply don’t want to put the work in to git gud but they paid $60+ to buy a pretty samurai game and now feel entitled to be able to finish it without sinking hundreds of hours into it. This is absolutely entitlement. Is it misplaced entitlement? I don’t know. They did spend $60. But at the same time, they should have been aware of the company making the game and done more research about the game before purchasing. So I don’t necessarily agree that having bought the game entitles anyone to being able to beat the game. I will however say that From Software, and really all developers of all genres of games, should have put out a free demo to allow players to try the game before purchasing. Then people could have made more informed buying decisions and would be solely to blame for being noobs or at least idiots for buying a game they weren’t good enough to beat when they had the option to try it and find that out beforehand. But in any case, this idea that From Software should add an easy mode to Sekiro was started by noobs. There’s no official hashtag for the movement so I couldn’t find the origin of the argument but I did try, just for the record.
As with all controversies on the internet, especially those concerning performance/ability to complete a task, the whiners were blasted. Soulsborne veterans were not having any such nonsense about From Software adding an easy mode to their games. Git gud doesn’t work if you can play on easy mode. And of course, in true internet fashion, when the whiners weren’t agreed with they shifted the argument towards fighting on behalf of a marginalized group. In this case that group was people with physical disabilities.
As an African American, I get extremely irritated when people, and I’ll be honest and say nine times out of ten it’s white people, choose to speak on behalf of my people based on their opinions of how they think things should be that would be better for my people. This is a super common occurrence that literally every group that doesn’t fall under straight, cis, white person has to deal with. They speak for racial minorities. They speak for homosexuals. They speak for physically disabled people. They speak for mental health patients. Rarely do they ask any of us our opinions on an issue and they pretty much never let us control the conversation about our issues. And that is exactly what’s happening here.
The argument, again after shifting the narrative away from lazy noobs, is that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is so difficult that physically disabled gamers aren’t able to play it. First of all, that’s extremely patronizing. People have beaten Dark Souls with Guitar Hero controllers, Rock Band drum sets, and literal bananas. If anything this is proof that the games really aren’t that hard and just require a lot of practice, which is the point of the games to begin with. Learn and improve by doing is the basic gameplay model. So to argue that disabled players simply can’t ever get good enough to beat Sekiro is insulting to them. And second of all, what gives anyone who isn’t disabled the right to speak on behalf of disabled gamers in the first place?
I have seen multiple, yes white, people online arguing that the game needs an easy mode because of disabled players. I’ve yet to see a single disabled person voice this argument themselves. I’m not saying none have. I’m just saying that the most outspoken group of people making this argument aren’t disabled themselves. I’m sure some people will argue that this is because disabled people are marginalized and thus don’t have the proper platform to represent themselves, but again patronizing. Everyone can speak on the internet. I’m an African American but I can still write this blog and post tweets just like any able bodied white person can. I don’t need them to speak for me and disabled gamers don’t either in 2019. This is a false flag operation that noobs are using to try to get an easy mode made for themselves.
I want to reiterate a point that I’ve made countless times and have written multiple blog posts about. NOT EVERYTHING IS FOR YOU! More specifically, every piece of entertainment has a target audience and you are not always going to be a part of that target audience. And that’s OK. There are movies for Black people. White people can watch them but they’re not made with the intent of being accessible to them. There are games made for women with focused themes about feminism, gender inequality, and sexism. Men can buy and play them but they’re not made with the intent of being accessible to them. All products, both entertainment and not, are made with a specific target audience in mind. That’s literally how business, and marketing, works. To expect all things to be made for all people to fully enjoy is not only unrealistic but it ultimately lowers the quality of products and over simplifies people’s interests. Some games just aren’t for everyone and that includes you. And yes sometimes that means certain groups won’t be able to enjoy them. That’s not discrimination. It’s targeted product development.
Sekiro is not discriminating against disabled gamers. Now if From Software told stores to not allow disabled players to buy the game or asked the player if they were disabled at the start of the game and then locked them out if they answer yes, that would be discrimination against disabled players. At worst, Sekiro simply wasn’t made for disabled players. But it is not actively discriminating against them. And arguing to lower the difficulty of the games for disabled players is not only patronizing, but the incorrect way to solve the problem.
Why might a game be difficult for disabled players specifically? Assuming they have the mental capacity to play and understand the game, then it really comes down to maneuverability and possibly reaction time. By reaction time, I mean players having to move their fingers/hands around the control mechanism quickly enough, not their ability to press buttons quickly once their fingers/hands have reached the button’s location. Reaction time is a part of gaming. Whether it’s Dark Souls, Dance Dance Revolution, or Gran Turismo, the ability to react to the game on time is the main aspect of the gameplay. Any active time game works that way. To remove reaction time from games altogether would severely limit what games could be made going all the way back to Pong. You could pretty much only make turn based games with no action timers if reaction time had to be completely removed from gaming. So in the same way that people aren’t advocating that games add a slow mode for elderly players, it’s not realistic to demand games to slow down for disabled players. What can be fixed is how disabled players interact with a game via control schemes.
Control customization is what really should be discussed if we’re going to talk about making games more accessible for disabled players. The XBOX Adaptive Controller is a great example of this. The problem was/is that a traditional XBOX controller made it harder for disabled players to interact with games effectively. The solution was not to dumb down the games. Because disabled players aren’t dumb. They’re physically limited by comparison to a majority of the population of gamers. So rather than change the games, Microsoft created a controller that would make it easier for disabled players to interact with the games they wanted to play. I think the fact that Fortnite was used in the ad is extremely telling. Fortnite is a PVP shooter that requires not just fast response times but response times and strategic decision making better than that of your human opponents. No one said Fortnite should force players to play slower for disabled people. Because that would be ridiculous. Instead they made controlling Fortnite more accessible for disabled players thus allowing them to play the game at true level. Which is exactly what gamers, disabled or not, want to do. Gamers want to beat games and beat them properly. Noobs want to pass through games as quickly as possible with little to no effort. Just because a person is disabled, that doesn’t make them a noob.
What Sekiro needs isn’t an easy mode. It needs an open button map that allows players, disabled or otherwise, to operate the game in a way that works best for them. I think it says a lot that in my blog post about the demo I commented on how much I, a gamer that isn’t disabled, hated the button map. The problem isn’t the difficulty. It’s the accessibility of the controls. Making more solutions to give disabled players more control is the real answer here. And again, I haven’t played the final build. It may very well be the case that some of the suggestions I’ve made here have already been implemented into the release version of the game.
I want to be crystal clear, if it’s not already obvious, that I have no problem with disabled gamers or their desire to play Sekiro or any game. I 100% advocate for solutions that will help disabled players enjoy the same games that everyone else does. The operative word being SAME. We should not lower the difficulty threshold of games so more noobs can play them. And again, disabled gamers aren’t noobs. Noobs are noobs whether they’re disabled or not. And I don’t care what noobs want whether they’re disabled or not, because noobs aren’t gamers and shouldn’t be able to dictate what happens to games. But there’s also another serious component to this discussion that’s being overtly ignored. What about the developer(s)?
My mantra for this blog is “I fight for the user.” This has always been and will always be a blog that focuses on consumer sided arguments. But I’m no idiot. I still understand that gaming is a business and that business comes first for developers and publishers. So when things go too far into the realm of ridiculous, I do feel required to address and sometimes advocate for the developer’s side of the discussion. Not publishers though. Screw those greedy bastards.
People are arguing that From Software has an obligation to create an easy mode in Sekiro even though many people have already beaten the game. One guy already did a speed run of it. The game is already widely successful, topping the global sales charts. So the question must be asked, what does From Software stand to gain, as a business, from adding an easy mode? Will profits increase? Will the game become more popular than it currently is? Will more top level streamers and reviewers feature the game on their channels? What is the benefit to From Software as a company for spending the time and resources to create an easy mode? And let’s please not pretend that it would be easy to make an easy mode. They are a company that makes a quality product with a certain expectation of experience. They would still work to create an authentic experience that’s just not as hard while preserving the sense of accomplishment for winning. Also factor in how their loyal fans that have been playing their games sense Demon’s Souls would respond. People love to say “it doesn’t affect you so it shouldn’t matter” but we all know that’s not how market pressure works. The truth is that enough people would get angry about the addition of an easy mode that it would affect sales. All of these factors need to be taken into account. It’s not realistic or fair to demand From Software, or really any developer, to devote resources to ultimately lose money.
Even if there was no negative backlash, which is a highly unlikely if not impossible scenario, that still doesn’t mean sales will increase. And if no profit comes from adding an easy mode then it’s a complete waste of time and resources. Resources that could be used to make DLC, patches, fix balance issues, or work on the next project. All of these things would be potentially sacrificed, for a time, in order to create this mode. If adding the mode won’t increase profits then it’s not a mode worth adding. And that still doesn’t address the issue of creative control.
I believe that markets shape end products. I believe that companies have an obligation to themselves to meet the demands of the public in order to make a profit. But I also believe that companies should be allowed to make the games they want to make. Even if a game/idea is obviously not going to be profitable, I still think a developer has the right to choose to pursue that bad idea if it’s what they want to pursue. Hopefully they pay attention and appropriately react to market pressure but they should never be obligated to. So I take serious issue with the narrative/argument that From Software has an obligation to make an easy mode for literally any group. Whether it’s people with disabilities, noobs, women, people of color, or anyone else, I think it’s both ridiculous and unfair to approach a topic like this from the position of making demands. Developers are artists and they have the right and responsibility to create the art they want to create. If that art isn’t profitable, which is absolutely not the case with Sekiro, that changes nothing. They still have the right to make unprofitable or even terrible art if it’s what they want to make.
I think it’s especially problematic that, as per usual, Americans, again mostly white people, have the nerve to try to dictate what a group of Japanese developers do with their already successful game. That sort of thinking comes from a combination of Western narcissism and privilege. It’s From Software’s game and they have the right to do, or not do, whatever they want with it. So stop whining and try to come up with more creative solutions for how to make gaming controls more accessible for disabled gamers rather than demanding games be easier. And for those who aren’t disabled and just can’t hack it, GIT GUD!
*I actually discovered this article after I finished preparing this post and I thought it was very well done. While I did not change anything about my post because of it, I found it to be insightful, informative, and mostly agreeable with my opinions on the subject. Even better is the fact that it was written by a disabled gamer who works as an accessibility consultant for game developers. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I highly recommend reading it.