The Difficulty of "Easy" Modes in Games

Courtesy of Activision
FromSoftware's 'Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.'

A notoriously difficult game has helped spark a conversation about user settings, how journalists review titles and accessibility for a range of players.

Japanese game developer FromSoftware is known for offering brutal challenges to its players.

From the Dark Souls series to Bloodborne to this year's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, the studio has become notorious (perhaps even infamous) for the stiff difficulty and learning curve it puts forward in its games. 

On March 28, Forbes contributing writer Dave Thier kicked off a conversation about the company's latest game, Sekiro, in an op-ed titled "'Sekiro: Shadows Dies Twice' Needs To Respect Its Players And Add An Easy Mode." Almost instantly, Thier's piece sparked a conversation about difficulty settings in games and how journalists play them. Shortly thereafter, the conversation turned to accessibility. (Thier declined further comment on his story.)

In Sekiro, players take control of a shinobi warrior in a fantastical reimagining of Sengoku period Japan. While the game has received positive reviews (it currently sits at 90 percent on review aggregate Metacritic), its gameplay presents a steep challenge. Players must be quick with button inputs and moves of the joystick, while enemies can bring upon death and "Game Over" screens with a single blow.

"I think most of the conversation is being missed," says Arthur Daniel Gilbert, a contributing writer for disabled gaming publication Can I Play That? Gilbert is an avid gamer who has limited mobility caused by his muscular dystrophy. "One segment of the population is confusing accessibility with difficulty. We're not saying we want the game to be easy, which is subjective, we’re asking for options in games to make game mechanics more accessible to people, not to make it easy to beat. We like challenging games, too."

Joshua Straub, found of DAGERSystem.com, a video game review website for disabled gamers, has a different opinion. "Accessibility should support a developer's vision, not override it. I have done consults where there were certain choices a developer made, and I gave them a heads up that their vision for the game is not as accessible as it could be if altered, but the bottom line is the developer has ultimate control over the title, and I think that's a good thing."

Like Gilbert, Straub also has limited mobility that makes his preferred hobby challenging. Straub was born with severe cerebral palsy and has been wheelchair-bound since age 4. 

"To put it another way," he says, "the world is not less accessible because Mount Everest exists. From[Software] is very upfront with their community about the type of games they produce. I do not think they have a moral obligation to change their vision in the name of accessibility." 

Sekiro is not the first game to garner attention for its difficulty. Last year's Celeste also presented a particularly tough challenge but featured an "assist mode" which allows players to change the speed and difficulty of certain obstacles in the game.

Accessibility in gaming has been a hot topic in recent years, with a number of titles allowing players to customize the controller inputs to fit their own play style more comfortably (the process is called button mapping). Meanwhile, companies like Microsoft have created and offer hardware specifically designed for gamers with disabilities, like the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Subsequent articles about accessibility and difficulty that noted Sekiro since Thier's piece have been published by gaming outlets such as Kotaku and Vice's Waypoint.

"I think if FromSoftware needed to make an easy mode, there would be more disabled gamers asking them to make an easy mode, not able-bodied people trying to speak for disabled people without really understanding the issue," Straub says.

Steve Spohn, chief operating officer of the AbleGamers charity that is dedicated to improving accessibility in gaming, spent a large amount of his week addressing the Sekiro issue on Twitter

"It's sad to me that Sekiro has become the de facto argument for people against accessibility," Spohn tells THR. "They argue that it's the fact that these kinds of games are not accessible, that the inaccessibility of the games themselves is what makes it interesting. It's so silly. Why on earth would these creators not want more people to experience their games?"

Spohn states it simply: "They want people to overcome a challenge, not be defeated and never complete the game. They would never sell any copies!"

"Focusing only on difficulty in games misses the issue," says Gilbert. "We should be focusing on how to implement accessibility options that will allow people to enjoy the game equally with people who are already enjoying the game."