Sekiro Reignites Yet Another Controversy on Game Difficulty and Accessibility

An honest request by disabled gamers gets spun as an attempt to sully creative liberty.

I’ve been relatively privileged in my formative years to have been able to experience many games that one could aptly describe as requiring a long period of adaptation, or otherwise be particularly receptive to memorizing cognitive patterns in order to be consistently good at them. Everything from sports games, racing games, fighting games and even the occasional competitive online FPS or action shooter game have made the tally as part of my initiation into the foray of the gaming medium, and having familiarized myself with the mechanics of many, I’ve been remarkably successful at adapting very quickly to games’ dictated pace and approach of play.

However, I’ve been more than once reticent to embrace From Software’s approach to difficulty as it seemed to contradict everything I’ve built up so far on how difficulty is constructed and how adequately the player is motivated to learn its different ins and outs, but the reaction around the renewed controversy of video game difficulty has given me a bit of time to reflect on what has largely been said, and what’s not been mentioned enough. This piece is my contribution to the debate, but it’s by no means providing a definite answer.

The idea of a game dictating its style of play has been frowned upon and long considered by game critics and players alike to be a failure of game design. One should be able to tailor their own sensibilities to the way they play a game, whether it’s about making decisions crucial to the plot, or doing something as benign as investing in a particular skill tree to skew the difficulty towards one singular aspect of gameplay and diverting it from another. But that rigidity of approach has seemingly made a comeback with From Software’s offering, and it’s pretty sobering to read all the takes on how accessibility should be approached in such a volatile context when calls have been abundantly audible from large swaths of game accessibility advocates, and even in varying degrees of success, from influential game designers and writers all around the industry.

Cory Barlog came out in stern support of accessibility on the back of a triumphant win at the Game Awards with Sony Santa Monica’s amazing God of War. Now, many would argue that accessibility features on that game are not perfect, nor have they ever been in any other game in fact. Accessibility is not a monolith — it’s rather a continuous stream of concerted efforts to reach a solidified vision of what including everyone in a game exactly means. That strife will never see a full end as long as we find new ways modern gameplay is able to break our pre-established systems around accessibility — the QTE push-instead-of-tap for example, wouldn’t be needed if it weren’t such a prevalent design choice as it is currently.

I’m somewhat glad to report that gaming’s efforts to include me as a player have been largely successful. I’ve been able to rank amongst the top 0.1% on Forza Horizon 4’s many speed zones and speed traps as I’ve been able to master the intricacies and different ways I could drive better in that game, and I also have been fortunate enough to carve enough of my free time to learn how I could make my existing collection of 200+ cars perform the best at any given discipline when giving the tuning care and driving skill they so desperately crave. Not all people are privy to have these efforts be reduced to dozens of hours of play, and would rather just skip all the formalities and have a dose of fun they couldn’t otherwise be let on had the developers made a stern consideration for the varying levels of cognitive and physical availability their players have.

The reason I brought up Forza Horizon 4, is that it’s one of the very few games where you get to truly play the game to your own liking. You can customize the difficulty completely independently of driving assists, which means that you don’t have to lower AI a notch just to get you up to par on where you’d ideally want to be — you can just add a bunch of assists to your list, and the game will be that much easier to handle and might allow you to kick the difficulty one or two levels higher depending on your tolerance for grief or loss.

So what happens typically in Forza, is that I let the game shift for me at the optimum RPM when I’m playing normal races in very capable cars starting at the rough range of three-hundred brake horsepower. But when I’m otherwise in a very slow car where I need to push the engine a little bit to compensate for shift lag, or when I’m doing a drifting course where the laws of optimal shifting don’t even apply anymore, I switch to manual, and if I’m really feeling adventurous, I engage the clutch too. That’s compounded on top of a rewind option where you’re given the choice to counter the AI’s unpredictable behavior and clear the painful process of restarting a race because you’ve hit a sharp end on one corner and dropped down from first to last.

These are dubbed as “Difficulty Settings”, but they function as one of the most impressive set of accessibility options I’ve ever seen on a video game. You’ve essentially giving the player limited, but very ample control over the physical and cognitive space that playing this game would have to occupy. If your fingers aren’t as twitchy, or if your wrists aren’t as docile, or if your brain just isn’t able to compute turning, breaking, sliding, accounting for roll and shifting all at the same time, you have the option of letting the brain of the computer do that for you.

That’s a very strong display of a commitment to accessibility I don’t think quite enough people realize the magnitude of, and this is where my criticisms of From Software’s approach and the community fanfare behind it essentially meet: The fundamental notion of having to make a game easier for players doesn’t work, because it doesn’t matter how much easier the game could be made if the design surrounding its gameplay mechanics is constructed in such a way that it alienates anyone with a cognitive or physical disability they elsewise don’t have any control over. That’s not making a disciplined split by demographic — it’s outright discrimination.

Imagine you had to drive a car like the Porsche Carrera GT — the car that Paul Walker notoriously died in — where you had virtually no safety options, and the only thing you could rely on is your cognitive alertness; the solution would be to just pick up another car and settle for the simple fact that if this were in your garage, it’d have to either be sold, auctioned off, or sit collecting dust until it becomes rightful possession of a museum. But in video games, that choice of competition doesn’t present itself so earnestly, even when we’re at an all-time high of releases where they’ve far outpaced our financial ability to acquire them all. There’s simply not an “easier” version of Sekiro waiting to be picked up by the disabled community, or just someone who’d rather play a version of that game that they could enjoy for reasons completely removed from From Software’s wholesale pitch. The only version you get to play of Sekiro, offers about the most basic of accessibility options that we’ve come to expect from early 2000s Id Software games at this point. Beyond remapping, a few extra passive visual cues, there’s not much else to gleam on.

So much of our cemented ideas about inaccessibility come from abled normativity — wherein the abled gamers get to dictate the terms of the debate because they’ve been able to play “just fine” and “without any issue”. The truth of the matter however is, we can’t dig at the problem without having the perspective of someone who’s just physically unable to enjoy video games as much as their relatively more abled counterparts, and that in many ways have been my two younger siblings, who for one of them at least, have found video games to be no longer of an enjoyable pastime as the barrier to entry grows taller with each single release.

My younger sister — let’s call her Jane — doesn’t like to play video games with male protagonists, at all. She thinks also that the depiction of women in most video games has been unfair, and if not at times, emotionally exhausting for her to withstand. That already made the list of games she’d be willing to play fairly short. But her woes grew stronger after we’ve come to discover that her muscles have been experiencing progressive deterioration over the years, and without getting too much into the medical diagnosis, she’s chronically predisposed to the physical inability to perform many daily tasks so many of us would take as a given — like walking, moving from a sitting to a lying position and vice versa, being able to hold her hand up so she may grip a cup and drink from it. Her life would’ve been untenable had mom not been there in the house helping her not succumb to a daily regimen where the means to feed and prosper are there, but are only physically within reach given a timely assistance.

Jane is not only constantly learning to live with an increasingly smaller physical profile, but she’s equally struggling with the prospect of maybe having to leave this Earth thirty to forty years earlier than a typical woman of her social class would. She doesn’t simply care about playing video games anymore, and she’s been audibly critical of them, and in certainly the many ways that I have been based on principle, and not actual experience. The only games she’d played after her physical state was radically altered were EA’s Mirror’s Edge from 2008, the rebooted Tomb Raider from 2013, and she has a League of Legends account she clocks in a few games at summer break when she’s no longer as physically encumbered by school and the daily trepidations of an inaccessible, and a logistically difficult life.

When I asked her why she wouldn’t play any of the all-time classics that come and go from my computer as I install and delete games and cycle through them, she just shrugs away and says “I’m just not into video games anymore”. And I don’t blame her. Why would she be into an artform that constantly antagonizes her and makes her a subject of special treatment when the norm should be to adopt more inclusive trends of video game accessibility across the board. All would games do for her is ask how the AI and balancing system should be configured, but did they ask her the fraught upon “Are you sufficiently equipped to handle a beating, or should we siphon our greater expertise in assistive technologies to help you?”? Of course they wouldn’t, because at the slightest sight of it, some gaming provocateur on YouTube would make a point of mocking it and question its usability. Except many are always attesting that accessibility options never go unnoticed, to the dismay of many.

I’ve thought more than once about getting her an Xbox Adaptive Controller, but that deals in its own brand of financial inaccessibility that I see as wise from a business-perspective, but definitely not the most potent given those who’d struggle most with accommodations tend to be the poorest just by virtue of lacking funds. But I think that Jane has moved long past video games as a medium right now, and is mostly reading her manga and focusing on school for the cursory chance she might weed through the job market and is able to find an endeavor not to exert her physically while we wait for sensible Universal Basic Income policy to hopefully allow her to exist at her preferred pace, and maybe get back into drawing and visual art creation as she used to do in the past.

My younger brother — let’s call him Alan — who graciously reads my posts on Medium and cheers me along my writing journey every chances he gets, had pretty much stopped playing games that require mouse and keyboard input, and has even indulged in competitive play on the likes of Fortnite, PUBG, and Apex Legends, knowing damn well he’ll be smoked the second he enters a confrontation with a K/M-gifted player. In his own interpretation, his love for video games cannot possibly be subsided by any other medium, and despite my many attempts to introduce him to film, and even music as a potential escape for the relentless reminder that he was able once to walk and is no longer able to, he insists that video games are the one thing that brings him most joy.

I bought myself an Xbox One controller, and watched as it got increasingly difficult for him to play video games without it. While most of what he plays isn’t affected by that decision anyway, choosing to opt for a controller setup has barred him from playing in any competitive fashion, or otherwise coerce himself to play games like the Witcher 3 “the way they’ve meant to be played”. After his first playthrough on the lowest difficulty, he entered New Game+ with the unwavering determination that he may come very close to completion on the highest difficulty. He’s so far been successful, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as easy were there not skills that you could assign, he’d constantly have to pop vials of potions and decoctions to curtail the challenges involved. For many, this would be considered as “cheesing the game”, but for me, it’s just smart thinking on his part that he’s been able to find a character build that the protagonist of the story would’ve found as equally useful if he was trying to steer clear of certain death whenever a Cyclops or a Griffin roar their way into battle.

If he didn’t make use of the game’s systems to play that way, he would’ve been very easily tired by having to flick his controller every which way and double-press the roll button as he tries to avoid excessive damage. And this isn’t a problem isolated to action-adventure games with an emphasis on hack’n’slash combat mechanics, it’s a thing that occurs regularly in games where you have to carefully calculate each and every move not to be in a constant loop of trial and error where you feel the effort spent does not justify the reward earned.

Were controllers not to exist, he would’ve probably given up on playing his favorite games despite the urge to. The Xbox One controller is particularly well designed, and perfectly weighted for his own uses, but despite Microsoft’s efforts to make the interacting device as accessible to the masses as it possibly could, I could not convince my sister to use it since she finds it much more doable to indulge in a game of League of Legends with the keyboard and mouse instead.

So where Alan’s problem is having to extend hands and whisk away a pointing device and move them to hit keys quickly where they could be otherwise stationary and more spatially accessible, Jane’s problem is that her existing strife with K/M based games is that they reward too much of hazardous interaction without the visceral satisfaction of responding to an instinct that a game like League of Legends provides.

Yours truly is not a bugless machine either — my chronic fatigue has disallowed me from pursuing games where falling out of habit might put you at a tactical disadvantage. If I sit too long in a chair, no matter how comfortable it is, my vertebrae would literally set on fire if I’m not giving them the time to rest — it’s enough of a challenge when I’m writing my posts already. So while I may have been able to play the latest splurge in Battle Royale games, I’ve mostly been extremely encumbered as a result of their emphasis on longer sessions to earn the desired rewards — such as you know, winning. Battle Royale particularly as a genre is one that perpetuates a mostly static state of endgame — you’re left watching as your teammates try to recover you if you play within a squad, or if you are solo, you’re about as dead as the corpse of a long-gone extinct creature, spawning after a tedious regimen of repetitive matchmaking and a pace that honestly feels more punitive than it is rewarding.

This is why Forza Horizon 4 has been a formidable escape for me. I’ve been able to play my preferred chunks even without indulging in what the game’s core competition is — racing. That has been able to ready my emotional state for a long grind, but one that is plenty enjoyable, and that provides constant rewards in the form of wheelspins, drops of money and cars from completing weekly and monthly milestones, and various niceties from owning the VIP Pass which entitles you to extra rewards. But that game remains very much an outlier, and its approach is almost seen by large parts of the community as a greater emphasis on on-boarding, rather than cementing the reign of a few talented and neglecting the rest. And this is where Forza’s approach strikes the closest for me.

It doesn’t matter if you’re good — it only matters that you’re good on your own terms. Me and my siblings’ experiences are their own, and they’d certainly be very challenging to retrofit into every single released game so far, but they only represent a fraction of the problem most pressing in accessibility discourse currently: People think accessibility as a paradigm is universal, when it is extremely personal.

Things that might work for me, will most definitely not work for most people. And when people are asking about increased accessibility, they’re not necessarily speaking of a clearer way to distinguish colors on specific types of colorblindness, or extensive button remapping capability, or the usual ways in which developers have been able to slap very little code on top to make it happen — we’re talking about the ability to level the playing field as far as introduced cognitive and physical challenges are concerned.

If you’re a gamer with very little in the way of you enjoying most games, you’re already enjoying an advantage. That advantage gets more diminished as more predisposed or acquired physical or cognitive variations are introduced. The way to make the difficulty as equal as possible for all players, is to introduce the option to tailor one’s preferred mode of interaction with a video game, to their own predicament. If I’m too constantly tired to devote my time to a competitive battle royale mode, the game should serve me a mode where the time-to-kill, size of the map, and count of players are significantly reduced so that it allows faster paced games to take place. If Alan’s beef with competitive play is that he just can’t play with a mouse and keyboard on the PC as he used to, console manufacturers should think more tacitly about crossplay as a way to bridge the gap between those who prefer the controller, and the already-large player base established on consoles. If Jane’s qualm with games as general is that they’ve not given her a reason not to care because they’ve been so god damn hard to play, maybe they should be providing her games to play at the pace that she can, with the limited means she has.

Having Sekiro exist in its current form, and it being available in another form where the angle of its accessibility discussions is radically altered are not mutually exclusive things. Such as the new trilogy of Star Wars films didn’t wipe the original trilogy from existence, the introduction of a mode where Sekiro’s main selling point is basically gone, doesn’t preclude the conversations about Sekiro’s difficulty from existing, it mainly relegates it to a discussion of balancing and — like it should’ve been — the lack of extra physical and cognitive assists to the game’s overall design as to make it equally challenging for all players involved.

The reason I bring this up is because of a video of a friend of mine (though it’s in French, so you probably are in no measure to understand it) made the case that it was a battle between inclusion, and elitism, and I think that framing is — for lack of a more polite assessment — completely wrong, or at the very least, unintentionally misguided.

Such as it was described, the two ends of the debate majorly constituting right-wing exclusionists and a left-wing welcoming of inclusivity, is not a case where one follows the political leniency of their preferred commentator — it’s rather a manifestation of the different social sensibilities of left-leaning gamers versus their right-leaning counterparts. If you’re on the left, you ponder the questions of inclusivity more broadly because you’ve been taught that asserting ownership over a piece of art on the back of a deliberately placed hurdle comprises its own set of morally and ethically questionable motivations; if you’re on the right, the conversation shuts down as soon as the nature of creativity is threatened, where if one were to place themselves the constraints of developing for a larger base, they’re effectively compromising their intangible “vision” of the game. Nonetheless, I’m unable to help myself but wonder whether both fundamentally misunderstand the question, and rather it than being something in-between, it’s something that presides entirely out of the confinements of politics, and is merely a basic question of human rights.

Is it the case that my disabled younger siblings could absolutely live on very little and basically deprive themselves of every luxury until the day they hit the grave? Absolutely. But we don’t come to think of those questions as valid since the human condition has introduced since the advent of modernity many ways in which the comparative class disparities between have unwillingly created a desire deep beneath all of us to do what our ancestors didn’t conventionally do, and deem it as not only necessary in a nebulous sense, but also primordial to the pursuit of happiness.

Depriving those who love video games as their own version of the pursuit of happiness is not only an attack on their integrity and character, it’s also a rough reminder that their existence has been put in great peril in times past because of our collective silence. Due to a lack of many medical technologies we’ve since then come to embrace, those conversations were relegated to an intellectual few, but just as we’ve been able to enjoy the company of music, movies, the gather-ups at a coffee shops or the coziness of a fresh family meal, video games shouldn’t be the equivalent of too-many steps where there should’ve been a ramp. They should rather be universally accessible in the ways that granular customizability could allow them to be.

Even in my limited capacity, I’m still able to enjoy the products of entertainment video companies have been able to make. They’ve gotten narrower as my chronic illness has worsened, and I’ve significantly shifted my interest from competitive play, towards more localized single player and bite-sized multiplayer experiences. That transition has only been made possible by the sparse contributions of a few major publishers who have the weight of public pressure to keep them in check — but not every game is afforded that.

The sooner the community is able to come together on an understood set of regulations and guidelines for addressing our many personalized needs, the smoother I feel our road to a truly realized vision of accessibility will be. There’ll be ideally a world where an “accessibility” menu is a thing of the past, and picking up a game should be as easy as going with your favorite peripheral and just hitting “Play”. But until then, these efforts are undermined by the likes of From Software who still continue to animate a fetishized fanfare around their specifically curated style of play. For all it’s worth, Sekiro is not hard to the minority that was able to adapt, but cognitive and physical space isn’t a resource in equal affordance, and it therefore, shall not be provided unequal compensation.

If you found this piece to be any insightful or informative, consider donating to the AbleGamers charity so that more people may play the video games most of us so effortlessly enjoy.