The discussion around difficulty and accessibility in games is often reduced to two opposing ideals. One side argues against the inclusion of varying difficulty modes in games like From Software’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Sloclap’s Sifu, often citing artistic direction and developer’s goal to create a punishing experience, in which adding other difficulty modes would “ruin”. Conversely, many believe more options, which are often boiled down in online discourse to the addition of an ‘Easy Mode,’ will open games to a wider audience, allowing disabled people to effectively play and enjoy challenging games. But the reduction of the accessibility discussion to ‘Easy Mode’ obscures what many are actually advocating for, which is much much broader than just adding a single, easier difficulty setting. A wholesale approach to accessible game design should be taken to better let players of all disabilities and skill levels more easily play games, and it can be done without preventing players who want that challenge from experiencing any given game as they wish.
Accessibility is uniquely personal, and what works for one disabled player may not be applicable to another. Despite featuring more common options like full control remapping, subtitle sizing, and varying colorblind modes than ever before, modern games may still contain numerous unintentional barriers that create a challenge developers did not mean to implement. So as the launch of From Software’s Elden Ring approaches and the discourse around accessibility will arise once again, let’s break down what players and advocates are often looking for when saying these particularly punishing games need more options to let more players enjoy them.
Difficulty Is Not Universal
Most games are inherently designed to offer a challenge that gives players a sense of accomplishment after overcoming it. A boss may have increased health or an attack that immediately defeats the player, a level may include numerous platformer obstacles that require precise timing to jump over, and people may need to hunt down and collect certain items before they can progress. And when challenging events in games do occur, social media platforms like Twitter are often filled with posts advocating for easier modes. Yet, because each game features its own objectives, a generalized ‘Easy Mode’ is not something the industry can, or frankly should, adopt. Speaking with IGN, Accessibility Lead for Square Enix West Améliane F. Chiasson notes the standardization of difficulty modes is impractical, especially since difficulty is relative to the player and the studio. (Disclosure: the author of the story is credited in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy as an Accessibility Speaker.)
“Offering a set of customizations for difficulty settings was something our Eidos-Montréal team always had in mind while making Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. It was a decision everyone stood by and worked into their plans,” Chiasson said. “A few years ago, we also had layered difficulty settings in Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While the mindset was similar for both approaches (i.e. allowing players to customize their experience), they were not the same set of settings. There is no industry-wide agreement on what modes should be included, what they mean and how they’re made.”
Noteworthy Advancement in Accessibility for 2021
Chiasson’s example demonstrates how levels of difficulty are, at their best, integrated early in development and considered within the wider development. Slapping an easier difficulty on an experience that tunes a few damage or health counts doesn’t necessarily facilitate a more accessible experience – and is precisely not what is often being advocated for when debates around tough games pop up.
“Because accessibility touches so many components and what constitutes a challenge is highly debatable depending on who you’re talking to, making a game accessible shouldn’t make you automatically think ‘It will make the game easier.’ In my opinion, that’s a faulty assumption,” she said.
Accessibility Without Difficulty
So, when accessibility advocates and disabled players call for additions to games like From Soft’s library or Arkane Studios’ Deathloop, if they’re not asking for an easy difficulty level, what are they asking for?
Even though Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Shadow of the Tomb Raider include varying difficulty options, they also feature a plethora of accessibility tools that disabled people can use outside the parameters of a difficulty setting. For Guardians, players can toggle an Auto-Win for quick time events, adjust subtitle size, opacity, and speaker name, as well as adjust the input of character abilities, among other settings. More importantly, these games include sliders to specify the amount of assistance an option offers. And this type of accessibility is not new; varying studios have historically used sliding features, including Obsidian Entertainment and Fatshark.
“…Making a game accessible shouldn’t make you automatically think ‘It will make the game easier.’”
Xbox Game Studios Accessibility Lead, and Gaming and Disability Lead Tara Voelker explained that customization and good design practices are crucial when implementing accessibility. Games without difficulty options can be just as, if not more, accessible than those that include them. Voelker cited Remedy Entertainment’s Control as a great example of a game that features accessibility, but not difficulty options.
“Some of the features are straightforward, like subtitles or toggle sprint options, but [Control] also has the ‘Assist Mode’ options that include aim assist, energy recovery multiplier and more,” Voelker explained. “What is great is that players can use all of them together or just change a thing or two. It’s flexible! Additionally, several of them are sliders, so you can adjust to get just the right amount of help in a particular area you need.”
Other games include ways for disabled players to adjust or activate a feature for specific sections that may be too taxing to play. Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart introduced an accessibility setting that allows people to tweak the overall game speed and toggle it on or off. Enemies still deal the same amount of damage, and players still need to follow a specific path to reach a new area, but by reducing the game speed up to 70% with the press of a single button, disabled players no longer need to rely on quick reaction times to overcome every strenuous fight or platforming section. This level of customization and choice is key for creating accessible games, especially considering how individualistic the disabled experience is. And, it’s all included in a way that players can choose whether to use any of it, rather than tying it all to a specific difficulty level that defines the entire game.
“Some customization is standard accessibility options (text size, remapping, subtitles, etc), but many of them can affect gameplay in one general area,” Voelker said. “If you are ace at puzzles but bad at combat due to slow physical reaction times, you probably don’t want to adjust everything at once. You’re happy with the puzzles, you just need to be able to fine tune combat to reach the right level of challenge.”
All of this can be built into a game like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, for example, without eroding the developer’s intentions. Players who do not need these tools can choose to play with or without them, and those who do get to experience the world, story, and gameplay Insomniac created. But it takes building in these features at a fundamental level to really improve upon the experience.
Accessibility Through Inclusive Design
While additional options and features are crucial for accessibility, overall game design can be just as important when thinking about accessibility options and removing those unintentional barriers. Pokémon Legends: Arceus eliminates the long-standing franchise necessity to memorize Pokémon type advantages and disadvantages by telling the player if the selected move is effective or resistant. Minecraft does not include subtitles because there are no spoken words, and as Voelker mentions, games with distinct visual notifications over objectives or enemies like PlanetSide 2 can make games colorblind friendly without needing options.
Ubisoft Accessibility Project Manager Clinton Lexa noted the importance that we often perceive a lack of options within a game as a lack of accessibility, and instead wants us to examine the entirety of a game’s design.
The practice of inclusive design lets disabled individuals still enjoy challenging games without requiring an “Easy Mode.”
“Inclusive design is a really exciting concept that thinks about the design of the game so that the player’s barriers are addressed more directly within the design itself,” they said. “Considering things such as ‘Do we really need button mashing? Do we really need to have this be an input for this action or can it be automatic?’ It’s a holistic approach essentially from the start, and then customization is layered on top of that. Options come in after you have considered as many players’ needs as you possibly can within the base design of the game.”
The practice of inclusive design lets disabled individuals still enjoy challenging games without requiring an “Easy Mode.” Lexa touted Immortals Fenyx Rising as a game that uses audio, visual and even haptic clues to seamlessly highlight points of interest and clearly indicate varying attacks during enemy encounters. They also appreciated how Supergiant Games approached Hades, a game which, while expecting players to lose again and again, can still be challenging even if players use ‘God Mode,’ a feature which doesn’t lower the difficulty, but instead provides a slight defensive boost after every death. Hades’ control scheme never forces players to use every button during fights, even though each button on a controller serves a purpose.
This level of accessible design also applies to Souls-like games, which are often at the epicenter of the ‘Easy Mode’ discussion, even when advocates for more options are often moreso looking for more accessibility options and inclusive design than a simple, slightly easier difficulty mode. And in fact, Lexa noted that Souls-likes are already doing some strong inclusive design work.
“I think it’s really important to acknowledge that Souls-like games are actually doing a lot of parts of inclusive design already, and they’re doing them pretty well,” Lexa said.
“Strong examples are how well the patterns of enemies communicate [what] is about to happen, what you need to react to. The actual level design has a lot of in-world differences [between] levels themselves that you can learn and remember to guide the player. And that can be very effective to rely less on a map.”
Those are certainly great elements to have in these notoriously difficult games, and Lexa believes that in-game features to alter the timing to dodge or parry attacks could be included without drastically changing the core game, for example.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily be a setting or another mode, there could be an item that players can have and equip that gives them more of a dodge window,” they explained.
It is unfair to place the entirety of a game’s accessibility on the inclusion, or lack thereof, of a difficulty mode.
With games like Dark Souls, items which alter stats like strength, dexterity, or faith do exist and are regularly used, so the creation of a piece of equipment that gives players a slight boost shouldn’t shatter the immersion of the game. And through inclusive design ideas like this, difficulty modes wouldn’t be a necessity.
And in general, the argument comes back to that – the actual hopes and expectations of accessibility advocates and many players in general are so much larger. It is unfair to place the entirety of a game’s accessibility on the inclusion, or lack thereof, of a difficulty mode. After all, as Lexa noted, disabled people want to challenge themselves, too.
“We don’t want to take your challenge away from you. We want more players to feel that sense of reward at the same time.”
So as the almost cyclical discussions of “Does X FromSoft Game Need an Easy Mode” arise with the imminent launch of Elden Ring, it’s important to remember that the calls for accessibility with games like it are about much more than a single setting, which cannot fix every barrier for every disability. That’s exactly what the conversations are actually about – not about making a game like Elden Ring easier, but letting as many players as possible revel in overcoming the challenges these games present.
Grant Stoner is a freelance journalist who covers accessibility and the disabled perspective in the gaming industry. When not writing, he is obsessing over anything and everything related to Pokémon. You can follow more of his work and thoughts on Twitter.