It’s a tale as old as time.
Whenever “easy modes” or other assistive features are announced for a game, swaths of angry “fans” take to social media to express their discontent.
“How dare someone play through a game at a lower difficulty level than me? That’s not completing the game!”
If you beat Psychonauts 2 with the invincibility toggle on, you still beat P2. https://t.co/OinBv1nuNr
— Double Fine (@DoubleFine) July 9, 2021
This debate was reignited earlier this week when Double Fine revealed that its long-awaited Psychonauts 2 will have an invincibility mode and that players are absolutely in the right for using it. Of course, gaming’s inherently interactive nature means that a person will not have the exact same experience as someone else, unlike the act of consuming a film, TV show or book. But this, in turn, has led some players to think they are “better” than others because they feel they overcame more challenges to complete the game. It’s also convinced others that developers are being “forced” to make changes and implement new features which are in direct opposition to the experience they intended for the “average player.”
“taking five minutes to scroll Twitter would show you response that developers, by and large, just want their games to be played by as many people as possible…”
The problem with these beliefs is that they’re not only rooted in an elitist, gatekeeping mentality, but they’re also not based in reality. Firstly, someone playing the same single-player game as you at a lower difficulty level doesn’t affect you at all in any way. It also doesn’t take away from your sense of accomplishment in beating a challenging boss at a higher difficulty level. But there’s also this notion that ‘Normal’ difficulty — or whatever a game might call it — is what the developer intended for the “average.” Besides these people presenting no actual data to back up that the “average” gamer plays on Normal, it also makes no sense to claim that there’s a default difficulty level when options are presented. If a developer has offered you that freedom, then it is literally them saying “play this how you’d like.”
Indeed, taking five minutes to scroll Twitter would show you response that developers, by and large, just want their games to be played by as many people as possible. Why would they not? They’re artists, and they take joy in people consuming their art — excluding people is counterintuitive to that. I’ve also seen people argue that pressuring developers to “cater” to more audiences will water down the types of games we can get, especially on the mature and challenging fronts. “We’ll only get games for kids that don’t have darker content.”
But this, too, makes no sense. The Last of Us Part II features unprecedented levels of accessibility settings, and it’s arguably one of the grimmest and most harrowing games ever made. The violent Assassin’s Creed series and mental health-focused Celeste are also quite accessible, to name a couple more examples.
Some of these people also think that adding difficulty settings to FromSoftware’s notoriously challenging games, like Dark Souls or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, would go against what these titles are about. But as Tamoor Hussain, GameSpot managing editor and noted FromSoft fan, tweeted earlier this week, this belief is “insulting to the games and the people that made them and just shows a lack of understand[sic] of what makes them special.”
Indeed, despite being supposed fans of FromSoft, these people only focus on the developers’ games’ level of difficulty. They ignore the countless other facets of these games, such as the subtle and minimalist storytelling, music, art direction and level design. None of this would in any way be changed if there was an option to simplify the core combat. Instead, this would just allow more people to play these games. If you really are a “fan” of the celebrated Japanese developer, why wouldn’t you want more people to appreciate its artistry?
I really don’t comprehend this mentality that the only enjoyable part of a game is the level of challenge it presents. You might seek that out, but people play games for all kinds of reasons. I was recently going through the original Psychonauts for the first time via Xbox Game Pass. I adored the game overall thanks to its charming writing and acting and splendidly inventive worlds. But while I didn’t find the game “hard,” necessarily, there were times when I was trying to explore and enemies would just shoot at me from far off.
This was frustrating and occasionally got in the way of my core enjoyment — soaking in the brilliant level design, banter and music. In cases like this, I’d have gladly toggled the invincibility mode that the sequel is introducing so I could focus on what I liked the most. I suspect that others — especially, for example, someone who played the first game but is now a father and/or husband with less gaming time — would appreciate this feature for similar reasons.
“All people should be able to enjoy games. All ages, all possible needs. It’s an ongoing and important process for our industry and a challenge we need to met. [sic]” Double Fine commendably stated in a Twitter thread. “End of the day? We want you to have fun, to laugh, to experience a story that affects you. On whatever terms you want.”
“when everyone plays, we all win.”
But the biggest issue with the resistance to difficulty options is that they don’t take into account that not all gamers are built the same. There are some 250 million gamers worldwide who have some form of disability or impairment. Think about that: they have physical and/or cognitive disabilities that prevent them from playing a game at your level. It’s great that you can beat that infamously tough Dark Souls boss, but if you don’t have a disability, you should keep in mind that you actually had an advantage over many others. For someone who can’t see or hear or move as well as you, accessibility options — including, but not limited to, difficulty levels — make all the difference.
I never really understood thisuntil I interviewed Steve Saylor, the blind Canadian accessibility advocate. For an hour, Steve graciously and thoroughly explained the importance of accessibility, and I urge you to read what he had to say. He’s also done a great job showing the human side of disabled players through revelatory videos, so while many of us will never fully understand the challenges of his community, you can get a better idea. Hell, I definitely have taken the mere act of playing a game for granted.
That’s why it was so heartwarming to see Steve illustrate just how meaningful it can be to see something like The Last of Us Part II that has been designed to include him and his peers, rather than leave them out. If you’re someone who’s ever downplayed why accessibility matters — or worse, made fun of people like Steve because of it — then I would implore you to spend just a few minutes checking out his work, the accessibility site Can I Play That? and other advocates.
I've been reluctant to post this.
I recorded my reaction when I saw the #accessibility settings in #TheLastofUsPartII for the first time thinking it would be a fun video for posterity. I…did not expect this.
This is why we do what we do. 😢
Thank you @Naughty_Dog. pic.twitter.com/D5Or2B9Tfw
— Steve Saylor (@stevesaylor) June 12, 2020
As Saylor has also mentioned, it’s not always as simple as having ‘Easy,’ ‘Normal’ and ‘Hard’ difficulty levels. Often, more modular options like Psychonauts 2‘s invincibility mode are what’s really needed to help out someone with disabilities. Implementing these kinds of features means taking feedback from players and factoring that into the design process early on. We should encourage and support developers and advocates in doing this, not tear them down.
Even if you still struggle to find empathy after all that, just know it could happen to you. During our chat, Steve made the astute observation that even those without disabilities could eventually need accessibility features. After all, we all get older and suffer from worsening vision, reduced response time and the like.
Difficulty doesn't exist in games at all. Games don't have difficulty. Games have barriers. Difficulty is something that players experience. It springs into existence when they play, and is the product of their personal abilities Vs the barriers a game presents.
— Ian Hamilton (@ianhamilton_) July 16, 2021
I think a recent Twitter thread from accessibility advocate Ian Hamilton sums up this whole debate quite well. “Games don’t have difficulty. Games have barriers,” he wrote. “Difficulty is something that players experience. It springs into existence when they play, and is the product of their personal abilities Vs the barriers a game presents.”
For some people, there are few barriers — you’re just skilled at a particular game and you have no disabilities to hinder that. But not everyone is in the same boat. Some people physically cannot reach that level due to bodily factors completely outside of their control. Or perhaps someone might have a disability but simply doesn’t have the desire — or even time — to dedicate to powering through. In any of these cases, having options can be literal game-changers, and that doesn’t affect you at all.
To quote a popular saying among the disability community, “when everyone plays, we all win.”
Image credit: Xbox