The Role of Multiple Difficulty Settings in Accessible Videogames

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice image - main character uses grappling hook

Picture a scenario in which you are watching TV with a grandparent, or an older relative, and an advertisement for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice shows up on the screen. As you sit there watching videos of gameplay you hear your older relative speak up: “wow, that game looks amazing.” Perhaps that relative has arthritis, or carpal tunnel syndrome, or just has fingers that move slower than they used to in the past. Regardless they see the action scenes, the background artistry, the exceptional story writing, and they want in.

A video game purist would shake their head and say “sorry grandpa, but this video game just isn’t for you.” To do otherwise would be hypocrisy, because at the crux of the “Git Gud” ideology is that the intention of the developer is sacrosanct and inviolate, overriding all other concerns including accessibility. Additionally, video game purists believe that the inclusion of a less difficult game mode detracts from their own personal achievement of completing the game at a higher difficulty level. Both arguments are patently false.

The release of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice by FromSoftware has brought this idea into question, because while Sekiro does have a robust suite of options, such as keyboard AND controller remapping, subtitles, and so forth. What is notably missing is a mechanism for altering the intense and intentional difficulty of the game, and this is problematic because it excludes people from enjoying a game in their own personal way.

Gamers go against the intention of game developers ALL THE TIME. If a player, in the course of their game play either; consults a YouTube video, friend, or walk-through for advice, installs a mod or uses a cheat code, or has a sibling help through a particularly difficult part of the game, then any achievements in playing that game are tainted with the stain of having sought outside help. This argument can be applied to anybody who has ever used a game genie, the Konami code, or any other means of advantage outside that which is provided by the finished product.

So, having as many options as possible in a video game is essential for that game to be considered accessible for many. This is particularly true when considering how a particular game is played: whether they are referred to as game modes, difficulty settings, or any other such nomenclature, the more options a gamer has in how they are able to play, the better the game is for its entire audience, not just those gamers with disabilities. However, the “git gud” movement takes issue with this.

The first argument of the “git gud” movement is that the intention of the developer as the artist has the right to make whatever video game they want to make, and if it is the developers intention to exclude gamers with disabilities, that is their prerogative. This argument is hypocritical for several reasons.

Secondly, game purists argue that having multiple difficulty settings devalue their own experience and enjoyment. This would be a laughable example of elitism if it weren’t so common. Even those outside the “Git Gud” movement have asserted that using the lower difficulty settings are comparable to a “Participant Trophy.” The only thing that might be devalued by adding multiple difficulty settings to a game isn’t anyone’s enjoyment, but rather their pride and conceit. For years, games with multiple difficulty settings have managed to address this in different ways such as achievements, different storyline endings, or even rare items that can only be obtained by completing the game on its highest difficulty setting. Many gamers, disabled or not, are more than happy to take this participation trophy and move onto the next game in their backlog, to the howling complaints of absolutely nobody.

The experience of gamers with disabilities is a curious one, because while many people don’t view us as “real“ gamers because we might use adaptive equipment such as the Xbox adaptive controller, or third-party software that might give us some sort of imagined advantage against our able-bodied counterparts. At the same time, when a gamer with a disability manages to complete a game such as Dark Souls, or Sekiro, purists hold them up as a shield against any accusation of ableism because if one person with a disability can finish the game, any person with a disability can finish the game if only they try hard enough. This is some real world systemic ableism bleeding into the video game industry.

I don’t mean to detract from the achievements of talented gamers with disabilities such as HalfCoordinated or RockyNoHands. It’s just that not everybody is as talented as them. Myself included. However, there is absolutely nothing I can do that would devalue anyone else’s achievements, and adding multiple difficulty settings to releases from FromSoftware only stings the pride of these “Git Gud” extremists. These people will still purchase Dark Souls 4, Dark Souls 5 and so on until they themselves get old and their own fingers don’t work as well as they used to, at which point they will cross the line over to the side of inclusion, wondering why they weren’t there all along.

However, to assume the intention of a game developer is hubris. Unless the argument is made by someone who developed and produced the game, it is not possible to know EXACTLY what the vision behind the developers of Sekiro, although I am incredibly curious how they feel about accessibility, how their vision does or doesn’t address it, or if they were even thinking about it at all.

None of us are getting any younger, and the age of the average gamer is slowly increasing. Even those calling for purity in video games will eventually get old. Their fingers won’t move as fast, nor without pain. Their eyes will have difficulty focusing, and they will absolutely need to have accessibility in their video games, assuming they don’t intend to just retire from games altogether once they hit 50 years old. For me, you can bury me with my PC and be grateful that accessibility advocates are literally working their asses off to make virtual worlds as accessible as the real one.