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  • Accessibility And Difficulty: Barriers To Art

    [10.31.19]
    - Daniel St Germain

  • Borderlands 2; a player fights for their life with a shotgun vs a Burner Rioter as the screen greys

    Part IV: Is Difficulty Prohibitive?

    It definitely can be. I know no shortage of people who chose to not purchase Cuphead or Sekiro primarily because they cited how difficult it would be, despite thinking it looked like something they might enjoy. They believe - rightly or wrongly - that they would not be able to complete the game or enjoy the process of playing it due to the difficulty of the experience.

    It is seldom that games, through word of mouth and press coverage alone, have an air of challenge around them so strong that it can disincentivize people wanting to play them at all. This is generally why games will often use escalating challenges - building a player up from a basic principle to master different mechanics slowly over time. This is a logical progression of the Teach/Test/Trial trichotomy that I believe is present in most if not all games. Even Cuphead and Sekiro have such learning curves in their systems but in those cases, it can be the overall flow, pacing, and precision necessary that makes the games so hard to beat at a base level.

    There's a saying in game design that every game is "built to be beaten," but that can have some nuanced meanings and implications.

    Games with variable difficulties are built to have layers of ‘beat-ability', to the point of being vastly different types of games. Borderlands 2 is an entirely different game from a New Game to Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. It requires different tactics, different skill sets, and ultimately more game knowledge. Conversely Darksiders III (Gunfire Games/THQ Nordic, 2018) on Easy mode is relatively straightforward and a consistently streamlined experience - even some puzzles become more accessible by virtue of being less harmful to the player if they are failed. 

    Darksiders 3; Fury swings from her whip from a large tree branch to another in an overgrown city

    By nature, games with fewer difficulty options are going to have fewer layers of ‘beat-ability' and as such, fewer people will be able to beat them. When difficulty is there to impose a challenge on the player, it is possible that some players will not be able to beat the challenge. This fundamentally means that difficulty in games acts as a prohibitive barrier on further content in a game. You (often) cannot see the rest of what a game has to offer in its content if a given challenge is too difficult to overcome.

    Consider though that all games face this issue with some audience. Even games as mechanically simple as Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) or with no enemies at all can still be difficult to play for certain audiences. Players who are blind, deaf, have motor function impairments, or any variety physical, cognitive, or sensory impairments also face steep barriers to entry for most if not all games.

    For them and so many others, they might often get the half-baked concession of, "you can just watch someone else play it." Which can feel even worse to hear than it feels to say to some individuals. Experiencing art vicariously is always a hinderance on true appreciation and understanding, doubly so when the main draw of the medium is its interactivity. (As an aside: Streaming and sharing videos of games that the viewers can't or otherwise wouldn't play is one of those deep, deep rabbit holes I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is also, unfortunately, not quite within the scope of this essay.)

    All this to say that by being a challenge, built to be overcome or otherwise, games are necessarily prohibitive to particular audiences. But so is a lot of art. A person with a vision impairment cannot see a painting the same way a person with perfect vision might. Nor a person with hearing impairments with music, or someone with motor function limitations play a game. Now we arrive at the central question.

    Dark Souls 3; a player swings a huge greatsword at a knight with their shield raised under moonlight

    Part V: Is Artistic Prohibition... Okay?

    A question like this, particularly with something as subjective as difficulty, is by virtue of the topic going to have a subjective answer. But here I want to not only offer up my personal thoughts on the subject, but also share some context and explanations for my personal conclusion that has been built up over this essay. So... is Artistic Prohibition okay? Yes. Now it's time to elaborate... and what better way than through an analogy - and we'll use Sekiro as the game side of the analogy:

    Sekiro is comparable to a fictional book written in traditional Japanese kanji.

    Someone who has played other From Software games but is new to Sekiro may be akin to someone familiar with the author's work, but needs to learn a new writing style or genre or writing structure.

    Someone who is new to From Soft's games but familiar with similar styles of game may be akin to someone who does not perfectly read traditional Japanese but is able to learn by the context of the story.

    Someone who does not think they would be able to beat or even play the game is similar to someone who would have to learn Japanese in order to even brush up with the story in a meaningful way.

    The average reader/player may be able to gain a cursory understanding of the text without putting in the time necessary to really dig in and understand it - resulting in a passing knowledge of the content. Opposingly, someone who has read the story several times may be able to recite certain passages, like a repeat player may recount battles and scenes in Sekiro with clarity.

    The writer may have an agreement with the publisher to, in order to make the book more accessible, release the text in multiple languages - a stand in for multiple difficulty modes. Just the same though, the author may make a conscious decision to have the text remain its original language. Or in this analogy, one set difficulty.

    Fans of the text or players in the community might make translations into other languages, or difficulty mods to allow a wider audience to participate. However, it is likely and almost guaranteed that some original essence of the game will be lost in translation. This is an inherent consequence of changing any original text. But it is ultimately okay, and a worthwhile benefit for its cost.

    Those who make the mods and those who use them may believe it is better to get 90% of the feeling of the original game from changing it rather than the 50% or no % from not playing it.

    Sekiro; a shinobi stands in a vibrant mountaintop temple forest at sunset with a flaming sword

    Once the original text has left the author's hands, it becomes art that can be interpreted and manipulated by its audience. That is simply a virtue of art and especially of mass media. With that manipulation comes alterations, sometimes in form of edits to the work. There is nothing wrong with an individual piece being changed by someone who may want to change it for themselves, such as a book's owner making notes within the margins. Just as there is nothing wrong with the original author leaving less space than usual within those margins.

    The work is theirs to fundamentally and creatively control - until the moment it is no longer in their hands. Then it becomes a joint venture between them, the player, and the rest of the community within and around the game. Now obviously this analogy isn't perfect, and this is primarily a way that I personally find difficult games justifiable.

    Now with all that said, if you are making a game and the goal is to be more accessible, it will ultimately benefit the game and its audience to have multiple difficulty modes. While not necessarily addressing the same realm of accessibility features from other mediums (closed captions, subtitles, audio descriptions, etc), difficulty can still bridge gameplay gaps for players with a wide variety of non-sensory disabilities or impairments. Anything from permanent bodily injury or chronic conditions to cognitive, motor function, or learning disabilities - and far more in between that aren't listed here. Features to accommodate these player groups are important to consider, but I am not here to assert that they need to be in every game. Some games will be more accessible, others will be driven by their provided challenge. As Dr. Kristina Bell, a Game Design instructor at High Point University says,

    "I don't believe that every game needs an easy mode. I would encourage game designers to consider including easy modes to make the game more accessible to less experienced players and people with varying degrees of abilities because more audience is a good thing. That being said, certainly there are games that are replayable and enjoyed by a diverse audience while being insanely difficult (Flappy Bird, for example). The reasons why people play games are complex. Not all games need to be "won" or "completed" to be enjoyed. I don't feel comfortable assigning limits to any games. I grew up playing games that are very hard (if not impossible) to win, and I enjoyed them immensely. I think we need a variety of games that fulfills different player needs."

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