When everybody plays, we all win (XBOX)
Last year, the release of Elden Ring (FromSoftware, 2022) revived the difficulty debate in video games.
Is difficulty a design choice or an accessibility issue?
Purposely challenging games (Dark Souls, Elden Ring, NIOH, The Surge, …) are appealing because players enjoy the challenge and getting better through in-game progression, putting time and effort into beating the game (an average gameplay of Elden Ring would take 54 hours, 133 hours for a complete game, a speedrun without using glitches takes about one hour). Players are looking forward to the sense of accomplishment of getting better, beating difficult bosses and improving their in-game skills.
However, what does a difficult game mean? The most difficult game of the Dark Souls franchise is the 2nd one, and yet it is the most disliked. Dark Souls II was so difficult the challenges felt impossible to overcome, and death didn’t have an impact anymore, leading to a loss of motivation to complete the game as skills don’t matter to improve.
Which is why a balance of difficulty with a chance to actually complete the game is important, as players are looking forward to success to be motivated to play in the first place.
As with everything, games also come down to personal preference first, as some players enjoy the difficulty, while others prefer easier gameplay:
To be able to play, players need to remember a lot, spend a lot of time in the game, have a good sense of the space and repeat the same fights and/or moments for a while before succeeding.
Players unable to play like that are unlikely to complete a difficult game.
This is where the link with accessibility comes in.
Many people would be unable to do the above steps to play a game due to cognitive difficulties/delays, mobility issues, attention disorders, memory disorders, various illnesses and treatments, etc.
The game excludes those players to focus on appealing to those who enjoy challenging games, which is a prerogative to which any studio/publisher is entitled.
This is an issue a lot of games deal with and resolve by offering different levels of difficulties, such as the latest games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise:
This allows players to choose a Souls-like difficulty level or an easier level adapted to their needs, whether temporary or throughout the game, as the difficulty level can be changed at any point.
Games with different levels of difficulty mean players can adapt them to their needs, and games can be flexible without changing their identity.
To alleviate this issue, FromSoftware introduced different ways to play with Elden Ring; players can use magic skills for easier gameplay; players also said the game was easier with a blood-cutting strategy. Using different skills strategy seems to work partially to make the game easier, but it wouldn’t be enough for players who need more accessibility options.
However, this solution is only a limited view of what accessibility for difficulty means. The difficulty of playing a game like Elden Ring comes not only from the fights/battles but also from the overall gameplay and experience of progression throughout the game and world.
Not knowing where to go, where you came from, what you have to do and how to do it are the biggest obstacles to progression, in addition to the difficulty and repetitiveness of losing fights. Which is also where most people in need of accessibility options are struggling due to the attention span, energy, and memory needed to progress without a lot of information and sometimes without a map (Dark Souls III).
Another struggle for Souls-like games, and many other games as well, is how much things are implied instead of being directly stated to the players, such as where to go.
In Dark Souls II, the right path is the easiest, while other paths are swarmed with enemies and difficult to get through, implying this is the wrong way to the player.
However, many players need direct information/statements to understand, such as players with Autism Spectrum Disorder (around 700 000 people in the UK) who might not pick up on implied information.
Accessibility in games allows more players to engage in the game, whether they struggle with a disorder (cognitive, memory, physical limitations, …) or simply can’t invest as much time playing weekly.
Video games remain a grey area between art and entertainment, and some designers won’t compromise on their artistic vision to allow more accessibility options, which is their right but a black-and-white way of looking at accessibility.
Needed accessibility options aren’t about being a good player; video games can be flexible to players’ needs without compromising their identity.