The debate surrounding the notion of a lower difficulty setting in From Software’s latest game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, has reminded me of another exceptionally difficult ninja game and how it handled a lower difficulty setting — Ninja Gaiden.

The original Ninja Gaiden (2004) on Xbox is one of my favorite games of all time, and anyone who’s played it can tell you how astoundingly difficult it could get. People begged for an easier difficulty, and in the title’s 2005 re-release, Ninja Gaiden Black, they added one — it was called “Ninja Dog” mode. One could only access it by dying several times, and after the developers insulted the player for being weak, they forced the player to wear a purple ribbon for the rest of the game as a visible symbol of their, I guess, failure to measure up?

As a 17-year-old at the time, I found the addition hilarious. Now, almost 15 years later, I find it demeaning. In hindsight, that’s a good example of how not to handle adding an easier difficulty mode, and a great example of developers not respecting their players.

Sekiro doesn’t do anything like the Ninja Dog mode, nor do any of the other games in From Software’s recent output — the Souls series and Bloodborne. The director of these games, including Sekiro, is Hidetaka Miyazaki, and he has consistently said he does not design his titles to be punishing. Rather, he “Wants everyone to first face the challenge and overcome it in some way that suits the player”.

As anyone who’s heard of Souls knows, difficulty is obviously intertwined in his work and tied directly to the creative vision of his product, but does that negate the concerns of gamers who feel his output is simply too difficult?

Certainly not, but that doesn’t make them less wrong about it.” was how I felt at the time. It turns out I was the one who was wrong.

A couple of days ago, these thoughts boiled over and got me writing. Fueled by what I thought was a silly argument, and by people who I thought were being unreasonable, I wrote an article detailing why I didn’t want to see an Easy mode in Sekiro. It was bloated, messy, crude, angry, and amounted to a rant more than a concise argument. I turned in my article and expected the editor to congratulate me on a job well done.

When he refused to publish the piece, it shook me.

While I maintained my composure and offered a few edits, I was actually incensed. Words with meaningful consequences like ‘silencing’ and ‘censorship’ flowed through my head.

After being clearly told that my the article would not be published on the site, I sought vindication. I sent the piece to friends, fellow writers, fellow gamers, and got a lot of feedback. Some thought it was thoughtful and showed both sides of the argument. Some thought my editor was being unreasonable. Others said my article was insensitive — a notion I emphatically disagreed with.

Like most people who’ve spent time with Sekiro, I found it incredibly difficult and demanding, but through perseverance, I was able to progress. I can honestly say that beating a boss I was stuck at for hours is, without a doubt, one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had in a videogame.

My original line of thinking when writing my piece was based partially on my desire for everyone to get that same adrenaline rush of successfully conquering a foe. It’s the same thing that Miyazaki wants! Further, I felt that if I, someone who hated playing From’s work up to this point could get through Sekiro, then anyone could, right?

In reality, I made the same mistake that many others did — I never stopped to think that a person might be truly unable to play at the level that I was.

Accessibility is part of the brand at GameCritics, and as I’ve found out the last few days, that’s not just a buzzword here. It’s been part of the site’s DNA for nearly 20 years, but I thought it was just a neat little bullet-point until now.

Last year we expanded our disclaimer sections to include information on subtitles, colorblind options, and controller remapping info, which I thought was annoying because it made me do five extra minutes of work for every review.

Sure, I thought it was important and a nice gesture, but I never thought about how meaningful it was to a certain part of our audience, or how appreciative they were to get this information. I also didn’t know the history of how GameCritics got to that decision, or how we’ve built trust with players who have historically been underrepresented for years.

I also never thought about how difficult it must be to simply play games for certain people, and to make matters worse, how difficult it can be to even find out whether a particular game is able to be played by people who have skills and abilities different from mine.

My previous thoughts centered on the accessibility debate, and how I thought it was unrealistic to expect that every human being should be able to beat every game. I never thought about how disrespectful, hurtful, or dismissive that was until I started talking to people about it. Of course not every game is right for every person, but that doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t at least try and accommodate them. Simply saying “Well that’s just the way it is” is the kind of thing people said in the ’50s and ’60s about segregation — it was a shit excuse then, and it’s a shit excuse now.

Other parts of my now-deceased Sekiro article were a direct attack on those who have defended the notion that players simply need to “git gud”. However, I used this term in jest around someone, and they asked me to reconsider its use. I thought they were being a little silly — it’s just a meaningless term thrown about by d-bags online, right?

I came to realize that much of my previous attempt to write about this was filled with the same sort of vitriolic attacks made by the side lashing out against the idea of an Easy mode, and while the act of writing it gave some level of catharsis, it wasn’t helpful since very few assholes are going to change their ways by being called an asshole.

To those who argue that Sekiro doesn’t need any changes, ask yourself a simple question — does the pain of simply knowing that Sekiro might offer more options outweigh the pain felt by someone who would like to play it but literally can’t? It took some self-reflection on my part to come to the answer, but I now firmly now believe that the answer is no.

While I’ve come around in my thinking and acknowledge that doing so for anyone can be difficult, I changed my viewpoint because I had discussions with people who vehemently disagreed with me, yet took the time to eloquently detail why they disagreed, didn’t paint me with derogatory terms, and simply asked that I try to put myself in the situation of someone struggling to play the game. That kind of dialogue is becoming rare in our polarized world — especially online — and maybe we would all be better off if we had discussions like that more often.

So, should Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice have variable difficulty settings or mitigating options? As I’ve learned, my personal thoughts on the matter are less important than my feeling that everyone who plays videogames should be able to have a good time. I may still feel that people who are able should play it as originally intended, but I also want everyone who wants to play Sekiro to be able to, because Sekiro is amazing.  If adding some options increases the amount of people who get to experience this title, then I’m all for it.

Before the Sekiro debate, I never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for me to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment. However, I realize it now, and I am truly thankful for the people who helped me come to this conclusion. I also sincerely hope at least one person who reads this walks away with a new perspective — we here at GameCritics will continue to stand for accessibility and inclusion, and I’m proud to be a part of that tradition.

Jarrod Johnston

Jarrod Johnston

Jarrod's had a busy couple of years.

In search of a dramatic change of pace, he sold everything he had (including 950 videogames) and shipped off to Asia where he's taught English and lived in Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and now China.

He still loves his games, priding himself in his varied taste and playing everything from Disgaea to Madden. After getting a taste of the glitz of Beijing last year working at a Chinese mobile game developer, Jarrod went back to teaching and currently works in Qitaihe, Heilongjiang provide where the weather is cold and the noodles are poppin'.

Jarrod used to write for sites like GamesRadar where he had the esteemed pleasure of reviewing Wii ports and PS Move launch games for peanuts. After a multi-year hiatus, he is happy to get back into reviews with GameCritics.

...He read the site as a kid, which should make Brad, Mike, and Daniel feel old as hell, considering he's almost 30.
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laexploradora
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laexploradora

I don’t understand why Sekiro gets so much attention because of its difficulty. It still is a very accessible game which teaches all of its mechanics at some point in its gameplay.

Just like Dark Souls {edited} it is somewhat difficult, yet rewarding at it’s core.

zippydsmlee
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zippydsmlee

Not if you don’t have good reaction times or don’t have the perception to gauge distance… without these 2 key things the game is going to be a slog. More so if you have no patience or can’t handle waiting. These may seem like minor things to the average player but the non average or mildly disabled player they are everything. Tho for online play its a bit of a nightmare you can have people of the same difficulty mode play together, but that dose not stop better players from abusing the system and wiping out the lesser skilled players,… Read more »

sleeve
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sleeve

A couple points. It’s important to remember that accessibility and difficulty are not synonymous concepts. Offering options to allow access for disabled players is not the same as allowing difficulty options. They are two entirely different discussions. It’s true that some disabled players want an easy mode, or difficulty options – whatever you want to call them. Some don’t. But suggesting that the two are synonymous is just a silly rhetorical device that shuts down all rational discussion. Also, the idea of a game company going back and revising a game because of difficulty concerns is certainly not unheard of.… Read more »

zippydsmlee
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zippydsmlee

“accessibility and difficulty are not synonymous concepts” Eh isn’t it tho? Getting away from demographic targeting it very much is the same thing when you talk about balancing a game so a less than average player is roughly dealing out and taking in the same damage numbers…statistics is interesting when you start looking at them in number sets and how disabled, more casual centric players and more hard code players do things. But I digress……. When you have a more functional disability but handle timing,ect worse than others by lowering “difficulty” you wind up allowing them to get more into… Read more »

zippydsmlee
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zippydsmlee

I need to proof read with water rather than whiskey LOL uhg I fumbled alot of that, it just takes 3 times longer to fix my grammar issues than to write it out…which takes awhile as I fumble with words. I think if we look at simple things like number sets and number statistics in game play flow, like damages taken and given out you can see patterns and ways to average out the experiences to a wider skill group, I know that may seem like an over simplification but its kinda hard to deny the damage numbers, you could… Read more »

docprof
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Accessibility and difficulty are not synonymous, but that doesn’t mean they are entirely different. I think it’s fair to say they are related discussions with some overlap. Like, sure, colorblind modes and subtitles are accessibility accommodations and few would argue they have anything to do with difficulty, but what about the options in Celeste’s Assist Mode? http://gameaccessibilityguidelines.com/celeste-assist-mode/ These are framed as being about accessibility, but overlap heavily with things that are often considered part of a game’s difficulty. Or how about the “Automatic” mode from Bayonetta, which removes much of what’s considered the game’s central challenge but allows gamers with… Read more »

badgercommander
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badgercommander

Although I agree that accessibility and difficulty are not completely separate. I think the framing of the latter undermines requests for the former. By considering things in the form of difficulty settings rather than accessibility settings it means that the conversations being had right now mean that a lot of people assume that people are being ‘babies’ and that they should ‘git gud’, or ‘man up’ (to name a few of the politer but no less odious terms used). By discussing things as a difficulty setting it allows a lot of people to side step any self reflection on their… Read more »

zippydsmlee
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zippydsmlee

Isn’t “HARD/NORMAL/EASY ” the easiest way to adjust a game to be more playable via people of a wider skill range? I do understand that accessibility is an issue beyond skill/difficulty but at the same time it, skill/difficulty, is the first hurdle/wall you come to it’s the first step in understanding player skills and how you handle them. Its not even about getting good or anything silly like that its merely comprehending averages and trying to balance skill more dynamically so everyone of most skill levels can get the same type of experience. Dishonored 2 tries to give you enough… Read more »

badgercommander
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badgercommander

It was Steve Spohn that was talking about the Hard/Medium/Easy split on twitter which got me to thinking about how this wasn’t necessarily great. Again, accessibility keeps being framed as someone blind/missing limbs or lack of motor skills due to a disability. What if it is being old, or young, or even just time-challenged? I don’t know why these are categories that need to be mutually exclusive. For example, the recent Fade to Silence made it about difficulty AND accessibility by having a survival and exploration mode. In the old fashioned sense this would be Very Easy and Normal difficulty… Read more »

zippydsmlee
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zippydsmlee

Difficulty modes are easy for games that are well built and refined, but do little for loose and poorly balanced games like Skyrim where all you are doing its making the walking simulation more automated. I have modded the dark souls games to be easier and harder and from that experience its very easy to make them easier and more casual the trouble is the devs get stuck on PvP flow and it wrecks the depth and fun of the game. They need to allow a casual mode but also allow players in normal/hard mode to choose to not play… Read more »