Accessibility, Difficulty, and Souls

It was the end of 2009, on the Feedback, G4’s Gaming focused podcast hosted by Adam Sessler, later succeeded by Blair Herter, Herter was hosting and he started talking about a game called Demon’s Souls. There was something different about this game from others at the time; the way Herter was emphasizing how challenging and fun it was. Demon’s Souls was the game that made me buy a PlayStation 3, it was the game that drew me into this world of struggle and triumph that I would return to again and again with its spiritual successors, Dark Souls and Bloodborne. It’s been hard to find this audio, and even then I have to acknowledge I may have something wrong on the when, but I still remember the spark that lit the bonfire of my interest. Hearing it was being remade this year got me really excited, and judging from its reception — unanimous positive ratings over 85 critic reviews on Metacritic and a 100% critic recommendation from OpenCritic — it’s been successful in finding a larger audience as a PlayStation 5 launch title. But it’s not 2009 anymore. 

At the forefront of a lot of current relevance in gaming culture is accessibility, as defined by as “avoiding unnecessary barriers that prevent people with a range of impairments from accessing or enjoying your output.” With ground breaking progress in 2020 found in Game of the Year candidate The Last of Us Part II, a very interesting argument has reemerged about accessibility and difficulty. Many people are placing a specific focus for this on a game like Demon’s Souls. To discuss this, I wanted to break down the issue and my feelings on it into three parts: accessibility, difficulty, and progression. However, we first need to address the largest issue in the Soulsborne fandom: entitlement.

When Dark Souls came out, it quickly became a beloved franchise for its difficulty. The game was designed around pitfalls and surprises at every turn, and it somehow became something of a mark that you were “good” at games. If you couldn’t beat it, you needed to “get good”. This bred a fandom of entitlement, one based on some false meritocracy, that saw the Soulsborne genre as a great monolithic gatekeeper of gaming. But that’s not the core of Soulsborne games. That’s not why they’re fun, and it has now become the worst part of trying to get people to try to play the game. People think they lack the skill set required to clear the games. The truth is that Soulsborne games are for everyone. 

Let that sink in for a moment; these games are meant to be for everyone. 

The reason for this is the core concept of the Souls games: you have to struggle to obtain victory, evolving your play style based on the failure of the previous runs and balancing the game’s hybrid of currency and experience, souls, on a precarious knife edge. The relief of long-held anxiety as the collected value of several hours worth of work is gambled with potential mistakes acting as a sword of Damocles over your head. The ever present threat of causality slowly slipping its way around your neck, knotting subtly before pulling taut. 

A snippet from Trevor’s own turn around experience with the Soulsborne genre.

This founding principle of progressive skill building isn’t uncommon in gaming. Even the abrupt punishment of dying is commonplace enough in older games, such as NES Classics like Donkey Kong. So why are the Soulsborne games being gatekept in such an obnoxious manner? My best guess is that people are acting under the principle of a Gollum-like expression in coveting games that give a feeling of entitlement owed to them, due to the game’s reputation of difficulty offers to those who beat it. Almost as if the adversity the game challenges you to overcome itself is something to be coveted rather than the accomplishment of overcoming it. However, that doesn’t give adequate reason as to why that should come at the expense of a game being accessible by anyone.

Accessibility is something I’ve become much more aware of recently. As someone with slight vision impairment, the more and more I learn about vision accessibility in video games from Steve Saylor, or from Steven Spohn and how gaming has truly opened numerous worlds of impossible wonder to those who are unable to witness any other way. As a relatively able bodied person, I have had the privilege to play hundreds of video games in my lifetime. From the Nintendo Entertainment System, to PC games, and even the full enormous library of mobile gaming. Time and money are the biggest obstacles in the way of enjoying all of it. But for many out there, their own bodies are the biggest obstacles. Not just in playing games, but living fulfilling lives. They have to navigate an obtuse and awkwards society, where everything is designed for an average person. 

In 2008’s Second Skin, a documentary focusing on the lifestyles of those dedicated to Massive Multiplayer Online games, Andrew Monkelban appears later in the film. Monkelban explains and elaborates on how his otherwise disabled self, who is incapable of speech, is able to express himself verbally in the online MMO, Second Life. Suffering from mobility, he is able to spend his time climbing, running, and even flying through a virtual world with dozens of friends. This film from twelve years ago shows a world of openness that for such a long time was locked away on PC games.

In 2018, Microsoft released the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which for many suffering from physical disabilities, allowed easy use and access to console gaming for the first time. Its commercial advertising showed a classic Holiday trope, of a single child rallying the neighborhood children up into a frenzy to see some incredible accomplishment. The music is reminiscent of Danny Elfman, creating a sense of childhood wonder. They all gather to see their friend, a young boy using the adaptive controller to win a game of Fortnite. As he succeeds, the room erupts with celebration at his accomplishment. 

via Windows Blog

This tear jerking advertisement was shared around social media, and warmed the hearts of millions. A person’s accessibility doesn’t only impact them, it impacts everyone around them, and their successes and failures are so closely shared. These aren’t weak people, many of them are fighters who wage a personal war to make the world a better place no matter your required level of access.

Triple-A gaming title The Last of Us Part II gave real possibility to a new future of accessibility features when it offered a long list of vision, hearing, and motor accessibility settings. There are other opportunities as well in games like Demon’s Souls. While the original game is clearly running on the same source code as the original from 2009, these features may not be a possibility for the current Soul’s games already released. 

In 2012, Game accessibility guidelines published a document on inclusivity for those with disability. This document contained a plethora of possible opportunities for game developers to incorporate ranging from some very basic to the most advanced and potentially difficult facets of designing games. The suggestions are all designed to keep in mind the number of people who benefit, the difference made to those people, and the cost to implement. The document remains a living document, meaning that it is available for future editing as the medium evolves and tools to make games become more advanced. 

This creates a potential future of Soulsborne games, new entries and remakes alike, with the opportunity to be set apart from their predecessors by introducing new accessibility features. Those could include the ones done by Naughty Dog, or could go even further by allowing damage mitigation features, auto-healing with items, or any number of combat and exploration features to make it more accessible to those who otherwise couldn’t enjoy the beauty and horror of Boletaria, Lordran, or Yharnam.   

Yharnam by Stu_dts via

“But Cameron,” you might say, “what about the challenge and difficulty these games are supposed to have?” Soulsborne games are meant to be difficult, to challenge you until you reach a point of breaking through. The reward of triumph over something that seemed impossible. That doesn’t feel as rewarding if it doesn’t come by overcoming a significant challenge. The rush you feel at that moment of triumph is something few games deliver. But how is that changed by accessibility features? The bosses still have mechanics that need to be puzzled out, phases that need to be fought through, and areas to be explored with dangers that lie in wait. Accessibility doesn’t change that. It just gives more people the opportunity to experience it.

Hades, the recently released indie darling, has a God Mode that increases damage reduction by 2% for every death. While this could easily be seen as an appeasement to those wanting an “Easy Mode”, it actually does something unique by rewarding dedication, as at some point the game balances between the damage mitigation and the player’s skill ceiling. The Last of Us Part II has the option to skip puzzles that would otherwise be impossible for some with motor deficiencies. 

Providing these features could also give players options to increase the difficulty in their experience. Damage mitigation could become damage aggravation, debilitation features could give a greater challenge. I’ll never forget reading about someone who beat Soulcalibur for the Dreamcast using the title’s iconic samurai, Mitsurugi, and the system’s licensed fishing rod controller. Players already use artificial or self-imposed limitations, and with the introduction of these kinds of features this niche group could find a sort of support from the developers themselves. 

Progress is the reward of the Soulsborne genre, something that is hard to replicate even by creative and insightful game designers. Progress is the fundamental cornerstone of the Soulsborne genre; calling something the “Dark Souls of *blank*” was commonplace with game descriptions to give the impression of difficult rewarding progression, where increases in stats and attributes meant less than your actual intuition and game sense as a player. Games with punishing features are one thing, and punishing features shouldn’t make a game impossible. But the progress through these difficulties, the feelings of triumph in victory over them, is not so frail or fragile as to dissipate with the introduction of accessibility features. 

I love the worlds From Software has created. From the fantastical swords, souls, and sorcery of Boletaria to the Eldritch and supernatural horrors of the Old Blood in Yharnam. I want to share these wondrous worlds with those who haven’t seen them, driven off by inaccessibility. I want to hear them talk about Solaire of Astora and his praising the sun, of Siegmeyer of Catarina and his funny shaped helmet. Of the treacherous Dark Knights that haunt the castle city walls. I want to hear them explore the Lovecraftian influences in Bloodborne. 

Twin Princes and Lords of Cinder, Lothric and Lorian from Dark Souls III

Inside of Dark Souls III, there is a story of the disabled twin princes Lothric and Lorian. Lothric, the younger prince was a powerful caster of magic capable of even reviving the dead with a powerful miracle. But he was cursed at birth with a frail and weak body, unable to even move himself without crawling. The elder brother, Lorian, despite being born with a capable and strong body, mastering the greatsword and even defeating the Demon Prince. But despite this, he refused to leave his younger brother to bear this curse alone. Literally carrying Lothric on his shoulders, taking on a part of Lothric’s curse weakening his legs and rendering him mute. Together the two of them hold a single soul, and are powerful Lords of Cinder, and one of the best boss fights in the game. 

These places are so visceral to me, from their architecture to their creatures. These places feel like they are, or were in the case of some of the games, places that people lived. The stories you find in these games, both small and large, are tremendously told through environmental storytelling at its finest. The truth behind the hidden boss of Dark Souls III, the Nameless King, is a heartbreaking tale of friendship and loyalty.  Climbing up the side of ledges while balancing dodging arrow fire and not falling off the slim path above a bottomless chasm. Trekking deep into an ancient forest filled with dangers around every corner. And even traversing underground caverns, ruins, and crypts. The feelings of trepidation and solitude as you journey against incredible odds, something that may not be unique to Soulsborne games, but has been truly embraced by the subgenre.

Diverse Xbox Live Avatar models

I am of the fundamental belief that gaming is ubiquitous. Casual, hardcore, niche, or mainstream. Gaming is gaming, and gaming is for everyone. Gaming is better when it can be enjoyed by everyone, and Soulsborne games are no exception to that. The experiences we have make an impact on us, and we come away with something. When we share that something, it elevates the game and the experience you had in it. These experiences become stories we share with each other, and inspire us to reach out to others. We build communities around this process, grow and change as others make an impact in our lives. That’s what it means to be a gamer. I don’t want to deny anyone from being a part of this. And it’s why Soulsborne games are for everyone. 

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