Since I’m riding the strugglebus with the latest chapter of Sevenfold Gyre, you get a shitpost today. This toes the line regarding how political I’d like my writing to be, but the subject matter is highly relevant to this blog.
“Git Gud”, for me, is as much life advice as it is meme. It’s a simple message, profound in its applications if not in its essence, but not everyone is a Dark Souls diehard. For the game, it’s a response to an often punishing difficulty (for the non-gamers in my audience, Dark Souls is a hard game). For life, it’s an assurance: Your situation is under your control. Life is difficult. Work sucks. Writing is a bitch. The solution is panacea: You gotta git gud.
For me this is extremely empowering. Is it true? Probably not. 50% at best, and sometimes it’s more comforting to hear the opposite, that it isn’t all your fault–keep that in mind before you sling this at someone struggling with their mental health. I open with this because it’s personal to me, and perhaps you might be able to make use of this dubious proverb. But it’s not why I’m writing this piece. I’m writing it because every asshole on the internet seems to have piped up on this exact subject, and, near as I can tell, they’re all wrong.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice has been a massive success in every way possible. That’s an absolute, I know the phrasing is uncomfortable, I’ll clarify: That isn’t hyperbole. It meets/exceeds expectations as a successor to the Dark Souls series, its critical reception has been stellar, and it’s on track to be From Software’s best selling game of all time. But, as I’ve said before, it’s essentially a Dark Souls game, with all of the fuzzy narrative depth I alluded to in that post and all of the aforementioned punishing difficulty, and now that it’s not just in the mainstream but dominating the mainstream, you have a chunk of folks paying attention that might never have played this game by choice five years ago.
Enter Asshole Number 1, a games journalist who patches his game in order to beat the final boss then crows about it in his review. Asshole Number 2, and a legion of fans blast him for it–probably deserved, if only for the profound misreading of his audience–and then every other asshole takes to their preferred outlet to yell about whether the game should have an Easy mode, and then a vocal faction starts saying that it’s not about an Easy mode, it’s about handicapped accessibility, so it’s a social justice issue.
There isn’t enough alcohol in the world for this.
“Who’s in the right?” No one, they’re assholes, and all of the noise is the rough equivalent of going out at night and screaming at the moon. Yeah, I’m doing it too, but I told you right off the bat that this was a shitpost. But actually, the basis for my venom is that there are multiple dynamics at play here, and everyone seems to be getting tripped up thinking that they are all one thing. Since it’s the most charged, let’s start with the accessibility side and work backwards.
Sekiro is a hard game, probably harder than Dark Souls, definitely faster, more reflex-oriented. There exist people that, due to a variety of maladies, are physically not capable of playing this game. “Should From Software make the game accessible to those people?” is a giant, angry vortex, so let’s start with something easier: Is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone? I hope we can agree that the obvious answer is “No”, if only because it is literally impossible with today’s technology (e.g. you can’t make Sekiro playable for blind people). That’s a straw man, but its blazing corpse at least confirms that we are swimming in the middle of a blurry, grey line.
Next rung up, is it imperative that every game is accessible to everyone where possible? That depends on how you look at it. If you want to check legal precedent, a certain standard of handicapped accessibility is mandated for buildings open to the public (in the US, at least), but you wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that games and public spaces are not precise equivalents. This is also where you run into questions of responsibility. I’ll tell you right now: If Sekiro’s difficulty is preventing you from playing it, you are totally able to install the same damn mod that Asshole Number 1 used for free. And if the issue is that you have no arms, people have rigged up Darks Souls on DDR pads. You’re welcome to as well.
If you are actually handicapped, you probably think I’m being a complete jerk right now. You are correct. I am being a jerk, but as a side note, that’s the type of reaction any system is going to give when you vocalize a complaint that doesn’t line up with what exactly is wrong. The issue isn’t that Sekiro is truly gated, the issue is that as a society, we have decided that not being dicks to handicapped people is a good thing to do, and games like this are made, more or less, in ignorance of that cultural consensus.
“So From Software should add accessibility options to their games?” Honestly, I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to some conflict of conscience. Isn’t it great that mod developers protect us from having to make difficult moral decisions like this? “But wait, what’s the argument against adding them?” Uh, orthogonal. “What?”
Whereas the Dark Noon series is devoted to Dark Souls’ literary elements, it should still be mentioned that From Software’s games are masterclasses of mechanical design. In particular, they have perfected the “hard game”, and I know that up until now, I have been building up how hard these games are. That was not totally honest of me. Dark Souls and Sekiro are not easy, to be sure. I find them difficult, but I’m also not that good at games. I’ve had to make double-digit attempts to kill many of the bosses throughout the series. Meanwhile, a close friend of mine beat Dark Souls 2 without stopping at a bonfire. If you’ve played the game, you know how absurd that is, but for those who haven’t, that means (with some nuance) that he never once refilled his health bar. And I don’t mean to belittle his accomplishment, but it’s not like he was the only person to ever do that either.
So yeah, Dark Souls/Sekiro is hard, but there are tons of harder games. What really sets the series apart is how rude it is to the player. The game world is inherently dangerous, the easiest enemies can still kill you if you’re sleepwalking, and should you screw up, you get sent back far, with heavy potential penalties to your accumulated experience. It’s frustrating, and that is crafted 100% intentionally. At some point, usually very early, you will make a mistake, you will fail, and you will encounter a wall of adversity–rather than difficulty–that you will need to overcome. And when the intended audience encounters that wall, they lean in.
I want to be abundantly clear: Almost everyone is physically capable of beating these games. Most will not, and there isn’t any particular shame in that. My wife is totally good enough at games to beat Dark Souls, but she likely never will. She doesn’t want to, crashing into a wall of pain over and over again isn’t her idea of a good time. So is there anything wrong with accessibility options? No not inherently. Using them to remove physical barriers is completely reasonable. It’s just that using them to remove the wall of adversity means you’re playing a different game, and From Software didn’t want to develop that different game. I won’t make strong claims about the value of one or the other, but I don’t think that’s a moral failing on their part.