Alright, who’s ready to get canceled? I sure am, let’s do this, hooray!
I started playing Sekiro a few days ago, and so far I’m just past the first boss at the Ashina castle gate. I’ve been having a blast with the game. The combat is completely nuts, and overall it feels like the game was made for me. Hyper-aggressive, button-mashy, super fast, Sengoku Japan, Buddhism, the whole thing is just so cool. Really looking forward to playing more.
Today I’m going to do something a little different. I make no secret of my far-left politics on this blog, but I don’t usually jump in with Hot Takes on Current Discourse. This is just because I’m of an age where I’ve seen this stuff come and go before, so I usually find that sort of front-lines small-scale conflict really tedious and exhausting to no real end. However, a friend of mine recently expressed frustration at the current takes going around re: an easy mode for Sekiro, and I was like, “well hey I have a blog I’ll write something.” So, shoutouts to my boy Roodi! This one’s for you.
Let’s start off by getting one thing straight: an easy mode is not a thing that’s going to actually happen, no matter what I or anyone else says about it or how mad we get. This is a purely academic discussion, and as such, it’s becoming a rallying cry around which G*mergaters and anti-ableist folks are coming in to start throwing the usual ideological punches.
So, am I about to both-sides GG and anti-ableist people? Ehhh maybe a little bit here just to lay a groundwork. But I promise this isn’t my main point.
On the one hand, if someone needs help with a game, you can help them without being a sneering little arrogant child at them or trying to deny them a place in your space. For instance, I was having a hell of a time against the first Shinobi Hunter miniboss and found him incredibly difficult until a friend (also Roodi) told me that you need to dodge forward to make the Mikiri counter work. Suddenly, he was made easy just by adding that one piece of information, even though nothing about the miniboss itself had changed.
Also, if an easy mode were to be added to difficult games (and nobody is saying that it universally should be), it doesn’t take anything away from the experience for those who don’t select that mode. On the other hand, however, I feel like a lot of the arguments coming from the other side are actually weak enough that they could be deliberate psyops to make pro-easy mode / anti-ableist people look bad. It wouldn’t be unheard of from this crowd.
“Disabled people” are not even remotely a monolithic group. People aren’t just “disabled”. People can be blind, deaf, mute, they can have deformities in their hands or feet, they can have skin conditions that prevent them from holding a controller tightly, they can have brittle bones, they can have traumatic brain injuries that slow their reflexes or affect their cognition. All kinds of stuff. Not all disabilities affect someone’s ability to play video games, and all kinds of people with various disabilities play and enjoy all kinds of video games. There’s a blind guy who beat Ocarina of Time, for fuck’s sake.
Part and parcel with this, “difficulty” isn’t a monolith either. People say Sekiro is “difficult”, but when you really break it down, what do they mean? That they’re unable to adapt to how the game wants to be played? That they die a lot? That their reflexes aren’t fast enough? That the enemy attack tells aren’t obvious enough? That they don’t feel like Wolf has enough posture or vitality to absorb hits? Saying “Sekiro is too hard, give me an easy mode because it’s respectful to me as your player” is not useful information to have when designing that mode. It doesn’t say anything about what in particular people find difficult about the game. And when you phrase it in terms of “respect”, it comes across as entitled and disingenuous. And if you’re some Liberal who’s just white knighting for “disabled people”, I question what you’re doing in the discussion at all.
You can’t really lower enemy health, because they all die instantly when you break their posture and do a deathblow anyway. Slowing down enemy animations might work for those with slower reflexes, but that doesn’t help people who are just unable to read what kind of attack is coming. We could eliminate perilous attacks entirely, but then that’s a completely different game. You could make it so enemy posture breaks more easily, but combat is already really brief, it would become basically nonexistent if you did that. What exactly would an easy mode in Sekiro even look like?
This is what people mean when they say that Sekiro’s difficulty is inherent to its design, or at least that’s what I think they mean if I’m being charitable. Most of the current crowd arguing this point doesn’t seem to use words this way, though. What they really mean is “fuck off casuals, gamers rise up” or some shit. Which is uh… disingenuous of them, to say the least.
I do hold the opinion that if you’re being paid to play and review games, that as a professional you need to be held to a higher standard than an end user. That maybe if your job is in games journalism, you need to personally be able to access and understand most of a game’s content. Or however much you personally require (based on your mental abilities) in order to be able to talk about it intelligently and render an opinion for those of us who haven’t played it or might not be able to. But when it comes to people buying these games, I have more sympathy. You pay 60 bucks for something, then find yourself unable to really come to grips with it, that’s no fun. You ought to get a refund if you want one, I think, provided the intended purpose of the game is fun or for you to understand it. But this is where I part ways from the other side, unfortunately.
There’s an idea in psychiatry called “learned helplessness” that I wanna talk about a bit here. It’s a state of mind that develops in a person who goes through repeated failure or trauma, where they learn to give up rather than fight. They basically lose their “fight or flight” response in that scenario, and it’s reduced to just “flight”. Obviously, playing video games is not nearly on the same level of like, an actual life trauma, but From Soft games do tend to play with the idea of “repeated failure prior to success”. They do this well enough that apparently a substantial portion of people who play these games never get to the “success” part. They die a few times, they can’t seem to figure out how the game intends you to play, they can’t figure it out and they give up. Part of being a human being means having a prefrontal cortex that allows you to do self-reflection and figure out how to not do this, but to be fair, most people don’t really seem to do this at all.
The Gang Weed Epic Gamers look at those who give up and sneer derisively, judging them for being weak as they flip lovingly through their eugenics manifesto. That ain’t me. The anti-ableist folks look at those who give up and say we should help the poor helpless disabled children because You Allistics Are So Indecent and all this, which is just endlessly irritating to me. I will say, hopefully without derision, that if you want to experience the success half of the coin, you do need to just buck the fuck up a little bit sometimes. Retreating and shrinking back into learned helplessness in a game and then complaining that it should be easier does you no favors, basically, you learn nothing by doing that. I will also say that it’s okay and valid to not be good at every game that comes out, that it’s ultimately not really important that absolutely everyone be able to access 100% of the content in every game ever. I would also point out that if your particular disability is such that you’re unable to take in stimuli a game is giving you and learn what to do and what not to do based on that, then maybe an easy mode wouldn’t help you anyway.
If we start going down that road, we have to view video games as a commodity, a product that a consumer pays for and so deserves “their money’s worth” from their purchase. This is a world where The Hot New Game is subjected to a universal standard of accessibility, because hey we’re all entitled to experience the hot new experience, right? What else are we gonna talk about on insta and mastodon unless we all have the same screenshots? And while I do have some sympathy for that point of view, games aren’t cheap after all and it sucks to feel like you’re missing out on something your friends are enjoying, I feel like this misses the wider point of games as a form of art.
One person (someone like me) looks at and experiences Sekiro from the point of view of someone who is able to come to grips with its mechanics easily, who experiences more of the successes it contains. Others might have to beat their face against the game, they experience more failure, they might not even complete its story. To me, Sekiro is a work about overcoming failure, about finding triumph in adversity. To this other hypothetical person, the game is about failure and frustration and adversity and unfinished business. But here’s the thing: both of these experiences are completely valid interpretations of Sekiro. There’s nothing better about me as a person because I’m good at this particular game; however, if you are able to get through the game thanks to a neutered difficulty, you are also not having the same experience I am, either. It’s an illusion to think that an easy mode makes a game more accessible, because it’s still a different experience.
The person who “fails” and gives up isn’t “missing out on content” just because they haven’t laid their eyeballs on every single texture and model in the game world and heard every line of dialogue (did Undertale’s genocide route teach us nothing?). These players are absolutely experiencing the core message of the game, in a way that’s unique to them. This is especially true in Sekiro, given its Buddhist themes. What better expression of universal suffering than a game that kills you a lot and then punishes you for fighting against your own death by forcing you to hurt others to do it? How better to experience Samsara than having to redo your work over and over, seeing impermanence right there in front of you? Buddha never said the truth of reality-as-emptiness was easy or fun or not traumatic. It’s all those things. That’s literally the point. And if you give up before the end of the story, well, none of us gets to see the whole story of the universe (except maybe Buddha). We all die before the ending, that’s how mortality works.
Not every game needs to be “fun” or fit into some cryptofash Campbellian narrative about the hero’s journey. Power fantasies and ability progressions are not the only genre of game, though you can definitely be forgiven for thinking that they are, given the overall climate of games for the past decade or so. And Sekiro does have a progression of power inside it, as one of its moving parts. I haven’t written formally about Ice Pick Lodge’s “Pathologic” yet (update: I did), but it and “The Void” are both very much on my mind when I say that sometimes, the experience of failure is in fact the intended message of a work. Not that we can ever know for sure, death of the author and all that. And if you personally don’t find experiencing failure to be interesting, then… okay. Don’t play games that deal with that as a theme or in their mechanics, then. I love Minecraft, you can always come play that with me if you want. I’ll set it to Peaceful, we can just hang out and build stuff, it’ll be great!
I want to make one thing very clear: I’m very expressly and explicitly NOT saying that “disabled people” (in all possible meanings of the term) shouldn’t have access to video games, or that easy modes are bad, or anything like that. Rather, when it comes to Sekiro and an easy mode… I guess I’m saying “this ain’t it, chief”. This is not the game for that thing. Not that it was ever going to happen, anyway.