Dfficulty in video games is an infinitely sliding scale. Any game can be easier and require less interaction until it becomes a passive sensation stream, just as any game can become more and more difficult until it becomes performing an infinitely long steam of specific actions in an extremely small amount of time once no takebacks. You could say all games exist somewhere between the scale of absorbing completely passively and doing constantly or else.
Every medium, no matter how it's formed, must at some point decide who it's aimed at and who it isn't. For instance, so-called "walking simulators" (I dislike the term but I'll refer to them as WSes from this point on) only require you to be able to press buttons to move around, usually without any sort of "difficulty" in the traditional sense of threats that remove progress. Yet are WSes actually the epitome of accessibility? Obviously, a WS expects you to be able to press buttons, which can be tricky if someone's disabled and requires the use of specialty interfaces. But beyond that, have you ever consider how many games are impossible to play if you're blind?
Blind people often feel left out of this sort of discussion to me, like it's almost considered crazy to even imagine most things being available to them. Many people aren't even aware that there are games made specifically for the blind! I think that seeing that there are certain people out there whom you're completely ignoring and othering without even realizing it is one of the most important aspects of learning about accessibility, and it's really useful to consider their viewpoints and whether it's possible for you to make stuff they can enjoy too. At the same time, I think it's definitely a topic that can lead to moral situations without any verifiably good answers. I personally feel like it's okay to make works that are entirely visual, but that can be read as me saying that I "don't want blind people to interact with my work". And I can't really deny that many of the things I like and seek to do in my works depend on arts I can't really think of a practical way to extend to them. I really wish that that wasn't true, but it does seem I might just not be the right person to know what they want and to try to create for them.
This is how I feel sometimes whenever some popular game is a little bit too hard and the discourse turns into why games that don't have easy modes are inherently evil and othering. Every game must at some point decide to other some amount of people. There is absolutely no experience that can be consumed by every single person in the world, because every single experience that can be used to communicate must function through some sense - and everyone in the world has different access to those senses. There will always, then, be an infinitely large set of theoretical traits you could add to any single game to make it accessible to a few more people. Of these features, some will be easier to implement than others, and some will be important to different people than others. I would say that there's inherently nothing wrong with adding more and more accessibility granularity, but I do wish to stress the infinitely expandable nature of it - not as a slippery slope, but to point out that no work can ever be 100% accessible, ever.
In other words, every single game has to choose a certain number of people where it says "I'm sorry, but I didn't design this game for you", and then accept that.
The main reason I feel this point is important to consider is that if difficulty and accessibility essentially expands infinitely in both directions, from a game only one person is able to play to a game that is supposedly meant to be played by every single person on earth, it means that every point in the middle of the accessibility scale is more or less exactly as arbitrary. The only real question that matters is how many people /you/ personally want to be able to play your game, along with what you actually have the capability to do. I've already established that a game that's truly accessible to everyone is impossible - the easiest game to make is a game aimed at exactly you, because only you know what you enjoy and you don't have to worry about teaching anyone the rules. In fact, the way you make a game accessible to exclusively you is to just never release a game you made at all.
This has all be an elaborate way to get down to the nitty gritty on an argument I see endlessly repeated over and over on Twitter. I believe it goes something like this:
1. I wish that I could play Popular Game. 2. However, Popular Game is too hard for me, I don't enjoy playing it. 3. It upsets me that Popular Game is not a game I enjoy playing. 4. Popular Game is inherently bad (perhaps even ableist) because of this.
There is also a common caveat.
5. When I voice this frustration, people tell me that I need to "git gud", and refuse to have any sympathy for my plea. 6. As you can see, the people who don't agree with me on this topic are all just gatekeepers who refuse to have any respect for people that don't have the same capabilities they do.
In general, I don't find this too troublesome. Everyone needs to vent sometimes about running into jerks, and the people in point 5 are often truly jerks who don't want to understand the positing individual. There are certainly extremely nasty people in the gaming community and many hard games tend to attract teams of gatekeepers who despise those who can't achieve their community bragging rights or deride the things they find valuable.
At the same time, I have to say I get slightly uncomfortable with how often I see this take repeated and reverberated around because it's, well, kind of an echo chamber viewpoint. It's one of those things that forms a miniature culture war where you have to take sides and if you try to have a perspective somewhere in the middle, you get accused of being part of the other side in all its worst excesses. Because everything is really "just venting" about jerks, anyone who tries to seriously discuss it in a way other than the standard line is immediately viewed as a threat because they refuse to allow people to "vent". But when that venting become the repeated backbone of people's opinions, is it really venting, or is it people defending a serious wide-perspective viewpoint from serious discussion by getting personally bothered by criticism?
I'll try to go through my thoughts bit by bit. The previous paragraph was mostly about point 5, how I find it uncomfortable that you can't really argue against it without fearing being painted as a bad faith actor. But I actually have the most frustration with points 2 to 4, since I think it doesn't really consider the minutiae of the discussion. As I've mentioned, no game can be accessible to everyone on the planet (in fact, quite a few people probably barely play video games if at all due to lacking the systems they're designed to run on entirely). Why, then, is it evil for a game developer to design with a specific audience in mind?
This topic does get into what I view as "real" accessibility traits that help developers. Any game developer can hear "game needs an eaay mode" and try to make a mode where everything is slower or does half damage or there's less enemies or youre invincible or something. But there's many, many traits that are enormously helpful to certain parts of the populace that abled people just legitimately do not think about. Many games have autofire if you hold down a button, but how many games do you know that natively implement macro support (something I know very well to have a massive effect on people with tons of muscular and nervous issues, that abled people often don't even think about). I've mentioned it's usually very difficult for people to make games for totally blind people, but what about trying to make games be more accessible for those who are colorblind, or have poor eyesight? You can zoom in and increase the font size to a ridiculous degree in internet browsers or on your phone, and tons of older people do this - how many games do you know that let you increase the font size? These are points I think would be very useful for us to remind developers about and that in many cases wouldn't be that hard to implement. But instead the discussion always seems to be about whether or not games are "hard", while using the term "accessibility".
I think a lot of jerks try to attack point 2. The bad faith gamer viewpoint of these complaints is to see them as saying "If you want to play the game, you have to put in the effort", or perhaps "You could play this game if you really wanted to, but you just want to have it baby you, and you need to grow up". These views are obviously rather silly. There's a small grain of truth in them - obviously, any sort of feature that changes the difficulty in some way means the challenge isn't the same and so the feeling of completing it probably isn't the same either. But of course, much of it really does come from people who care way too much about fictional achievements, and it's motivated by the urge to strike back at people. The biggest issue with this type of viewpoint is that it becomes conceptually opposed to any sort of making the game easy for anyone - the idea that someone out there dares to claim they beat the game despite not beating it the normal way is viewed as an offense to what they stand for, like it weakens their achievements. And that's indeed very dumb - no matter how many easy modes a game features, it doesn't change what your personal achievements for the game might be if you ignored them.
Where I personally get frustrated is actually at the thoughts that lead to jumping from 3 to 4 in the first place. There's a term you see sometimes online in our massively connected era, "FOMO", or "Fear Of Missing Out". Game releases are so huge and hyped these days and everyone is bombarded with information on them - even if you don't like Animal Crossing, or Elden Ring, or Final Fantasy XIV, etcetera, you're still going to be covered with people talking about these games if you hang around anyone with a casual interest in the field. Because this is a big part of how young people socialize nowadays, it can feel important to "keep up with the Joneses" and play whatever's popular at the time, or catch up with stuff you knew was popular at some point to have something to connect with others over.
I want to reiterate that I can really sympathize here. I myself usually like stuff I have almost no one to talk to about because of how my hyperfixations work, and it's terribly lonely. I often times wish that other people would be interested in the things I like in such a way that I could get along with them, but instead I tend to drift through the world unable to have meaningful conversations about my favorite things and yet talking everyone's ears off about them despite the fact I know they're not really caring all that much. It's a terrible feeling and I don't wish it on anyone.
At the same time, though, I think almost anything that a big game has done is something that a smaller game somewhere can also provide if you want gameplay or style or anything else out of it. In the modern era, there's so many different ways to access games or watch playthroughs of them or to read about the lore of a work separately from actually having to play it if you don't like how it plays. We're surrounded by options, and yet we become dead set on playing the things that everyone's talking about mostly because they're, well, the things everyone's talking about. So if that thing is something we personally don't like, it can be quite frustrating. I believe that at least some of the reason people get such unpleasant feelings about this topic is that they desperately want to do the same things as their friends, but since they don't like it, that negative energy becomes fixed on the work itself for not being "for you".
I don't really think this is a particularly fair way to judge a video game or its developer.
I must admit that I have somewhat of a personal vendetta regarding this topic, but personal vendettas are also the source of all personal experience, so you'll have to forgive me for not being an impartial entity observing from the ninth dimension here. I made a Mega Man fangame in 2020, which I feel was good though flawed. What I was surprised by, though, was how little people appreciated any of the effort that went into adding different difficulty options to the game. I added a level select from the get-go because I enjoyed how they function in games like Touhou and the Game Boy Gradius, and people took that as a sign that I hadn't bothered to balance the game. I worked hard to make each difficulty mode actually different in interesting ways because I dislike boring numerical ones, and for all that effort only my close friends cared or even noticed - I even saw people saying that "yeah, each mode is exactly the same" despite them clearly being totally different if one was to check even the work's second room.
Adding features like this is often thankless! No matter what you do, someone somewhere will probably not enjoy it, and if they want to play it for some reason then they have just as much a right to complain about the game not being made for them as anyone else does. Since this goes on forever, you have to at some point make a decision what things you want to prioritize - where do you want to draw the line on features you're working to put in? You know full well that many people won't notice them, and that you'll never reach 100% saturation, but you go ahead and put some in anyway just because you want more people to be able to try it out. At the same time, in your heart of hearts, you kinda feel that there's not much point to doing it because the people who would want the specific features probably actually aren't all that interested in your type of game in the first place since they're generally about experiences that person inherently dislikes. But you go ahead and try to add it anyway, which can sometimes require an immense amount of fiddling (Slowdown, for instance, generally involves completely reworking the entire game.)
Yet obviously, these features are positive, right? There's certainly no reason to be upset at a game for offering more options - you can always ignore them. This is where the "jerk gamers" enter foolish territory, they view the existence of these options as a threat antithetical to their purpose. But it's certainly not actually meaningfully troublesome for them to exist, bar odd cases like them being too aggressively put in front of you and ruining the flow of the game as a work (see something like games that keep asking if you want to skip things all the time, or hold your hand to the end without letting you turn that off). To me I would never feel any frustration about this discourse topic if it was phrased in a positive way, trying to help people think about ways they could make their games fun for more people that want to play them. It's that this becomes an expectation that you're attacked for not having that it becomes a pointless goal for me - an argument that will never end so long as those jerk gamers exist. And trust me, those jerk gamers aren't going to go away even if every hard game under the sun disappears - nor will venting about them to each other and creating this mental image of all the hard game making devs as being on "their side" get rid of them or shut them up either. It feels like it's a way to get rid of that FOMO frustration and the frustration of running into jerky people by blaming the games for their existence, and I really don't like that.
I also really don't like when someone who doesn't enjoy difficulty at all acts as though difficulty is pointless, just a tool to slow people down or something. Obviously, there are people out there who would no longer want to play a game if difficulty was totally removed - this is why we discuss things as options in the first place. Clearly there is a certain value to a game having difficulty and it makes a game inherently different from a game without it, and clearly there are people who specifically like that about them. Some takes act as though difficulty exists exclusively as a gating tool, which I think is so aggressively arguing the conflation between jerk gamers and devs that it actively offends me. It's not meant as an attack to make a hard game, it's meant as something for people similar to the creator to enjoy. Frankly, the vast majority of games are!
I really do feel that a lot of these issues go back to the FOMO thing, which is tied deeply into the sheer size and "cultural importance" of the video game industry now. Which is an interesting angle - some of the accessibility discussion we see is tinged by "good game design" viewpoints that you see from /commercial/ game development. Commercial game development is ultimately about one goal - how do you make money with your game? The answer is pretty simple - sell it more. How do you sell your game more? You market it to everyone... and make it a game everyone can buy. So game devs in the industry are often trained with these marketing based viewpoints about how the ultimate goal of a game is to be aimed at as many people as possible, even if it has to cause reductions elsewhere.
I'll be blunt - I'll even kick out the whole argument about giving up something elsewhere to spend time on difficulty balancing. That one just encourages people to point out how rich games companies are and how my personal viewpoint shouldn't be applied to them. Instead I'll go back to the infinite scalability argument - every single game could be scaled to any difficulty ever, given enough time and energy. But it still wouldn't really be accessible to everyone, so you can really only pick a certain number of people you want to make the game for and make it for them. If tons of people want to play your game anyway and ask you to change it to be more accessible to them, I certainly think it's a good move as a developer to consider their pleas and think about actually adding features to the game so those people can enjoy it as well. But I think it should be just as much in a dev's rights to choose to not make the game for those people.
While we're at it, why don't we flip the chessboard around a little bit? Commercial works want to appeal to the most people they can, but no work can be everything at once. So why not, say, make all the characters in your video game accurately reflect the ethnic balance of your country or something? The United States is about 60% white, so people trying to make works that appeal to the most people and are aimed at the United States as a market will usually try to make stories white people can sympathize with while perhaps adding a few token characters of each minority they can think of to serve as an "accessibility feature" for their game. Yes, the core of this story is not aimed at you and we will never aim it at you, but don't worry, we've gone ahead and added on some random character we might have spent barely any effort on to appeal to you so you can't complain, don't worry! Isn't it interesting how someone adding a supposed accessibility aspect to a work without it actually being part of the work's heart can end up exposing the disturbing flaws of the entire work and making you feel degraded and talked down to, expected to be happy with other people's crumbs?
Obviously, the true goal of accessibility is not to create a soulless marketed work that only reflects normative goals of society. But when a white person complains about how a story fixated on a black individual is unrelatable for them, is it weird to say "Why can't you just sympathize with someone who isn't like you?" Is it not kind of disturbing that so many people get bothered by the very idea of works that aren't aimed at them? Obviously there's all kinds of normative stuff that get tired up in this specific discussion - the way the majority of media is in fact aimed at the "white normal", so a white person saying this is usually attacking a rare exception, for instance. But it's that very normativity that's why we don't feel weird about a minority complaining about a work being aimed at white people - if society was fair and producing works that were aimed at everyone at relatively even rates, then everyone would have their pick of stuff they could interact with and would have to have some specific reason to get upset at a work being aimed at a different group then them. It's the fact that the white person in this scenario has access to so much media that appeals to and caters to their tastes and then gets offended that something out there doesn't cater to them that makes it so irritating and messed up, especially given the underlying social horrors that are responsible for how minority creators get sidelined and brutalized and how prejudice almost invisibly shapes who gets what power in society sometimes.
This is NOT SAYING that hard-game likers are poor and embattled in the same way as a minority is. As a half-black individual myself (I hate prefacing things with my race as though it means literally anything about my upbringing, but I know some people will bad faith read me unless I appeal to racial essentialism or whatever and prove I deserve to discuss these topics because I happened to be born to the right parents so my apologies) I only feel that it's a reasonable enough over the top comparison to at least make people try to think about what the hell I'm talking about by using a context they might feel a little differently about.
Because, essentially, most games... are actually aimed at quite a lot of people. I would say that the vast majority of the games that get really popular aren't that hard and have tons of difficulty options - in fact, they often are much better about offering difficulty options than they are about offering "true" accessibility features. I remember hearing about how the 2016 Doom had a colorblind mode that didn't even know what colorblind mode meant and so was literally a mode that turned colors off or something, and other such horror stories - meanwhile, one game series exists that calls itself hard and everyone loses their minds. I just don't get why the jerk gamers are seen as the vanguards of the mainstream game world that are crushing poor innocent defenseless normal people, when so many games have already made a billion concessions to the pyre of "being popular by not being difficult". It feels to me a little bit like these viewpoints are coming from people who have already won and already have access to a miraculously huge number of games they could play and enjoy, and yet the fact that a game people are talking about right now is something that isn't aimed at them it's extremely upsetting and worthy of uproar.
Like, if you don't want to play the game, why not just avoid playing it? I know, I get that sometimes a game has so many things you want to love and like about it but there's just one or two little bits that make it unplayable for you, and that's frustrating. I get that sometimes you just want to walk around in invincible mode, and hell, as I said I have absolutely nothing against people adding invincible modes and people wishing they had more access to things they know they like and are excited by. It just also feels a little bit to me like much of this discussion happens in a total vacuum, or is motivated by one single game someone wanted to like or has bad memories about not being able to play with their friends, and then treated as this giant block written in stone about how games should be and about how evil the industry is instead of being processed as "Maybe I should work on not feeling as bad about when my friends play a game without me." Sometimes it's evidence your friend group is set up poorly, or you need to stop being so obsessive about video games! There are so many ways to try to process one's feelings and thoughts on stuff like this and I hate that we just reinforce finding an enemy to target and blame for everything about it. I hate that it's a repeating cycle of talking about why game devs are bad for daring not to try to complete the impossible task of making games aimed at everyone, all the time. And the reason I've written this blog post in the first place is that I hate how I think I've gotten into arguments over this about once a year for at least a decade now and it feels like things don't change. So that's why I wish we could just make this argument more about the positive angle of helping people know cool things they could add to their games and try to implement to help people out, rather than making it all about venting our rage regarding those evil gamers and the game devs who enable them by making games at all.
Thanks for reading,