Friday, April 19, 2019

#122: Sekiro: The Accessibility Discussion

I'm sure most of the people reading this are already sick to death of “The Discourse”(tm) surrounding Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Many people have already weighed in, with voices smarter and more well-researched than mine, yet I can't bring myself to let this one go. We don't talk enough about accessibility in gaming, and Sekiro is one of the greatest jumping off points to start delving into the topic: How important it is and what game designers can do to reduce the barriers of entry for the games they make.

With regards to this game specifically, the more I think about the conversation about Sekiro, the more I begin to realize that it's... overly reductive. I don't necessarily know if I'm in favor of a straight up "Easy Mode", but not for the reason you'd think. While it's true that an increase to the player's damage output and a reduction in enemy damage could solve some of the problems people are facing with Sekiro, I also believe that's a brute force method that dodges the conversation about the actual problem. Rarely do I actually hear many complaints specifically about the numbers in discussions I have had. Sure, there are specific attacks by individual enemies and bosses that people complain about, for example I dislike the Chained Ogre's grab moves because it deals over 75% of the protagonist's max health in damage, but these are instances, and not critiques of the game as a whole.

When I talk to the people who are having trouble with Sekiro even after unlearning their Souls-ian instincts (as I struggled to for a significant portion of the early game), I see a few underlying problems that I'm not necessarily sure a numbers adjustment would fix. Chief among them is the reliance on deflect as a mechanic, for multiple reasons. Not everyone will have the reflexes necessary to react to enemy attacks fast enough, which is a complaint I see often. Beyond just physical reflexes: People with neuroatypical brains might not have the capability to process that visual information fast enough to have a realistic chance to respond. While the window for deflecting attacks is more lax than one may think, it can still be tight, and that makes the difference.
This led to a discovery of a strategy, coined “Blockdancing” by content creator VaatiVidya, but this has its own problems. To define the term, “blockdancing” involves rapidly tapping the block/defect button. Doing so creates a loop where protagonist Wolf raises his sword to block, and begins to lower it before raising it again. During this cycle, the player will block, and occasionally deflect, all incoming attacks, making it useful against enemies with long attack chains or hard to predict attack patterns. The problem lies in the input itself. This motion is painful for people who suffer from repetitive strain injuries or other ailments of the hands and wrists. Many games released in the prior two console generations, that relied on QTEs where players had to mash a specific over and over to simulate the “strain” that a character was going through learned that lesson the hard way.

Ideally, circumstances like these would be considered in the middle of the design process, so the need to address accessibility concerns wouldn't come in the form of “quick fix” suggestions (that, mind you, would still take time and resources to implement), but such is the hand we're dealt in this case. To address the issue of deflect timing, one possible solution comes from Celeste by Matt Makes Games. In order to allow for players of various skill levels and physical/mental impairments to still enjoy the game, Celeste's developer Matt “Makes Games” Thorson created an “Assist Mode”, a series of options that can used to tweak the experience. One of these options was to reduce the overall speed of the game, so that people with slower reflexes and reaction times can still receive the same level of challenge as more able-bodied players without their impairments getting in the way. I believe a similar option in Sekiro would have greatly alleviated the burden for players with similar conditions.
And as to the issue of how to reduce the strain of “blockdancing”, there is another solution I propose. Games like Marvel's Spider-man have options to switch QTEs from mashing the button to simply holding it own, to avoid unnecessary strain. Sekiro could do something similar with its block, allowing users to simply hold the button down to perform a “blockdance”. The game already makes a few (appreciated) concessions in this area by allowing for fullyrebindable controls, and this would be a logical extension of that. While it would come at the cost of not being able to hold block to recover posture, making it an imperfect answer, it would reduce the burden on players with certain ailments to more capably play the game.

And these above problems and solutions are only examples, barely scratching the surface of a large issue. Developers have been making great strides in the field of accessibility over the last few years alone, and I hope that trend continues. Even games as notoriously hard as Darkest Dungeon include options to help players of various skill levels and abilities to have the same experience. That's the end goal: Parity of experience. Danny O'Dywer at NoClip had a similar example in the other direction with racing games, where he doesn't play them without a race wheel and pedals, disabling a lot of the accessibility that are enabled by default, so that he can get an immersive experience in the way some just need a controller and the default settings for. Those options exist so that he, a racing enthusiast, can still get the same experience of being a badass race car driver that others want.

As the conversations about how we can embed the idea of accessibility into the core design of the games we build and play, keep cases like these in mind. One of the greatest joys I experience is sharing a game I love with other people. Although I love Sekiro, the lack of these options combined with the game's very punishing nature, make recommending it a very tricky prospect. If I knew that options like these existed, I would be a lot less hesitant to ask other people to try it and see what they think of it. If From Software has taken some of these considerations, more people would be able to appreciate the gem they crafted so beautifully.

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