Game Journalists, Difficult Gameplay, and The Accessibility of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

From Software’s new video game may be a world of hurt for even experienced Souls players. But claims the game is inaccessible are born out of frustration, not clarity, nor Game Journalists simply sucking at the game.

From Software has recently released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice — their new action-adventure title set in a fantastical retelling of the Sengoku period in Japan — which continues a history of the developer’s deeply challenging games, works that have gained a reputation for testing gamers’ abilities to an extreme degree. Along with the release of another game perceived as grueling and unfair comes a conversation about accessibility in video games, and what it means when a game can’t be beat easily (or at all) by a portion of its audience.

Dave Thier, a contributor for Forbes.com, penned the most notable example of the ease and accessibility argument for Sekiro’s gameplay: in his controversial articleSekiro: Shadows Dies Twice’ Needs To Respect Its Players And Add An Easy Mode he argues that most players will not be able to experience the full detail of FromSoft’s beautiful and intricate world-building if they cannot progress in the game. He adds that other FromSoft games (like Dark Souls) typically had a means of bypassing difficult enemies and bosses with the help of a summoned friend, whereas Sekiro is restricted to single-player experiences only. What he doesn’t mention, and arguably adds even more to Sekiro’s even more hardcore shift from the Souls franchise, is the way the game enables increasing your character’s base stats and abilities: there is no Souls-style leveling system in Sekiro from the start of the game. While the player can manage to later access a form of grinding for levels by tracking down required items from merchants, this leveling system is still much more arduous than simply accruing souls and slotting them into Strength or Endurance.

Why do Thier’s words matter to me, specifically? I find myself deep in the Dark Souls community, and other gaming communities revolving equally daunting player experiences. I moderate for Dark Souls streamers, I stream some of the games on my own. I talk to friends on Discord about the games, and I’ve been playing since before the release of FromSoft’s Dark Souls 2. I love the environment of these games, but I also love the challenge (even if I trend more towards competitive multiplayer challenges in gaming these days as opposed to single player or multiplayer PvE). Overall, I’m very immersed in the fanbase around FromSoft’s legacy on an almost daily basis. And I love these people, even if they’re often expressing — unknowingly — opinions that say I’m a big dumb-dumb who probably couldn’t even cheat their way through Super Mario Sunshine.

That’s because I’m also a journalist, and have written and worked for gaming publications and major games companies (mostly on the esports front). I can tell you both as a huge FromSoft fan and as a writer that a large portion of these communities I’m in genuinely believe games journalists, by principle, are not good at video games. I can also tell you that this belief only need be reinforced by one journalist who struggles with a game every few years or so for people to go on believing it. They don’t need every journalist on the planet to suck to believe it, they just need one guy at E3 to royally fuck up every now and again and they’re good to go.

Having watched lots of Sekiro content over the last few days, and interacting with others who are enjoying the new world FromSoft has let us play around in, I’ve heard and seen lots of people complain that Sekiro should not have an easy mode. But I had to ask on Twitter for examples of the few and far between of people who genuinely suggest that Sekiro should have an easy mode. Most people I’ve asked prior to reaching out on Twitter could not lead me to the source of who, or what publication, was suggesting an easy mode for the video game. They just knew it was “someone” and that someone quickly multiplied to include “most journalists”, i.e. they believed, on average, that most journalists want an easy mode for Sekiro.

This behaviour reminded me of when StudioMDHR’s Cuphead first released. Journalist Dean Takahashi of GamesBeat quickly came under fire for failing to follow Cuphead’s tutorial instructions in a timely manner, being stuck at a portion that blocked progress if the player could not learn a jump move necessary for maneuvering later challenges.

The internet did not let him forget about this.

There are so many results that identify Takahashi as “unnamed game journalist”.

Back then, I would frequently ask people parroting “did you see that journalist who couldn’t even play the tutorial of Cuphead?” to tell me who the journalist was if they could, or what publication they worked for. Similarly, nobody could source it for me. While it may have been a bad faith question (I knew who Takahashi was, I was just seeing if they knew who he was) it also served as a good test to see who was actually paying attention and who was reaching out for anything that reinforced their ideas about games journalists sucking at games. Despite Takahashi’s career focusing on reviewing hardware rather than reviewing gameplay, his actions became unquestionable evidence on the veracity of a game journalist’s skill. His performance in Cuphead will be compared to, and used against, journalists whose main body of work is actually about addressing game design despite their bodies of work being categorically different. Even though I worked in esports, and Takahashi works in hardware and R&D, we become indistinguishable when people ask if any games journalist is actually good at pressing buttons.

Similarly, Thier will be branded as a FromSoft casual for asking for the easy route, and lumped in with writers from game-specific publications like Kotaku, IGN, or Polygon (of which Forbes is not). This opinion of his skill will not be deterred by the fact that nobody has actually seen him play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Ultimately, though, I’m not here to get people to respect journalists or treat them like people, because I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon. Rather, I wanted to genuinely challenge Thier’s suggestion that Sekiro has to have an easy mode, but I needed to preface that:

  1. I’m in the same boat as him: I expect people to immediately mock my opinions about video games and their accessibility simply because I’ve been paid to write about video games,
  2. I don’t automatically assume Thier’s opinion is based on the fact that he cannot play video games, much less play From Software games. I take him at his word when he writes in his article that he has been a fan of the series, and
  3. I know Thier’s words don’t need me signal-boosting them, as thousands of FromSoft and other “hardcore” gaming fans will already be seeking him out to reinforce their negative perception about journalists or casual gamers.

That said, I think he’s wrong.

I believe accessibility in video games is important, which is why when the accessibility argument is brought up to counter Sekiro’s unforgiving nature, I was disappointed. The accessibility discussion needs to be had — but in a way that doesn’t rewrite the meaning and nature of accessibility to mere convenience. Thier’s article clearly conflates the two; he cites accessibility expert Ian Hamilton in his article, who writes:

“easy mode” is a really blunt instrument, there are other ways. To start with it is worth looking at what the designer’s intent is, what they want the players to experience. Many assume that From’s goal is to make games that require a high skill bar; that’s not true.

Asking people concerned with Sekiro’s difficulty to explore the designer’s intent of the game redirects the conversation to a more constructive avenue. Instead of asking whether or not players or developers intend the game to be “hard” or “easy”, we’re asking “what is the experience that FromSoft hoped to create?” Hamilton bothers to ask what the developers want from their game, but Thier is still only asking what he himself wants the developers to re-invision the game as.

FromSoft carefully chose how the mechanics of Sekiro affect how we play the game. Every choice — especially choices that deviate from their previous games — was made to create a new and refreshing style of encountering the game’s challenges. Stamina is gone, leveling is completely different, player aggression is rewarded and punished in entirely different ways. There’s a longer list of differences between how Sekiro is difficult and how the Souls series is difficult, as any fan could tell you. But as Hamilton writes, these choices were not made to limit the player base to only those with high skill. FromSoft didn’t make a game just to tell you to “Git Gud”. The goal was not to make you cry, even if you did.

The goal was a new and refreshing challenge. And this challenge can’t contextually change based on how long you have to master the combat — difficulty settings that amp up or tone down enemy damage will not get to the heart of Thier’s or other “easy mode” advocate’s concerns.

I believe accessibility in video games was brought up not because Sekiro is inaccessible, but because this challenge simply took too long for some people, like Thier, to master — and that made them feel bad.

I’m not saying people who claim Sekiro is inaccessible are bad at video games. I’m saying — much like I felt when stuck on the final boss of the game — they are deeply impatient, and (if long-term fans of FromSoft’s works) forget the patience they had when beginning the series. As someone who lost the patience that let them fight Dark Souls’ Artorias for five hours straight, I understand it can be disappointing to come to a new FromSoft game and feel like you just can’t devote yourself to constant loss like you used to. But loss of patience is about the world we live in, and how our emotions are affected by how we lead our lives, and not how the game was developed.

To show the difference between accessibility concerns and those born of impatience, I’ll compare Dave Thier’s comments about Sekiro to the infamous Cuphead tutorial incident, as these two examples can saliently shed light on what it means to be inaccessible versus what it means to simply not enjoy a game’s intended progression.

Thier claims that most people will not see Sekiro’s beautiful world because of, among other things, time constraints: “Maybe they have limited gaming time and don’t want to spend that time fighting Lady Butterfly 100 times in a row.” But fighting Lady Butterfly 100 times before you beat her does not prevent you from enjoying the rest of the game. You will eventually beat her, or you might give up before that moment comes. But you will not have given up because it is impossible for you, you will have given up because you are tired of the game. Unless you’ve suddenly come down with the plague, there’s no real force that says you can’t be stuck on Lady Butterfly for a whole month before experiencing the rest of the game. It is a valid experience to have. It may feel frustrating — especially when you can log on to Twitch and see someone beat it without issue — but it is not the end of your game. It will not change the game that comes after the fight.

And by the way, the fight is optional. Thier using an optional fight to say that a player will be missing out on the rest of the game (even if they are, at the moment, unaware she is an optional boss) is especially condemning of his own argument, as it turns out that spending that long on the boss may be inconvenient for you, but it does not block you from accessing the rest of the game.

Takahashi struggling with the instructions in the tutorial of Cuphead genuinely did stop him from progressing, if only in a superficial level in that half an hour he’d been treated to the game. He could not simply move to a different challenge or a different place in the game because something was too hard or too unclear for him. He couldn’t consult any other format of the instructions the game provided him. He had to either understand what the game wanted him to do, or stop playing. Sekiro manages accessibility in the fact that you are never trapped in the world. Even when stuck on a boss, there are a plethora of other activities to engage in. In my own playthrough, I still have so many minibosses to fight. I have the ability to challenge myself with boasting generals, cryptic NPC quests, even just normal enemies with engaging movesets. If you can’t beat Lady Butterfly, I am almost certain there is something else fun you can do — and needing to seek out more accessible challenges in the game does not make the game itself inaccessible.

Specifically referencing Thier’s suggestion that we don’t all have unlimited time to play video games and get better at them: I completely understand that sentiment, but I genuinely — and without any malice — believe it is misplaced. This argument also gets brought up a lot in relation to MMOs, as plenty of casual World of Warcraft players have said they simply don’t have the free time anymore to make the kind of breakneck progress more dedicated players do. But making the game easier so you can “keep up” with other people is once again not about accessibility, but personal convenience and feelings of inadequacy.

Someone making better progress in a video game for you can be extremely disheartening. I almost broke down when I thought everyone had fought the first Chained Ogre in Sekiro before I did, until I realized that most people I was comparing myself to went in a completely different direction in the game, and hadn’t even encountered the enemy. But that feeling — that everyone had beat this, and I was stupid and bad for being stuck on it for so long — made me examine my goals while playing the game. Undoubtedly, Sekiro was a miserable experience for me when I made it about getting further than my friends at a faster pace. I only managed to redeem my happiness to play the game when I saw each and every encounter as my own little world, my own little challenge, and forgot about the plenitude of players I know in this community who have built a career on these games. Players who are confusing accessibility with convenience may be having the same emotional experience. It bears reminding that you don’t have to race anybody to complete this game. The reason we feel that way has nothing to do with the design of the game or how easy or hard it is to learn the combat. It’s about who we are as people, and the developers cannot fix us.

People stuck on the same boss in a FromSoft game for two weeks will be met with occasional derision, but more often than not I see the community meet them with support and acceptance. This is because stagnation in these games is not unintended — and this matters when we return to the question about what experience the developers intend for the player. Comparatively, the Cuphead devs never intended players to be stuck on the tutorial: they tried to make an experience that taught players the basics of their combat. As it turns out, for Takahashi, they failed.

Accessibility of instructions is core to the overall accessibility argument for games. I’m reminded frequently that Sekiro does not fail to offer you instructive advice on how to play the game: the moment I forget how to do a mikiri counter, the loading screen will show me exactly what to press and what situation I should be using it in. This is something that cannot be said of many modern FPS games, which rely on prior experiences of the player to fill in the blanks that their lackluster tutorial — or completely absent tutorial — refuses to provide. As a pretty dedicated FPS player, it was hard for me to admit that one of my favourite formats was also the least accessible, but eventually I knew I had to put down my pride and accept criticism of my hobby. These games assume I know how to shoot, how to move, what guns I’ll want to use in which situations. And they can assume these things, because I have prior knowledge from constantly wading through every popular FPS from Call of Duty to Halo to Overwatch. But not everyone has this experience, and for those who don’t know how to play — but would love to experience the genre as a newcomer — tutorials and in-depth player guides are necessary.

Including clear instructions that the player can access when stuck has absolutely nothing to do with difficulty settings, and yet everything to do with accessibility. That’s because difficulty and accessibility are not one and the same — a game can be both accessible to new players and deeply challenging. In this, people like Thier who use accessibility as a cover-up for disinterest in the game’s intended format are being dishonest. As he admits about his use of the summoning system in previous FromSoft games: “The summoning system is a perfect example of this: I never used it once while playing Bloodborne, because I knew what experience I wanted. I didn’t get as into Dark Souls 3, and so I used it liberally.” Not getting into a game has nothing to do with how accessible it is to you and everything to do with how accessible you are to it. You cannot expect to get everything you want out of a video game if you’re not willing to play it out. This is true of both games where people are defensive of their accomplishments, like the Souls series, and games where people aren’t as defensive.

If I want all the townspeople in Animal Crossing to be nice to me and accept me into their adorable little world, I have to do menial tasks for them. Tasks I personally don’t feel like doing, but an actual Animal Crossing fan does, because it’s fun to them. Asking for an easy mode — where I don’t have to do any of these bullshit tasks for that smarmy lil’ capitalist Tom Nook — challenges what the intended tasks are for the player of the game. And yet nobody asks for an easy mode in Animal Crossing. This is because people who ask for an easy mode in games like Sekiro are not spurred on by the game itself, but by their perceptions of the fans who pride themselves in overcoming the game’s hurdles. Thier’s concerns come not purely from his experiences with Sekiro, but his experiences with the imagined derision he feels from “From’s fanboys” (as he calls them), people who enjoy the game for what it is, the way From Software created it, they way they chose to present their product.

Finally, Thier claims that players who believe Sekiro would be a different experience with an easy mode in place — “the fanboys” — don’t respect themselves. This is perfectly baffling. People who argue for easy modes in FromSoft games should understand that a player feeling distinctly different if the game tells you they will alter the challenge so you don’t have to adapt to any of the hard work they put into creating it is not self-effacing, it is just common self-competitiveness. People who take a defensive stance against the easy mode argument aren’t telling you that you aren’t good enough to join their fanclub, merely that their brand of self-challenge is not wrong or unhealthy, nor are we wrong for expressing how our feelings would change if offered a lesser substitute to that challenge. These games push us to a precipice at which we are frustrated, confused, and desperate for success, and if provided an easy way out of that challenge, many of us would take it. We’re big enough to admit that. But many of us are also very happy that we can’t do that, and aware that our willingness to do that if provided means that we’re only human. Not that we hate ourselves, or disrespect ourselves, but that the temptation of an easy mode could drag us out of the experience that we — and arguably From Software — wished to present when creating these games.

Other games journalists — who can be competent at games in this style, despite popular negative opinion — may also suggest that Sekiro employ an easy mode. If they do, they’ll be added to the fodder that supplies ire against journalist opinion on gaming experiences, and other journalists like myself will just have to accept it. I’ll just have to accept that every time someone published says a game is hard, it will work as a mark against any of my perceived competence in my hobby.

All I can hope, though, is that in their arguments they do not resort to claiming they want an easy mode for accessibility, ignoring the kind of accessibility work difficult games have done to make their product something all fans can enjoy. Clear instructions, multiple paths of progress, and a variety of challenges — both in combat and environmental exploration — make Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice leagues more accessible than an “easy” game that refuses to explain how to play it, or refuses to let the player leave a stage if they’d like to do something else, whether that game is perceived as core to gamer culture (like most FPS games) or casual and indie in nature (like farming or life sims).

And likewise, I can hope that they don’t make creating their desired easy mode sound like a simple task. While Dave Thier of Forbes.com thinks “all you need to do is turn up the damage the player does and turn down the damage the enemies do. That’s it!” (literal quote, by the way) creating tiered difficulty settings in video games is actually a lot more complicated than poorly scaling the damage of enemies and bosses, as any gamer can contest upon playing games where difficulty settings were an afterthought. If you advocate for an easy mode, the least you can do is acknowledge that it does change both the kind of effort a developer has to put into the final product, and the gut feeling a player will have when faced with a particularly daunting challenge. And instead of telling gamers their feelings are wrong and calling them aggressive “fanboys”, work to find why your feelings and personal experiences are different from those who make and play these kind of games.

Sometimes, you will find that these games were not made with you in mind, and it’s okay that they weren’t. Every game need not appeal to every gamer.