"Artistic" Gatekeeping, Difficulty, and Accessibility


#1

Patrick’s Hellblade article reminded me of something I’ve been wondering for a while now; at what point might a game’s difficulty (or, in this case, a construct like permadeath in a longer game) begin to interfere with its accessibility to certain audiences? Furthermore, is this brand of artistic gatekeeping (because I would characterize it as such—art that’s only accessible to people with enough time to either master a set of mechanics or risk a long playthrough on the possibility of never completing a game) beyond criticism because it’s “artistic” in nature?

To be clear, I love difficult games, and I want games take to artistic risks like, in this case, potentially threatening a player with lost hours of playtime as a thematic statement. I think that’s incredibly interesting and, as someone with probably more time to play games than a lot of other people, it definitely piqued my interest in a game I’d barely heard of before today. Moreover, it would be easy to compare games with a high barrier of entry (in terms of difficulty, potential loss of time, etc.) to the works of writers like Joyce or Dostoevsky that, hey, take a lot of time and effort to read, to the point where some people might never be able to.

But this is an angle that I hadn’t really seen discussed with regard to games, and I’m curious to hear this community’s thoughts. What do you all think?


#2

I am not a fan of difficult games by any means, but I certainly wouldn’t want to label gameplay design choices as a form of gatekeeping. Is it a bummer that I don’t get to enjoy Dark Souls? Perhaps, but it’s no more a tragedy than me not playing Amnesia: The Dark Descent because I don’t like to be scared.

There are so many awesome games out there that I’ll likely never have enough time to play them all. If I must preclude a certain part of the gaming cannon due to my own preferences, I still won’t lack for worthwhile gaming experiences. The rest of you can corpse run to your hearts’ content.


#3

I think it’s interesting to compare dense, long novels to hard games, because they can both be very rewarding experiences and were definitely made that way. One of the strengths of games, however, is that the player can alter the physical medium of the game. There are truly dramatic ways, like modding the game or going into god mode or glitching through a certain wall, but one of the simplest is changing the difficulty setting. It’s a convention in games because it allows the player to engage on the level they’re comfortable with. It’s an artistic and logistical choice to what degree this alters the game, but when you talk about difficulty barring the path of some people enjoying a game, it might be that the mechanical choice to force players to have a pixel perfect run to see the “true ending” is more tedious than it is rewarding for those who achieve it. Neutering player engagement with the rules of a game can guarantee certain experiences, but one of the strengths of games is their malleability, and it can be a mistake to limit it.


#4

This is the most flippant way to respond ofc but just to get it out of the way before other people say smarter stuff: I don’t think it’s gatekeeping to make something for an audience. People enjoy games for different reasons, and the whole reason we have different games in the first place is because no one game can be everything for everyone. If a game is too hard for you, it’s not a negative character judgement on yourself to say “ok I’m not good at this game, so I’m not enjoying it”, you just aren’t the intended audience. Hard Games are made for people who’ve played enough games for a long enough time that things below a certain level of challenge are boring.

Also, it’s not a “bad at games” > “good at games” straight-line, everybody has different strengths and weaknesses that play into different games. I know plenty of people who play high-level competitive overwatch, but couldn’t beat world 1 of super mario bros 3 to save their lives. I’ve played enough Souls games for them to not feel Hard to me, but i have never won a match of splatoon in my entire life and probably never will. Wanting games to be Easier also requires defining exactly what “easy” is, which is impossible when every person that plays it is coming in with a unique set of personal skills.


#5

Good point about difficulty settings; I guess I was talking more about games without that choice, which I guess are mostly platformers, small indie games, hack-and-slash stuff, etc.

A specific example for me that actually hits exactly what you’re talking about is Hollow Knight. I adore that game; it’s the first game in something like three years I’ve taken the time to 100% complete. And for the most part its difficulty level was fine for me. But the true ending was hidden behind two layers of extra “difficulty”—one Super Meat Boy-esque platforming level and a secret final boss that I found incredibly tedious. I didn’t necessarily have trouble with those—they took me maybe an extra day of attempts to pass—but they were frustrating enough that I think I got less out of the eventual ending than I would have otherwise.

Something brought up on Waypoint Radio a few weeks back (I forget the episode number) was the potential for cheat codes to make a return specifically for bypassing things like that, or to make those sections easier in some defined way (more health, infinite continues, higher weapon damage, something like that). I thought that was a good idea because it preserves the designed experience for anyone who wants to experience it that way while providing a tangible way to modify difficulty.


@jesse I completely agree with your second point. I love difficult platformers and roguelikes, but if you put me in a turn-based strategy game I will find a way to lose before the game even starts. Universal difficulty would be impossible to define.

Gatekeeping may have been a bad choice of words on my part, and I probably should have narrowed my initial post to games with a hard narrative focus. And I’m definitely not advocating for easier games—one of my all-time favorites is Hyper Light Drifter, and I think that game gets a lot of its thematic power from how difficult its combat can be.

I’d be more interested in entirely optional ways to alter difficulty in games without a built in setting, like I mentioned in my previous comment. A good already-existing example of that would be using the Konami Code to get 30 lives instead of 3 in Contra, which alters that game’s difficulty without altering gameplay itself.

In the end though, I’m just curious about how we view difficulty in games as an artistic choice, and one that might restrict people from an artistic work in the same way that a long dense novel might severely restrict its audience.


#7

I like when developers have the confidence to stick to one difficulty setting. I always resented the option in games like Halo where they would have multiple difficulty settings but the description on one of them was “the way Halo is meant to be played”.

If a dev genuinely believes that a certain level of difficulty is an important part of the experience they have crafted, I don’t think we should discourage that. We’re lucky enough to live in a time where there is such a ridiculous amount of games to constantly choose from that if one seems too daunting there’s always another title to enjoy.


#8

i think it works for some games and not for others. FPS games in particular have almost always had difficulty settings so i don’t mind that, but for something like Bloodborne i appreciate that there’s only one way to go.


#9

I think in like, action/adventure games or games that rely heavily on story it is okay to have a range of difficulty settings. I get a lot of satisfaction from beating a bit in a game that i find difficult but i play everything on easy because i know that if i get stuck on something i will literally put the game down and never play it again. I would feel upset and locked out of big name things that have a really good story (where the difficulty of the action is not necessarily part of the experience) if this wasn’t the case.

Sometimes you just want to shoot things or stab things and it be easy and satisfying.


#10

I do agree with some of the posts earlier in the thread (from @Navster and @jesse particularly) around the use of the word ‘gatekeeping’ here. I have seen this conversation raised in other places, and I do think there’s room to question the use of that word. ‘Gatekeeping’ is a phrase with a political meaning and it brings with it a set of assumptions. In my view, it frames this conversation around the undesirability of it. If Dark Souls’ difficulty is gatekeeping something (additional content?), it becomes difficult to praise it. The same can be said for if a certain mechanic is making a game ‘inaccessible’. That doesn’t mean these words are wrong or without merit in this conversation, but just a reflection on our vocabulary and how it shapes discussion.

Given that paragraph questioning the word, perhaps my answer is a little obvious. Deviating from mechanical norms inherently imposes on players, especially those used to established conventions. Violating those conventions isn’t necessarily a good thing (it is difficult to imagine a shooter which isn’t at least looking at Call of Duty’s control scheme, for example), but it definitely can be (like Gone Home taking the controls of a FPS and removing the violence). In my view, few things are beyond criticism, but I think interesting potential can be found in deviation.


#11

In hindsight, it was bad judgment on my part to use gatekeeping as a term. The political meaning, is too far from what I was going for and I think it shifted my intentions for this thread from what I initially wanted them to be.

Conversely though, I want to double down on accessibility as a term, and give it a bit of context. Earlier this summer I spent some time at a video game archive doing archival research for an undergrad thesis, which involved me both abruptly shifting between various control schemes and mechanical genres (when I was surveying a bunch of games at once) and trying to finish certain games as quickly as I could (when I was playing through for plot/narrative). Both made me acutely aware of difficulty levels (whether a game had several or just one) and what they contributed to the experience of any given game. There were games like Silent Hill 2, which lost (in my opinion) nothing when played on the easiest levels. And there were games like Killer7, which I had to give up on because I had a schedule I had to keep and it was going to take more time to master that control scheme than I could reasonably spend on one game.

Now obviously this is not a typical player experience but it made me think about which kinds of games are usually harder to learn and master (both among the ones I played there and the ones I play for fun), and I came away from it feeling like the single-difficulty modern games with certain markers of “hardness” (demanding combat systems, precision platforming, low health/high damage mechanics, some form of permadeath, etc.) are disproportionately indie/small-developer, experimental, and often (though definitely not always) narrative-deep. So there are a lot of games that are explicitly trying to do artistic work while demanding a level of ability from their audience unlike that of any other artistic/narrative medium.

Which is how I got to accessibility. Because—and this may be an extremely ableist way of thinking, so I apologize in advance—as far as I can tell, other artistic media are usually only rendered more difficult for someone to consume by some form of disability, and we’ve developed ways to compensate for those (ex. film subtitles). And I started wondering about the relationship between game difficulty and disability—not in a way that would say being bad a games = a disability (because obviously that would be ridiculous) but in a way that might open games up, to reuse an example, to cheat codes as assistive devices for those without the time/reflexes/etc. to master a game’s system.

So that was my starting point. Potentially a very flawed and ableist starting point, but I thought the discussion was worth having. Thanks for bearing with me.


#12

i think it’s difficult to compare different forms of media because for example just having subtitles on a movie doesn’t mean you will understand the movie, just that you will know what the characters are saying. you’re still likely to miss elements like allegory or reference if you don’t have the right cultural contexts for it.

of course the immediate response to that is “but you can still watch the entire movie start to finish which you can’t do with a game if you lack the skill”. really a lot of pc games can be fairly simply CheatEngined to give you infinite health, noclip, etc etc to make any game a breeze and you can blow through them at least like that. i know Dark Souls gets talked about way too often, but i know a person who went through it with a cheated max level character because he heard the atmosphere in that game was good and came away feeling unimpressed. i feel like this is mechanically similar to watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker and coming out of it with “huh, i guess they walked around some ruins for a while and that was it” (also just an aside i am absolutely not putting dark souls 1 on the same level as Tarkovsky’s work here)

i guess ultimately it would be good if people were able to access as much videogames as they would like to, and i also yearn for the return of cheat codes (though mostly just because those are plain fun), but as other people have said, some games are tailored for a specific audience and that’s fine too. these days if you can’t/don’t want to play a game yourself you can usually find an lp of it, which i guess isn’t interactive, but usually i think gives you a better sense of the game than cheating through it yourself.


#13

i dont want to say that nobody with a disability finds certain mechanics hard to deal with but uh

i guess a personal bugbear of mine is the elision of accessibiity (for people new to games) with Accessibility (in terms of disability)

like there can be some overlap but they are very different things generally and I feel really uncomfortable abt the way ppl talk about games being difficult or challenging as meaning Us Disableds cant play them?

for me Accessibility (as in wrt disability) is more shit like. an assumed ability to remain standing for prolonged periods, an assumed ability to walk, an assumed ability to discern colour, games using strobing or flashing effects w/o any option of turning them off, etc etc etc

like. i can’t even really figure out how to explain the difference between these two things because its like trying to explain the difference between a squirrel and a fighter jet

edit: also i dont normally like to get prescriptivist but i am made really, like, deeply uncomfortable at the way ppl have adopted a term that afaik was previously primarily used by disability activists to talk abt the ways in which society disables us and limits our access to society to instead talk abt just. not having access to parts of a videogame (not even necessarily as a result of disability)


#14

As @swords said, cultural context is a large barrier for a lot of narrative media. Shows like Community are incomprehensible to people who don’t understand the pop culture references. Similarly, Finnegan’s Wake is a notoriously difficult novel for people who don’t understand the cultural and linguistic references not only embedded into the narrative, but the syntax.

I remember watching Citizen Kane the first time and falling asleep. When I tried watching it a few months later, I got the DVD that came with the The Battle Over Citizen Kane documentary and, after understanding the historical contexts and the individuals involved (particularly Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst), I loved the film. After doing the “homework”, I appreciated the movie.

Your experience is unique, and thank you so much for your work at the archive! Archivists are profoundly underappreciated. To the point that @swords makes, though, about being able to finish a movie start-to-finish, I would argue that you can enjoy a game’s narrative by watching a completionist video on YouTube. Yes, it’s a very different experience and you would need to still play some of the games to understand how the mechanics play into it. But, to the point that you can always finish a novel, what about novels not written in your language? In foreign literature departments, many experts spend a lot of time fighting over the “best” translations of the text. I had a German instructor once tell me that you can’t understand Goethe unless you understand German grammar. In a situation like that, I’m okay not becoming fluent in German just so I can understand 18th Century literature and instead relying on someone to explain why it was so important. In a lot of ways, it creates opportunities for writers/speakers who are able to effectively communicate this importance.

Speaking of which, the Video Game History Foundation just started a Writing Fund for people who can effectively and creatively communicate different aspects of Video Game history.


#15

I think there’s a major problem with the way we talk about difficulty. You see this all the time with people saying “oh, you can’t put in an easy mode, the game is supposed to be hard”, but that sentence only makes sense if everyone is as good at games as you, which they aren’t. An easy mode isn’t a trivialisation, it’s just a way of offering less talented players the same level of challenge as more talented players experience on normal difficulty. That is how we should be talking about it.


#16

I think the issue is with seeing “difficulty” as a sliding scale and not a culmination of game mechanics and player experience (as in “what the player should experience”, not “how experienced the player is”). In a well designed game, challenge exists to complement the systems. For example, if you have a dodge ability in a game, you would also expect that enemy attacks are threatening enough that you need to dodge them. If being hit doesn’t do enough damage or have another effect like stunning the player, then there wouldn’t be a need to engage with that mechanic. A blanket “difficulty change” often means changing the way that the player engages with the game rather than just making it easier while preserving the experience.

I don’t think that applies to every game, but that’s kind of my point. I think it’s reductive to talk about difficulty as something that can be modified at will and not something that affects how the intended design is engaged with.


#17

I agree with goblin on this. I have two points of my own.

On difficulty levels, I think many games could implement a selection of difficulty settings if the designers design their game with this in mind.

Also, difficulty levels that are framed in ways that mock the player or frame one setting as the “true” way the game should be played are something I wish devs would avoid. The mentioned Halo legendary difficulty setting or Wolfenstein: The New Order’s easy mode that shows BJ dressed as a baby both work to make the player feel bad for picking lower difficulties. In some cases, such as for those with disabilities, this may be the only way they will ever finish the game. (Related point: “true” endings linked to higher difficulty levels are also very frustrating.)

Secondly, flexibility in difficulty settings are just one method in making games more Accessible to those with disabilities. I won’t list them here (check Game Accesibility Guidelines for that,) but with a little forethought in the design many potential game accessibility issues can be avoided.


#18

I think the framing of difficulty I prefer is that difficulty is a function of both the game and the player. Games usually have a player-specific difficulty they work best at, but that often cashes out as “without difficulty options or multiple completion routes, many players will have a bad time”.

I think you can argue for a game like Dark Souls being at its best when the player is being challenged. But that challenge for a new player might mean looking up guidance and using an easier strategy, whereas an experienced player gets the challenge from e.g. doing special category runs or PvP.

On the other hand, I’m really willing to excuse strong design choices that cut out big chunks of the playerbase as long as they are intelligibly necessary to the game being itself. Persona or Super Meat Boy are never ever ever gonna be for everybody, but the spinning climbing towers in God of War 1 are close to objectively bad.


#19

i’ve actually never played any of the souls games (which will likely put me to jail for my game crimes any moment now), but i have played lisa: the painful, and that’s a game that made me a heavy believer in the idea of some games just needing to be difficult to function. maybe it’s just because that game’s themes hit really close to home for me, but i feel like if that game was even slightly nicer to the player, i would hate it to death, because a game built around trauma needs to be actively frustrating, terrifying and spiteful, or else it’s not even remotely accurate.

that being said, though, i do think there’s a middle ground here. resident evil 4 had a sliding scale difficulty that changed on the fly depending on how well a player was playing, and i feel like it’s more than possible to repurpose that to create a difficulty slider where it’s punishing enough to get the point across, but tolerable enough for the player to keep playing.


#20

yall im gonna ask some of u to really think for a second how cool u are w yr apparent preconceived notion of disability as “just, like, innately bad, at things”

like im sorry to keep coming back to this i would much prefer to talk about the actual strengths of games as a medium and the potential narrative uses of closing off content but, y’know, i am disabled, this is fairly personal


#21

I’m not sure that anyone is calling “being bad at games” a “disability”. I really don’t see anyone saying that they are the same thing. I understand that “accessibility” has different meanings and connotations, but I don’t think this thread was ever designed to talk about accessibility in terms of assisting those with mental/physical disabilities.

I really am hearing more about your thoughts on accessibility, but I’m not sure this thread was designed for that topic. I strongly encourage you to start a thread on the topic and voice your opinion.

Edit: After rereading some of the above comments, I actually do think that a lot of able-bodied folks (myself included) are being dismissive about disability and the difference between “Accessibility” and “accessibility”. I have appreciated the response from @M_o as well as private messages from others.