Disability and Video Games: Easy Mode

By Bay Posted Sunday Sep 4, 2022

Filed under: Column, Epilogue, Game Design, Video Games 63 comments

As a disabled person, I spend a lot of time calling things difficult. I complain about how hard it is to get out of bed because my knees hurt. I complain about not being able to reach card scanners in stores because I’m too short in my wheelchair. And I complain about stairs an awful lot because wheels aren’t like, super compatible with them.

I also complain about video games. With diminished mobility on my right side, including my hand, video games can be more difficult for me than the average player. But even before arthritis decided to awaken in me like the world’s worst X-Men geneNo no, don’t bring up Rogue here, yes, I know she kills people she touches and all that jazz, but my knees hurt really bad like, often, so…I have it worse, okay? I was complaining about video game difficulty for other reasons.

When you have a job and your boss tries to work you to your limit for max productivity, it’s generally a bad job. When playing D&D, a dungeon master who sits down at their table thinking about how best to kill their players is generally a bad dungeon master. When playing a game, large groups of players dying over and over is generally a sign of a bad game. Us VS them thinking can make any task annoying if the goal is to simply make things harder every time the subject in question achieves something new. 

High-difficulty macho players tend to argue against this, ‘but the challenge makes it worth it!’, ‘what about taking pride in achieving something?’, and ‘I like dying forty-seven times in a row!’. This can be annoying to someone trying to argue something is too difficult. But, the issue is, they aren’t wrong. They’re just misunderstanding the point because of what they personally get out of games. 

The point of a game is to enjoy it. If you enjoy extra-hard-nightmare-mode then, of course, you’re not going to agree with me that a game should be easier. But in my case, dying forty-seven times sucks all the joy out of it, and so that game has failed me personally as a player. This can be due to taste, in the case of a game like Dark SoulsOooh, two mentions of the forbidden game in two weeks, I better lay low for a while., or it can be due to the game actually failing a group of players. This mostly boils down to if it was intentional or not. My dad talked about the essence of this issue a lot. 

If a cute little puzzle game with a great story is set at an impossible difficulty, it’s blocked much of its main audience. If a dark and gritty game about beheading Cthulhu is laughably unchallenging, it’s failed its target audience.  

This system works for the most part. And when it doesn’t, places like this blog and the rest of the internet can complain about it.

The problem is…it’s not a system built for disabled people; it’s ableist. That’s a pretty big statement to make about an entire industry, so let’s get into how and why rather than just calling a bunch of people ignorant without explanationAlso that would be a pretty insane ‘column’ if I didn’t. ‘Haha, video games suck, bye’, what even is that situation?.

First of all, it doesn’t set out to be, just like so many other things built into the foundations of life, it just sort of is. At some point in the process of creating video games as a concept, someone decided to use ‘easy’, ‘normal’, and ‘hard’ to describe different difficulties within those games. It’s simple, the system works fine; it’s three buttons and an easy interface. The three difficulty settings require little-to-no explanation and pre-date video games in the way of things like Sudoku and crossword puzzles. 

The thing is, Sudoku and crosswords only really have one or two axes of difficulty; things like how many little boxes are there to fill out? And how many hints do you getFor the most part, I’m not getting into extreme puzzle-solving here, that’s a whole other rabbit hole? Video games have multitudes of things that affect difficulty. How much HP do you have? How much HP do your enemies have? How much ammo is there? How fast is your run speed? Do your enemies have a cool-down between hits? How many checkpoints are there? Etc. etc. etc…

In our current system, these things are all lumped together on the back-end by someone making the game. High HP for the player, low HP for the enemies, lots of ammo, boom, easy mode. Medium HP player, medium HP enemies, some ammo, slower run speed, medium mode.  Put all the settings all the way up for hard mode, and add something like insta-death for an extra-hard-nightmare-mode, you’re good. It takes time and effort to tinker with the scaling but, at the end of the day, it’s just…what you do. It’s the expected system.  

The thing is, if you’re like me at all, those medium and hard modes are totally approachable…except for one or two things. Because, while I can tackle having high enemy hit points, and would maybe even love to try and play with fewer checkpoints or rarer ammo spots to add a layer of resource scarcity to my game…I can’t dodge out of the way fast enough to avoid hits because of the pain in my hands. If I could just play with high HP but everything else on hard mode I’d be fine, But it’s all one-size-fits-all, so I’m stuck on easy mode. This is just one example. The problems I can have with a game vary wildly, but this is the most common challenge    

Someone who suffers from epilepsy can’t just toggle flashing lights in a horror game and someone with attention issues might want hard mode except they want to keep their faster run speed. Even an able-bodied person might benefit from choosing their difficulty level because they might be really bad at aiming, but love playing high-risk with low HP. 

My dad couldn’t easily play games that punished the player with time-wastes every time they failed. He wrote about this in this post, but basically, he had an adrenaline problem with that method of gaming, the ‘Do it again, Stupid’ kind of gaming, as he called it. He couldn’t just put his game on ‘easy’ mode because he felt insulted by being given training wheels, so he’d try again, and again, and again. I can’t even imagine how much nicer life would have been (for both us and him) if ‘cut-scene before boss fight every time’ and ‘long checkpoint walk back’ could have been disabled. More than that, what if there was no ‘expected’ or ‘default’ setting for it to have been in? He would have just looked at it, thought it was asinine to even have an option for that, and moved on.

I can almost hear him now. 'Why would someone even turn that option on? What are the developers thinking? In what world? Who would <em>intentionally</em>- I mean can you <em>imagine</em>?'
I can almost hear him now. 'Why would someone even turn that option on? What are the developers thinking? In what world? Who would intentionally- I mean can you imagine?'

No hurt pride, no feeling coddled, just options to make the game more fun on a player-by-player basis. This might sound a little idealistic, but it’s happening in some places already. Customizable difficulties are slowly becoming commonplace, and it’s changing how people think about games for the better. These aren’t cheats, they aren’t ‘edits from the norm’, they are the norm. If how you enjoy a game is benefited by it being ‘easier’, there shouldn’t be any implication of ‘badness’ with it. The point of a game is to enjoy it, not to be the ‘best of the best’And if being the best of the best is how you enjoy games, keep it up, no shame in that, this just doesn’t need to be everyone’s goal.

 Minecraft is low-hanging fruit in the way of an example here since it's so sandbox to begin with. Stardew Valley does this. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, Don't Starve, and Hades apparently all have settings like these. The genres are varied but more complicated difficulty screens are less and less rare every year.
Minecraft is low-hanging fruit in the way of an example here since it's so sandbox to begin with. Stardew Valley does this. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, Don't Starve, and Hades apparently all have settings like these. The genres are varied but more complicated difficulty screens are less and less rare every year.

The shift we’re seeing with these difficulty settings is changing how people approach games on a fundamental level. If you’ve seen a let’s-play YouTuber run into these, the odds are that you saw them go from ‘how can I make this look the most hardcore for my viewer base’ to ‘huh, let’s check some boxes to make this fun’ in a matter of seconds. Some people play harder difficulties because they love them, and some do it because the game’s formatting makes it feel somehow desirable. Slaying the biggest dragon and climbing the biggest mountain are both well and good, but if you’re not having a good time why are you even playing the game?

The system didn’t set out to be ableist, no one sat down one day and went ‘you know what, fuck them bitches in wheelchairs’Well, unfortunately, that’s not true, but at least that guy isn’t the one who started the built-in issue here. That’s just a douchebag somewhere. I’ve met some of those, it’s mystifying how overt they get, but I digress.. But intentionally or not, we’ve landed here, and maybe people like me want to play both the cute puzzle game and the game about beheading Cthulhu. People vary, a lot, and almost nothing is one-size-fits-all.  Sometimes, even we disabled folks want to ‘master’ games in our differently-abled ways just like the macho guys do; working within the realm of possibility, but still being challenged to the peak of our own personal abilities. These custom difficulties allow for that, and I’m excited. 




[1] No no, don’t bring up Rogue here, yes, I know she kills people she touches and all that jazz, but my knees hurt really bad like, often, so…I have it worse, okay?

[2] Oooh, two mentions of the forbidden game in two weeks, I better lay low for a while.

[3] Also that would be a pretty insane ‘column’ if I didn’t. ‘Haha, video games suck, bye’, what even is that situation?

[4] For the most part, I’m not getting into extreme puzzle-solving here, that’s a whole other rabbit hole

[5] This is just one example. The problems I can have with a game vary wildly, but this is the most common challenge

[6] And if being the best of the best is how you enjoy games, keep it up, no shame in that, this just doesn’t need to be everyone’s goal

[7] Well, unfortunately, that’s not true, but at least that guy isn’t the one who started the built-in issue here. That’s just a douchebag somewhere. I’ve met some of those, it’s mystifying how overt they get, but I digress.

From The Archives:

63 thoughts on “Disability and Video Games: Easy Mode

  1. Vernal_ancient says:

    A few years back, Extra Credits did a video about how some game let you use two controllers to control one character, and how this helped with accessibility. I think the example they gave was a player who had lost a hand setting the controls up so they could use one controller with their feet and the other with their remaining hand.

    This being on YouTube, the comment section was full of “How DARE YOU try to make our hard games so easy one handed people could play them!”

    But it’s cool to see attitudes towards accessibility are changing, because that reaction… yeesh. I mean honestly, I’d be *more* impressed with someone who beat, say, Dark Souls with their feet, not thinking the game had been made too easy

    1. Scimitar says:

      Agreed, I’ve been championing for customizable difficulty for years and it’s nice to see it actually seeping into popular consciousness!

      1. Ingvar says:

        Tghere’s also the accesibility-enabling controllers that (probably among others) Ben Heck has been building. Unfortunately, that is probably a mere drop in the torrent of need.

        1. Mattias42 says:

          I mentioned this on the previous article, but just in case: I know of a guy on youtube that makes 3D-printable controller attachments, so you can play any game with one hand.


          He currently has designs for PS4, PS5 & XBOX. Plus a Switch one that’s just about two weeks old.

          He even sells ’em pre-printed. All the details & or files are under the ‘About’ page.

        2. Wide And Nerdy says:

          I remember receiving an Xbox controller from my wonderful and well-meaning sister in law for Christmas. She was my Secret Santa that year and we do that among the siblings and spouses in my family. I could tell she bought it because it looked crazy awesome. It was some kind of modular controller.

          Turns out as I started to really look at it, I found myself wondering why I would play with this thing instead of a normal controller. Turns out, the modular controller was designed to accommodate various kinds of disabilities which I did not have (I have a minor disability now but it doesn’t impair my gaming.).

          Anyway, it was nice to see that Microsoft itself is getting in on the act of accommodating disabled players.

  2. Fizban says:

    The game I’m most aware of doing this stuff is Dead Cells, as I keep seeing beta branch/main branch updates about this or that new accessibility feature. The only game mode they’re not available in is the daily leaderboard runs, which I don’t even care about. I’ve still dithered over whether I would enjoy the accomplishment of finally breaking through Boss Cell 2 if I only managed it because I turned up my hit points, but if I’d had the options at the start I’d have probably done it before I hit the wall.

  3. Ziusudra says:

    It takes time and effort to tinker with the scaling, scaling but, at the end of the day, it’s just…what you do.

    Duplicated word.

  4. Dreadjaws says:

    I’ve discussed this amply in these comments section and there’s always some lunatic claiming that my desire for a game to have more options ruins their own personal experience (the only one that matters, clearly) even if all they have to do is not use those options. You see, they are Expert Programmers™, and they claim that none of the very simple things I say developers can add to a game are physically possible without completely and utterly destroying the experience for everyone and I’m literally a nazi for daring to even entertain the notion that more people should be able to play the same games they enjoy in different ways. Even though, again, these things would be entirely optional.

    The preposterous idea that a game should only be enjoyed a certain way goes against everything that makes this hobby so great. Speedruns, modding, personal challenges (like nuzlocke in Pokémon) and the like, all of those show how people can and will enjoy a game in a way it wasn’t “meant to”. People who think everyone who plays a game differently from them is doing it “wrong” irritate me to no end.

    The earliest example of games having a more detailed difficulty choice than a simple “easy/medium/hard” toggle I can think of are the old Silent Hill games, which allowed for different levels of difficulty in combat and puzzle solving. This worked well for me because combat was easy to figure out but I certainly had no patience for the asinine puzzle design in higher difficulty levels, which relied in the player to have random obscure knowledge rather than making use of logic.

    1. Syal says:

      Sliding difficulty is great. First one I saw was System Shock 1, which let you turn enemies completely off and meant that terrible child me could still run through the levels solving puzzles without getting killed. Some indie games like Wargroove and Fell Seal give you pretty good control over things. Some JRPGs like Trails of Berseria have nice granular options for New Game Plus, but that doesn’t really count on account of the first run being four thousand hours long*.

      Slight tangent, but any game that can be played with just the mouse gets big plus points. Stuff like Slay the Spire or Darkest Dungeon are one-button games, stuff like Fell Seal and Trails in the Sky let you click on the menus so you don’t need the shortcuts, and stuff like FTL or Dungeon of the Endless are built for hotkeys but still beatable without them.

      *(This is why SNES and Playstation games are still the best, they knew when to end. Meanwhile DQ11 had me ready for credits at the 30 hour mark but is still going at the 85 hour mark. Or, would be still going, if I were still willing to put time into it.)

    2. BlueHorus says:

      The impulse to enforce how other people play single-player games does kind of bemuse me. Just why? I can’t fathom caring enough about how someone else plays a game to try and enforce it. Let alone coming up with wall-of-text justifications about how it’s ‘meant’ to be that way.

      As an aside: one thing I find genuinely baffling – I picked up Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous a while back, and it’s got a lot of difficulty modes and options, including an ultra-hard ‘Unfair’ mode. Okay…
      …here’s the thing, though: because it’s a translation of a tabletop RPG, all of the combat is decided with dice rolls. Your input as a player is limited to the way you build a character (and with companions, your choices are limited as decisions are made for you), and in-fight tactical decisions.
      But if you don’t roll well, none of that really matters…and naturally, tougher difficulty just makes the dice rolls harder.

      Even playing on Normal Mode, I’ll regularly get stuck waiting for the dice to end an encounter*, or having the computer say ‘no’ because of a bad roll**. I get why a skill-based game like Dark Souls has a hard mode, but who enjoys THIS?

      *the worst times are when both you and your enemy have high AC and an attack bonus that’s not quite good enough. Just turn after turn of misses, all day…
      **Fuck you, Spell Resistance/Dispel Magic checks. Just, fuck you.

      1. Redrock says:

        The impulse to enforce how other people play single-player games does kind of bemuse me. Just why? I can’t fathom caring enough about how someone else plays a game to try and enforce it. Let alone coming up with wall-of-text justifications about how it’s ‘meant’ to be that way.

        While I’m not gonna defend the very fine online gentlepeople that engage in that sort of behavior, I do have have some inkling as to why they do it. I think it stems from the same place as anger about bad adaptations of beloved IPs. Or, perhaps, how a coffee nerd might be appaled at the idea of someone putting coffee creamer into a cup of a perfectly extracted pour over arabica. Fans of something can really loathe the idea that someone else might get the “wrong” impression of that something because their introduction to it was somehow suboptimal. As to why someone would care at all, well, that’s where we get into the dark and murky waters of making the media one consumes a major part of one’s identity and everything that entails.

        1. Kylroy says:

          The difference with the Video Game Difficulty gatekeepers and the culinary purists is this – their enjoyment is predicated on exclusivity, which is to say their enjoyment requires other people *not* enjoy it without living up to their standards of worthyness.

          1. kincajou says:

            With tongue firmly in cheek, an italian, and as a human describesd as a culinary obsessive (true story) i will have you know that whilst you are allowed to have your opinions there are some sacrosanct things one should not do with food!

            The penalty brobably being excomunication, or making you play a really boring hyper long JRPG, or becoming moderator to youtube comments for fake moon landing videos.

            Amongst the crimes against good cooking one shold be weary of:
            – Pineapple on pizza
            – Breaking spaghetti before cooking
            – Having a capuccino after a meal
            – Whatever “Huel” or “soylent” or other “food substitutes” think they are
            – Ketchup on pizza (actually saw a waiter refuse to bring out the ketchup)
            – Cooking pasta from cold,unsalted, water
            – ….

            Food is a serious buisness my friend!

            But remember, at the end of the day… you do you! If pûtting pineapple on pizza makes you grin like a kind in a candy store… go for it! If you want to eat nothing but “huel”…. well i cry inside, but go for it!

            1. BlueHorus says:

              Cooking pasta from cold, unsalted water?!

              You cheated not only the cooking, but yourself.
              You didn’t grow as a chef.
              You didn’t improve the flavor.
              You took a shortcut and gained NOTHING.
              You experienced a hollow meal. Nothing was risked and nothing was cooked properly.

              It’s sad you’ll never taste the difference.


              1. Syal says:

                Wait til they find out I put pineapple on it afterward.

                1. SidheKnight says:

                  Wait til they find out I put pineapple on it afterward

                  On pasta?

                  Amongst the crimes against good cooking one shold be weary of:
                  – Breaking spaghetti before cooking
                  – Cooking pasta from cold,unsalted, water

                  I do these things, and I’m 1/8th Italian.

        2. baud says:

          I personally don’t really care about how people enjoy or not the same games as I, but on the other hand, I appreciate games balanced around offering a challenge and I’m annoyed at people complaining at the devs until all the difficulty’s been removed, regressing everything to the mean, especially as easy games are dime a dozen those days. Because whatever time the devs spent implementing difficulty levels is time not spent working on actually making a good game.

          1. Wide And Nerdy says:

            You see one thing, I see another. Maybe because you have a high skill level you think easy games are a dime a dozen or maybe because you’re looking at other genres of games which tend to have easier gameplay. But I might want to play the same genres of games you’re playing but on an easier difficulty.

            But for the last several years at least I’ve seen an increasingly loud voice in the community that complains about lack of difficulty in games I find hard. Nothing is ever hard enough for these people. Such that in a fair number of games, even the easy mode is tooth grindingly difficult for me. And then there are the “artistic vision” people who defends From Software’s “vision” not to include an easy mode. I know these same hypocrites wouldn’t care one wit about “artistic vision” is the sole mode available in a game was easy. They wouldn’t simply calmly accept that the game isn’t for them like they tell me to do with From Software’s games.

            If any of those people were here right now, let me ask you. How would you feel if I did play Dark Souls but used some kind of cheat trainer or mod to lower the difficulty to an acceptable level for me. Would you say “good for you” as it doesn’t affect your experience of the game, or would you go on a tirade about how there’s only one way that Dark Souls should be played and that I’m missing the whole point if I cheat? Maybe I’m not. Maybe I just want to see the world that From Software created but I don’t want to fight the same boss fifty times. That’s MY artistic vision.

            This, incidentally, is part of why I love PC gaming. For most popular games, there are always fan made options to make the game more the way you want it. I don’t care one wit for how the developer intended me to play the game, that developer doesn’t know me.

      2. Bloodsquirrel says:

        No- if you’ve built your characters well, you won’t be reliant on good luck in dice rolls. The game gives its enemies stupidly high AC/Saves/Spell resistance, but it also gives you plenty of sneaky ways around those things and a mountain of ways to stack bonuses.

        For example, here’s one little fun combo: There’s a mythic ability that makes your character do damage equal to their strength modifier on a missed melee swing. Well, if you cast smite evil/chaos on the enemy (which they also can’t resist) then it adds your level (or 2x your level, depending) to all damage rolls. So even if your character can’t hit the enemy AC at ll, he can still do 1000 damage a round just by swinging and missing a bunch of times.

        The gaps between “Looks like it should be a reasonable optimized party”, “Actually a well-optimized party”, and “Cheesed the fuck out” in WotR are absolutely enormous. Dice rolls only make a significant difference for a marginal party/tactics.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Wait, that ability *specifically says* there’s no way to increase the damage that it does. Is this just an oversight on the part of the game developers? Maybe something that got patched?

          The gaps between “Looks like it should be a reasonable optimized party”, “Actually a well-optimized party”, and “Cheesed the fuck out” in WotR are absolutely enormous. Dice rolls only make a significant difference for a marginal party/tactics.

          Ugh, tell me about it. I’m a…moderately good min-maxer (though not a really good one, clearly) and I get to the point where I can wade through generic enemies with ease…and then a boss will destroy me in one turn*.
          The late game very quickly descends into ‘OP-Ability Arms Race’ usually involving (as described) abilities to get around actually bothering with the rules.
          My ‘favorite’ so far:
          1) Ability that causes a specific energy type to ignore any resistances or immunities. Choose Negative Energy.
          2) Ability that turns any spell’s damage into Negative Energy.
          3) Now every damaging spell you cast does irresistible Negative Energy damage, common sense and existing rules be damned. I drop an undead (who should be healed by negative energy) into a spike pit and it takes Negative Energy damage…somehow.

          *I mean, a) at level 14 my paladin/tank had an Attack Bonus of 42, and an AC of 45… and that somehow wasn’t high enough. I tried to attack a boss and the game informs me that the only way she can land a blow with her multiple attacks is a Natural 20.
          Meanwhile, the only way he could miss an attack against her…is with a Natural 1.

          1. Bloodsquirrel says:

            I’m not sure what exactly the loophole is, but it works. The number of rules that are colliding under the hood is kind of absurd.

            The character creation in WotR is a sandbox all unto its own- not in the Skyrim “You just level things up freely and do everything” kind of way, but in the “Here is a giant pile of mechanics- go see what you can build out of them” kind of way. There’s no real expectation of balance within the system, which is why the difficulty slider go so far up. I just wish they had better tools for experimenting with it. If you’re on your first playthrough and didn’t carefully research the whole system before starting you don’t stand much of a chance.

            But if you enjoy your min-maxing, the system is unsurpassed in any video game I’ve ever played.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              Oh yes, a respec mod is an absolute lifesaver for playing a Pathfinder game. Especially in WoTR, when it gives you Mythic Abilities mid-game that can change your entire build.

            2. Dev Null says:

              I’m not sure what exactly the loophole is, but it works. The number of rules that are colliding under the hood is kind of absurd.

              Sounds like they captured the RPG experience perfectly then…

        2. tmtvl says:

          And of course it’s important to have backup plans for when the backup plans for your backup plans fail. At the end of the day sufficient planning can turn an 8/20 chance of failure into a more reasonable 1/1200 chance of failure.

  5. Ronan says:

    There is a great series of videos by Mark Brown (gmtk) about accessibility in games: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLc38fcMFcV_vvWOhMDriBlVocTZ8mKQzR

    Your post made me think of the Celeste video in particular, which is about this exact style of accessibility / difficulty options that we’ve seen appearing more often since a few years ago.

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      I love that about Celeste. I played almost the entire game at intended difficulty. Its one of the few games where I could somewhat tolerate tooth grinding difficulty. I got to the last few screens and I just wasn’t making the jumps no matter how many times I made.

      I finally went into the accessibility options and moved the game’s speed down just one notch from 100 percent to 90 percent. Then I was able to make the jump. I just needed a small accommodation for my slow reaction speed and I was able to finish the game and I felt good about the play experience I’d had with the game.

  6. Noah Gibbs says:

    Don’t Starve has a lot of options in world generation with a similar effect – turn off the big dangerous Tallbirds, say, or generate areas with more berry bushes. So it’s more in line with Minecraft’s world customisation stuff (e.g. don’t generate slimes) than with difficulty settings like “fire damage Y/N”. And with Don’t Starve, as with Minecraft, it affects what you can do later. Just as you can’t build certain items without drops from slimes in Minecraft, you can’t build certain items in Don’t Starve without (e.g.) spider silk from spiders.

    So yeah. It’d be nice if Don’t Starve did better on this too, is what I mean :-)

    Though I haven’t played Don’t Starve Together, basically at all. Maybe it does better. I play the old-fashioned single-player one

    1. kincajou says:

      Ah boy, don’t starve!
      A game i tell myself i want to love and then every time i spin up…. i bounce off it as if i was made of rubber… I’ve played with the difficulty settings (in particular i’d also played around wuth a “save” mod) but i kept on getting the feeling that i was still resetting at every death ….

      I guess it’s the intended experience and you learn from the things that fly out at you from nowhere but i was just paralysed by the idea that there was an “optimal” way to play combined with the fact that dying would reset my practice or gimp me in some annoying way!

      I guess i have a bit of shamus in me in that if i am aware that there is an “optimal” play strategy then my brain is hard wired to feel that everything else is wrong and then, stupidly, everything becomes less fun (which is why i had to stop reading strategy guides on startopia!)

    2. Octal says:

      Yeah, I was just thinking of Don’t Starve! I guess the intent there is that you mess with the worldgen settings after you’ve learned the game a bit–otherwise, how do you even know if it’s a good idea to stop it from spawning tallbirds?

      But one thing that I think does help a lot is that it has a pretty robust modding scene. So, even though there’s not a setting to give your character more health, for example, you can pretty easily find a mod for that (or infinite health, or health regen).

      1. Mr. Wolf says:

        That’s the problem with all difficulty settings, even pre-set ones. Until you get the feel for the game, how do you know what options are right for you?

  7. Bo says:

    I love that more people are engaging with this topic. For anyone interested, Game Makers Toolkit on YouTube does a yearly roundup of games that did especially well or poorly at being accessible.

  8. Octal says:

    Hades is an interesting one. It doesn’t have the kind of high-granularity difficulty settings some other games have… exactly. Instead, it has “God mode”. This gives you 20% damage resistance, to start. It increases by 2 percentage points every time you die, and is capped at 80%. (Having to die a bunch of times to get it higher isn’t necessarily as harsh as it sounds, because the game is structured around dying over and over and getting new dialog during and after every run: when you die, you’re rewarded by getting to see new things. To me, that cuts out most of the frustration of repeated deaths.) So it helps, but if it’s significantly more difficult than you want, it’ll take a decent chunk of playing time before you can even find out if the max will be enough. And I do wish the cap were a bit higher.

    Then, after reaching a certain place in the story, you receive in-game options to make it harder in various ways–more enemies, enemies are tougher or faster or do more damage, enemies have extra abilities, prices are higher, healing is worse, a deadline is added, etc. So then there’s that granularity, but it’s purely in the direction of “more difficult”. They’re all optional, but if you don’t use them at all, it takes longer to get certain rare resources.

    But yeah, I’m all for having a high degree of customization.

    1. Kylroy says:

      Hades was absolutely brilliant. God Mode provided a great natural difficulty adjustment that let (almost) everyone play and enjoy the game, while preserving “First Run/No Boon/etc” shenanigans for the elite community. Soulsborne games would benefit immensely from a mechanic like this, but that would allow other people to enjoy them and this somehow causes existing Soulsborne fans to *not* enjoy them.

      1. Octal says:

        Yeah, it worked pretty well for me. It’s also nice how the gradual increase in the amount of help you’re getting makes it feel more like just naturally getting better/stronger, as opposed to feeling like you’re using a cheat code. Like having armor you keep upgrading!

  9. Dev Null says:

    Just finished playing Control. I really enjoyed it, and it had a multi-layered difficulty system that let you adjust a bunch of different factors.

    Thing is, I barely used any of the subtlety of it. The game really leans on boss fights with mechanics you need to learn, locked behind long runs back from the nearest save point, or cutscenes, or both. Shamus would still be screaming. So the normal gameplay was fun, and the boss fights were ridiculously painful (to me at least) not so much because they were difficult but because they tortured you for failing. So I tried the graduated difficulty settings a bit at the beginning, but by the end of the game I’d try a boss fight once, see how far I had to run back, watch the cutscene again, and then turn on Total Invulnerability for my second attempt because I wasn’t willing to go through the rigamarole even once more. I guess it could have used an option for “Autosave at the actual start of boss fights”, but as you say, why on earth would anyone ever turn that off?

  10. Liam says:

    In the AAA space, The Last of Us games are probably the games with the most mainstream exposure that have an impressive selection of accessibility options and nuanced difficulty sliders.

  11. Bubble181 says:

    It’s in some ways odd, because very old games – and I really am talking “DOS games” here – used to do quite well in this area. You could manually edit .ini or .cfg or whatever files to adjust a bunch of variables. Some hid them a bit out of the way, some were clear and open in plain sight (“resourcecost.dat is the file containing the costs for all buildings and units in the game” in the manual, that sort of stuff…And yes, I’m aware resourcecost is an impossible file name for that era, whatever, bad example). Sure, some consider it cheating to start manipulating those, but it could be fun.
    Then came games where some parts had different or separate difficulty options – the Total War games included separate difficulties for the main game and the battles as far back at least as TW2 and if i’m not misremembering, even the old Shogun one (no, not that one, the older one. Older).
    There are still plenty of games that’ll allow messing with that sort of things in skirmish/custom maps (resource quantity, speed, rewards,…) but developers tend to wall off campaigns.
    In some types of games some restrictions make sense. But far too often it’s simply easy/medium/hard and that makes no sense.
    Graphics options kind of went the other way: plenty of games used to just come with low/medium/high graphics. Now, you’ll often see a selection of presets, but still allow manual adaptations based on your own setup. Difficulty wise, games can learn from that. Leaving it completely open in a dozen ways can make it unclear how easy/difficult you’re making a game, or if you’re even breaking it or making some strategies impossible or broken. Having a number of presets (story mode/introduction/easy/medium/hard/near-impossible) and then allowing manual tweaks is, to me, the perfect system.

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      Daggerfall actually had a pretty interesting system for this. When creating your character, you could take advantages and disadvantages almost without limit which would make various aspects of the game harder or easier. The only cost was that these would adjust the rate at which you level in the game, more advantages meant slower leveling, more disadvantages meant faster leveling. For the most part that was supposed to be about customizing your character concept by making them better or worse at specific things. But the one option that unambiguously was about difficulty was enemy speed. You could adjust how fast enemies moved in the game which could have a pretty big impact on difficulty if you knew how to exploit enemy attack timing.

  12. Rob Lundeen says:

    I’m not disabled but I’m getting older and love when games let me customize my experience. I have less patience and less mobility and it’s nice to accommodate that. What I really really really appreciate is the ability to save the game WHEREVER I PLEASE! Too many games make you wait for a save point which is fine if you have no other life responsibilities but I have three kids and often need to drop a game quickly.

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      This highlights another reason to be having this discussion. The age of the average gamer has been steadily increasing over time as this still relatively new medium matures. More and more gamers are sticking with the hobby as they get older meanwhile games are designed for the reflexes, coordination, and visual acuity of young people. Should old people just quit the hobby or should accommodations be made?

      And if this were still a new post, I know I’d be getting some commenter right about now saying that they’re sixty and they’re as good at gaming as they ever were or at the very least they can still handle difficult games. Someone else would be saying they know this one disabled guy on YouTube who can beat Dark Souls playing with his feet. Well good for you, but not everybody holds up as well as you do. Not every disabled person has the skill to compensate for their disabilities that way. Problems are more likely to crop up as people get older. So more and more people are going to need some kind of accommodation if they want to continue gaming. That “artistic vision” the hardcores keep defending assumes everyone is young and able.

  13. RCN says:

    In some way, the 4X games always had a “customizable difficulty”. Not sure if any could be considered ableist, except maybe for dyslexics and in edge cases to colorblind people. But since Civilization there have been options to “turn off barbarians” (to people who hate being forced to produce military in the early game), increase resources, increase landmass, increase the number of AI enemies, if the AI can ally against the player and other fun flavors.

    Many simulation games also have those sliding scales.

    Maybe this shows a difference in the approach to game design to different audiences.

  14. Abnaxis says:

    So every time this comes up and I give my opinion the discussion goes to a place where I think people are ready to throw hands (I’m pretty sure I’m the “lunatic” Dreadjaws is referencing above), but these are my feelings:

    Customizable difficulty settings suck. They never work for the people they’re intended for, and they draw developer focus from making a balanced, tuned game, I’ve never encountered a game that was too hard for me, that was fixed by setting the in-game difficulty to “easy,” nor have I ever encountered a game that was too easy that I could fix by setting it to “hard.”

    I don’t know why that is. I just know that when looking through the list of games I enjoyed the most and actually finished, the games that are designed around a single intended experience (whether that difficulty was “chill” like Yonder or “DIAS” like Dark Souls), those are the games I actually see the end-credits on.

    My theory is that this is like having a dietary restriction. Since I was 8, I’ve had to eat a special diet. This means that visiting a friend or relative for a meal, one of three things happen: 1) They go to the store and buy something special for me to eat, which means I don’t eat because there’s like two edible foods that meet my restrictions in your average Walmart, max; 2) They try to cook for me, which ruins everyone’s fun because cooking for me is hard if you haven’t practiced it A LOT and it’s way more effort on the host’s part to make food that tastes like crap; or 3) I convince the host to let me bring my own food, everybody eats, and we have a good night.

    To my mind, video game developers face the same conundrum as a dinner host with a guest who has special diet restrictions. They can: 1) put in a token effort that globally changes numbers doesn’t actually help with accessibility or increase challenge for the people who need/want it; 2) put in waaaaaaay more effort to STILL not really make a good game, to the point nobody is happy; or 3) don’t really do anything pro-actively, but don’t go out of the way to stop people from modding their own experiences.

    To me, the “bring your own food” option is basically NexusMods and CheatEngine. I HAVE successfully made a game easier/harder with memory edits that fit my own preferences. I think there’s a strong argument that memory editing tools and mods should be more universally supported for accessibility, especially consoles.

    Let developers make a singular honed, balanced experience and let players modify that if it doesn’t fit their needs. Games turn out better that way.

    1. Tuck says:

      Customizable difficulty settings suck. They never work for the people they’re intended for…

      Multiple people have already commented on this post that they work, for them. Your “feelings” are factually incorrect.

      …let players modify that if it doesn’t fit their needs.

      That’s exactly what customizable difficulty settings do, the ‘intended experience’ is just the defaults. And it’s far better if the developers implement them, because they can then apply quality control to make sure they’re working properly and having the desired effect. If they’re planned from the start, rather than being later additions, then it doesn’t “draw developer focus”, it’s simply a part of the development process. And it doesn’t rely on some community/third-party to develop the necessary tools, which then may no longer work when the game or platform is updated, etc etc.

  15. Mokap says:

    I think granular difficulty options can work, but sometimes they would end up going against the artist’s vision. When I first played Dark Souls, maybe I would’ve turned down the difficulty options instead of just beating the game normally, but in the end, since I had no choice, I was forced to power through it and had a much more enjoyable experience, and it changed my opinion on this topic entirely. Since the director of the game has come out directly and said this is the point of the game mechanics, there’s not really any ambiguity on the matter either. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to ask developers to purposefully gimp the message of their own game. If you want to use memory hacking or mods to change it yourself, then that’s fine – and I do this a lot (although usually after I beat a game vanilla, just to experience it the way it’s intended).

    1. Bay says:

      That is a wonderful thought for able-bodied people, but when it comes down to ‘you either play it the way the artist envisioned it or not at all’ you leak dangerously into ignoring the problem at hand; some people CAN’T play these games on a higher difficulty.

      I understand things I cannot do in the real world. I, a disabled person, can never climb Mount Everest or run on a treadmill. But for a digital space, with no real mountains to climb or stairs to stop me, it’s a little exclusionary to prevent me and others like me, for something like an ‘artist’s vision’. Put custom difficulty in accessibility settings if you must, but either way it needs to be in there.

      1. Wide And Nerdy says:

        And that’s one of the things that is beautiful about video games is that they can enable people like you to have these experiences.

        Its especially beautiful in MMOs. I’ve known my share of disabled people who play them and in game they stand on two legs just like everybody else. They walk and move and have the same capabilities as everyone else. In games that have no voice chat, people won’t notice that you’re deaf. In theory at least, nobody treats you differently the way they might in real life where you’re sitting in a wheelchair.

    2. BlueHorus says:

      Also related: Art is very much in the eye of the beholder. Just like I can go to an art gallery and think the art is just terrible, I can find a game to not be fun, or question why certain things are the way they are.

      I remember buying Sekiro in a sale, and it was so difficult that I quit in disgust – until I remembered that someone had made an easy mode mod.
      Thus I played the game, and had fun, but only by specifically changing the artist’s vision. I simply wouldn’t have bothered otherwise.
      There’s a lot I liked about the game, and I would even call it artistic in some ways, but that difficulty curve was not fun for me.

      You could argue that if only I’d put the enough time and effort in to mastering it, I’d learn to truly appreciate it. But you could say the same thing about staring at a nasty, unmade bed; or being hit with a stick repeatedly.

      1. Syal says:

        There was a Castle Superbeast exchange about modding and artistic vision, comparing them to putting salt in a soup, among other things.

  16. Gautsu says:

    Thank you, Bay. I will argue till I am blue in the face against people who beliefs run contrary to allowing everyone to be able to attempt to play a game they would like to. My son has so many hurdles he needs to struggle with everyday that every designer/publisher/what have you who even thinks about putting in a ything to assist him gets a thumbs up from me.
    Look at Steel Rising coming out today from Spiders. They built in all of the accessibility options that people have asked for in your father’s previous posts (adjusting player and enemy health, damage, amount of healing, losing souls on death, etc), and made that a separate mode than the version that the purists can still have to themselves. They didn’t whine about how this took away from their development time or resources,they just wanted as many people to BE ABLE to play it as they could

  17. Caska says:

    I find this a very tricky topic to talk about. Mostly because the discussions about these things often fall down to “Should (insert FromSoft game here) have an easy mode”. Often, in my experience, whenever someone replies with, “No”, the other side hears “you don’t want me to play the game”. And when someone replies “yes”, the other side hears “I want to take away your enjoyment from the game”. As someone who falls on the “no” side to the above question, I admit I’ve been guilty of misreading it to hear what I wrote above. But to clarify, I have no problem with increased accessibility options, and I definitely don’t want to gatekeep anyone from playing any game.

    My argument is this. Most people who say Dark Souls should have an easy mode argue that players looking for a difficult experience would simply choose the difficult option or simply restrict themselves from using things that make the game easier. Trouble is, most people who loved Dark Souls didn’t fall in love with the game because they were specifically looking for a challenging experience that the game provided. Its that they started playing the game, and then found that the difficulty was a very rewarding experience. This is something they wouldn’t have known had the game given them said difficulty settings, and this is why so many people dislike the idea of having clear difficulty options. The same goes for many other games known for their difficulty. (Dark Souls, funnily enough has a ton of options to reduce difficulty. You can literally call another player and have them beat all the enemies for you.)

    It’s also that it becomes very easily for developers to use said options as a crutch. I haven’t played Minecraft, so imagine for instance that the options present in the screenshot were also there in Skyrim. For those who don’t know, Skyrim is terribly balanced. Especially at higher difficulties, and the game is an extremely tedious chore at higher levels. If the options in the screenshot were there in Skyrim, I would gladly choose many of those options, not because the game would play more like how I want it, but because the game on it’s own is so poorly balanced, that the only way to make it more enjoyable is to remove said options entirely. It would be great if all games were properly balanced, and then the player could fine-tune them to their liking. But having a single base difficulty at least forces developers to put more thought into the balance of the game.

    Because of these things, I’m not a fan of forcing multiple difficulty-related options into a game that was designed to be played at a base difficulty. If a game does have those options, it’s great and I don’t want them taken out. But if it doesn’t, I would be on the side of directing players to mods rather than asking developers to change it.

    1. Wide And Nerdy says:

      Finely balanced for whom? What’s easy for one person is hard for another. Who is having the experience the developers intended?

  18. Woltaire says:

    I can’t dodge out of the way fast enough to avoid hits because of the pain in my hands.

    If that complaint was directed as Dark Souls, I’d say it’s quite unfair, as DS gives tools to the players to avoid having to dodge, by wearing heavy armor, hiding behind the biggest shield available and constantly blocking. Of course that’d end up with a very different experience than going with minimum weight and rolling around to use the i-frames, but that’s perfectly viable. And health can be easily raised by grinding and using certain rings.

    1. Bay says:

      It wasn’t directed at Dark Souls, it was directed at my disabled cringe hands, but thank you!

  19. MaxEd says:

    On one hand, I fully agree about more options being good. But as a developer, I must add that options are not without a cost, both in term of design and technical implementation. The more options you have, the more code you need to write (and support!), the more combinations you have to test. It all adds to cost of the development, and the question is always “how many people will find this option useful”, or even rather “how many people will drop the game and write a bad review without that option”.

    In our own series, Pathfinder: Kingmaker and Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, we have A LOT of options. We even went as far as offering two different combat systems (real-time and turn-based, though only with a help of a fan). As a fan of TBM combat myself, I love this. A lot of people love this, and I’ve seen players ask “why don’t everyone do that?”. As a player, I can second this – I would really love to play Bladur’s Gate in turn-based mode. Or even Witcher – combat is my least favourite thing about that series.

    But frankly, the amount of bugs in, and due to the added TBM was impressive. Even setting the bugs aside, the game was designed for RTwP by default, which made turn-based play not as fun as if it was otherwise – too much trash mobs, not enough complex AI (check out Knights of Chalice 2 if you want to see what I consider the pinnacle of turn-based game design for now – it’s a bit “Dark Souls TBM” in that it’s a very, very difficult game, and the design of encounters is great, and the AI is BRUTAL – it uses its options very well). This is the extreme case, but a lot of options carry that “we designed the game for option state A, but option state B is kind-of-supported, too, if you really want it, just please don’t expect it to be as well-polished as A”. Which carries the danger that players who prefer B will complain and write bad reviews, whereas if you don’t give them this option, they will either not buy the game, or grit their teeth and soldier on for the sake of other elements they like. I kind of blame lack of flexibility in Steam reviews – you can only give the game a negative or positive review, so if your feelings are mixed, you still have to choose whether you want to wholesale hurt the game’s score, or bolster it.

    All this is to say that I understand studios that don’t give a lot of custom difficulty options. They’re costly, they turn one shared experience into a million different ones.

    It becomes hard to analyse where the game’s problems lie and fix them (e.g. to answer the question “are there any trash encounters that are too powerful and must be nerfed in a patch” you mush now take into account not only basic difficulty, party composition and equipment at the time of the encounter, but also all the options that could affect the outcome – it all adds to the combinatorial explosion).

    Also, we know of no good way to help people tune their experiences optimally, and a player can get lost in a maze of switches and sliders and become even more frustrated.

    1. Gautsu says:

      Just a thank you to you guys,having made my favorite two games of the last decade

  20. Joshua says:

    I personally would *love* a difficulty slider in the Civ games. Granted, you do get a lot of options like No/Extra Barbarians, Extra Resources, etc. that can kinda do this. However, I’m talking about the things that the difficulty slider actually affects. Specifically, when I play Civ V I like a pretty tame experience, so I go with Prince or King, but I would really like a way to give the AI better combat options, because the computer really, really sucks at combat in Civ V.

  21. SidheKnight says:

    I’m glad more granulated, customizable difficulty is becoming more common in games. It’s something I’ve wanted for years. I’m currently playing Pillars of Eternity and I love all the options the game gives to personalize your experience.

  22. Jennifer Snow says:

    I really like older CRPG’s with a developer console, because after the first run I really don’t enjoy having to wait until the last 5 minutes of the game to get all the really powerful abilities and . . . not really get to use them, because the game’s over.

    My favorite way to play most old RPG’s is to max-level my party at the start, so the only improvements I get while going along are gear-based. Depending on the game, this may cause everything to scale to them, which is cool. Or I may crank the difficulty to the highest level.

    Dragon Age: Inquisition had some optional challenge modes added in a post-release patch, and I found I liked playing that game on Easy or Normal . . . with all the challenges (except the stupid ones that caused weird and annoying NPC behavior) turned on.

    My favorite game of all time, DDO, has difficulty settings that aren’t really customizable, but you CAN decide how vigorously you want to charge ahead, which affects the difficulty ENORMOUSLY. I really enjoy that also–where you can finesse the game difficulty depending on your preferred play style. A lot of games will allow you to do, say, a stealth approach for 95% of the game and then you find out that the only way to beat the end fight is to have a big bruiser who can eat a lot of damage and fight 8 foes simultaneously. That sucks.

  23. mookers says:

    I am falling in love with this site all over again.

    Games as a device to talk about shit that *matters* – like inclusion and empathy and acknowledgment of other people’s realities.

    And the funny is still strong too!

  24. Xander77 says:

    Man, I had this discussion long enough ago that I was using Bastion and Mount & Blade as examples.

    There are so many people who are wildly concerned about someone else playing a single-player game the wrong way, using difficulty sliders and (oh no!) “save scumming”.

    The argument is occasionally camouflaged as “but if the player can change how difficult the game is to suit their own preferences, developers won’t have to come up with a balanced gameplay experience”… which falls apart very quickly under any sort of scrutiny. Mostly it’s just naked nonsense about playing wrong.

  25. Uristqwerty says:

    My personal opinion is that a lot more players would accept, even come to adore difficulty customization, if it was broken up into an initially-collapsed hierarchy, and every possible option had not just an easier option, but also a harder mode as well. Create a well-designed default experience for the typical player, but let them split the overall difficulty into combat, puzzle, social, knowledge, and reflex difficulties, each with its own set of sub-sliders in turn: Combat’s obvious, with how readily the game punishes poor tactical errors, poor situational awareness, etc. when enemies are clearly present. Puzzles similar, it’s not hard to imagine adjusting how many ways the game hints at interactive objects in a scene, whether there are red herrings, how tricky the logic problem the player has to manipulate. But social difficulty? How many games let you adjust whether NPC relations start out neutral, friendly, hostile, or even race-dependent? How many let you toggle whether the captions explicitly declare what emotion the voice actor was prompted with? How many express your standing as explicit numbers rather than leave the player to infer it from dialogue responses? As for knowledge: Pathfinding, minimaps, compasses, quest markers, game developers seem to abhor the thought you might miss content or get lost. From what I recall, Skyrim had a spell that would pathfind in-world, but everything else in it and nearly every other game is always on or completely absent. It would be easy to let the player set the “you haven’t visited this place yet” compass ghost radius to 0.5x or 2x, and take somewhat more effort to work in-universe travel directions into dialogue rather than assume the player can just follow a quest marker at all times, but would make for a wonderful piece of customization. Reflexes too would be an obvious difficulty category, from the amount of coyote time to jump within after running off a ledge to the speed of quick-time event prompts (and frequency!), to aiming precision under time pressure, to all sorts of things that overlap with combat. Hell, for a few more obscure difficulty categories: resource acquisition rate, for whether the player will want to hop between tasks to let the others slowly produce in the background, or can get enough within a minute to stay focused in a single area of gameplay. How specific formulas and upgrades are, from giving the exact math used, to a percentage rounded to the nearest 1%, to just saying “more”. Whether the game tracks completion statistics at all, or whether it gives you an encyclopedia/checklist/collection menu that shows whether you’ve seen every little thing and optionally hints at where to search.

    In nearly every case, you can imagine a setting difficult enough that it would turn off most players, one accommodating enough for any disability or even mere preference, a balanced default, and likely numerous steps in between. But, it seems most games don’t bother, so it all gets left up to community-made and -maintained mods, when they even exist, and a single global difficulty slider.

  26. Dakkalazy says:

    See, I often make mods for myself to make the games easier or to just customize my experience to feel exactly how I want it to feel. I rarely share them because I don’t think they’re particularly good or useful, and there are probably better ones out there already uploaded. More importantly, sharing the mods with the world imposes the obligation to maintain and update those mods long after I have moved on from a particular game to a different one

    Back when last year’s Elden Ring came out, almost a full year ago by now, I’ve made a mod to specifically cater to people who suck at the game, like myself, and uploaded it to Nexus. I figured that the game was still new and fresh and I might as well share the thing with a couple people who might find it useful.

    It really was eye-opening to see how much hate I got from diehard Gamers™ who just couldn’t tolerate someone, anyone enjoying their single-player experience, in a game that they’ve paid money for, not in the “developer-intended” way. The accusations ranged from ‘cheapening the play experience’ and ‘disrespecting the developer’, to ‘cheating’, to simple insults about skill and, of course, derogatory remarks.

    But then a few people commented about how my mod actually simply them to play the game at all because they have a disability, or because they only have a limited amount of hours to devote to gaming in a day. And that very much cemented my belief that I was right to upload and share it.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, Bay

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