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Accessibility & the Folly of Exclusivism

AAA videogames are making themselves daunting to newcomers with closed-minded design, and a vocal minority of game-players celebrate this as an expression of 'depth' or 'complexity.' Why?

Tom Battey, Blogger

April 23, 2013

10 Min Read

Lara Croft is parachuting again. She whips in an ungainly fashion from side to side, bouncing off a few spiky twigs with noises of urgent discontent, before slamming full-force into a tree and impaling herself on a large branch. She gurgles brokenly and dies. This isn't the first time this has happened.

It's something like the sixteenth. I splutter angrily and set the controller down. I know this bit isn't supposed to be difficult. It's supposed to be exciting. Someone on the Tomb Raiderdevelopment team came up with the idea that rather than simply transition from one area to the next in a cutscene, it would much cooler if the player were to guide Lara, parachute-bound, through a gauntlet of deadly trees.

It's not cool. It's exasperating. The player suddenly has these brand new 'parachute controls' foisted on them, with no indication of what these new controls actually are. You're given about three seconds to try to work out how to steer before Lara is hurled brutally into an instant-death tree.

You fall back on videogame logic. Left stick steers. OK. But is it inverted on the horizontal axis or not? Wham. Dead. Okay. Right stick does the camera. But is that also controlling the direction she faces, or…? Wham. Dead. God. Right. I think I can steer her now. Am I supposed to aim over there, or…? Wham. Dead.

I almost stopped playing Tomb Raider at this point. What made me persevere was, again, videogame logic. This section is only a small set piece, like in so many games these days, a brief if pointless diversion before I can get back to the real gameplay. The gameplay where I understand the rules and the controls.

So I persevered. I kept playing. But it was touch and go for a moment there. Had I not been so versed in what to expect from videogames, Tome Raider would've been irreversibly shelved. It's not like I don't have other things to do with my free time, after all.

It occurred to me that this is what every game must feel like for people who are new to games, those who aren't versed in their inscrutable logic. You're given all these sticks and buttons and a brief, impenetrable set of instructions (left stick moves the guy; right stick controls where he's looking, and also the gun; right trigger - that's the squeezy one at the back - shoots the baddies, but only if you hold the left trigger first) then you're hurled into this unfamiliar world full of things that hate you.

A few minutes later something probably kills you. You didn't shoot it fast enough. That's the left trigger then the right one, remember? And you have to line your shots up with the right stick first. And press X to cover. That's the blue one. Look, it's not that hard, you'll get used to it. You're just going to have to keep repeating this section until you can do it without dying. Then you get to be killed on the next section. Won't that be great?

Is it any wonder that great swathes of people would rather play Farmville than Tomb Raider?

Daniel Starkey recently wrote a piece that called for a simple addition to Bioshock Infinite; a mode where it's impossible for the player to die. He was, perhaps predictably, excoriated by hundreds and hundreds of passionate game fans, arguing that such an addition would be a travesty, would somehow compromise the perceived sanctity of Infinite, of it's authors' 'vision'.

In what kind of narrow-minded world does that make sense? It's worth pointing out that Starkey isn't calling for any change to Infinite's existing modes. The hardcore gamer-types could completely ignore this proposed super-easy mode, and play the exact same game they already enjoy.

On the other side of the coin, new players who might be intrigued by Bioshock's premise but unfamiliar with the arcane mechanics of the First Person Shooter could both learn those mechanics and experience the other wonderful, non-combat-focused elements of that game without the frustration of repeated death.

There's a vocal subset of the gaming population that hate this idea. Hate it enough to fill the comments section of Starkey's article with many-hundred-word justifications of why such an inclusion would somehow ruin the entire of videogames. Why?

The pervading opinion seems to be that opening games up for a wider audience would somehow compromise what we love about games - that somehow more people being able to enjoy these experiences would lead to a loss of depth or complexity.

I call bullshit.

I think about Bayonetta. I think about Bayonetta a lot, because in my personal sphere of gaming it is one of the Best Games Ever. In this instance, though, I think of Bayonetta because it is at once one of the most challenging modern games around, and one of the most forgiving.

Bayonetta is a game of exquisite depth and complexity, and on its hardest mode (the brilliantly named Non Stop Infinite Climax) it presents the kind of challenge few modern games do, a brutal gauntlet that's impenetrable to any but the most skilled and patient.

Yet Bayonetta's easiest mode provides an 'automatic' option that fundamentally changes how the game controls to make it accessible to those with no experience of action games at all. It takes a lot of the more complex controls out of the hands of the player, placing them automatically in positions to make the most effective attacks, and compresses the game's elegant combo systems into a few simple button presses.

It allows players unfamiliar with the game's systems to progress through the game without difficulty, while at the same time teaching them the skills required to play on the higher difficulties.

If Bayonetta can exist across the full spectrum of possible difficulty, from easily accessible to punishingly difficult, why shouldn't Bioshock? Why shouldn't all games?

I think back to why I even ended up playing Bayonetta in the first place. Why I even wanted to pick it up.

I didn't get a PS2 until a couple of years after it came out - my parents quite rightly didn't see the point of shelling out £300 on a new Playstation when I had a perfectly functional old one already - so there was already a wide library of games for me to choose from when I eventually did receive the console.

One of the first games I picked up was the original Devil May Cry. Prior to DMC, the games I played tended to be pretty light on action - mainly 3D platformers like Spyro the Dragon, loose action/horror/stealth games like Metal Gear Solid or Resident Evil, and Final Fantasy-style RPGs.

I picked up Devil May Cry because it kind of looked like Final Fantasy, except with all those bits where your guys stand on a grid and trade blows replaced with actual, real-time slicy combat. To my thirteen-year-old self, this was a magnetically cool prospect.

So I started to play, and hell, it was cool. I was kicking guys up in the air and then hovering there just by shooting my guns. A whole sword went through Dante's chest, and he just pulls it out and then starts hitting things with it. Spyro the Dragon this was not.

Pretty soon I ran into Phantom, the now-iconic giant spider demon that represents the game's first real challenge. And he flattened me. Repeatedly. I couldn't even make a dent in his health bar - I simply didn't have anything like the reflexes or control mastery required to even stay alive for more than a minute, let alone actually beat the bastard.

After several deaths in embarrassingly quick succession, the game asked me if I'd like to switch to Easy Automatic mode. And though it felt like admitting defeat, I hit 'yes', because I loved this game and I wanted to keep playing, even though I wasn't 'good' enough to beat it on 'normal' mode.

Eventually I would beat Devil May Cry on normal mode. Eventually I would beat Bayonetta on Non Stop Infinite Climax mode. But if the designers of the original DMC hadn't had the presence of mind to acknowledge how difficult their game was, and the generosity to include a mode that circumvented that difficulty, there's a chance that I'd have stopped playing before I'd really started, and written off these hardcore action games as something that just wasn't for me. And I'd have missed out on many of my future favourite gaming experiences as a result.

There's a subset of the gaming audience who would argue that DMC shouldn't have an Easy Automatic mode, who would say that I should have 'earned' the 'right' to beat the game through sheer force of will.

To these people I say screw you. This idea of gaming as an elitist club with a high bar to entry is toxic to the entire industry. Because most people don't want to have to 'prove themselves' in order to enjoy a piece of entertainment. And they don't have to; there are plenty of 'casual' and 'social' games waiting on all manner of platforms to take their custom instead.

And as greater numbers of people drift towards these small games, these games that go out of their way to make themselves accessible to all, so too do the eyes and wallets of games publishers turn towards Facebook, towards mobile, towards Kinect.

And is that what we want - we, people who have grown up playing and loving games and still play and love games today? It's certainly not what I want. We know there's value to these games we play, a value somehow bigger, deeper than what these 'casual' experiences offer - why else do we keep playing them? But if we can't effectively communicate this value to people who don't already innately understand it, those who aren't versed in the arcane logic of games, then what's that value worth, actually?

How long will the people with the Big Money keep serving a static, inward-looking audience of gamers, when part of that audience - and a good deal of developers, too - seem bent on denying this audience a chance to expand?

I'm not asking for a seismic change in how we develop games. I'm not asking anyone to sacrifice depth, or complexity, or immersion, just for the sake of expanding the audience. I don't want to turn games into films, I don't want to dumb anything down, I don't want to spoil anybody's fun.

I'm just asking that developers think about what they're making not in terms of ingrained 'game logic', but in terms of real-life people logic. To think about how and why a game is challenging, rather than creating challenge for challenge's sake. It would take about 5 minutes to add a 'God Mode' to Bioshock Infinite; that involves changing a single variable and making exactly one new asset that says 'Beginner Mode' or something to that effect.

And if even one more person gets to enjoy Infinite as a result of this theoretical new mode, if there's even one new gamer who might otherwise have been turned off by the game's difficulty, one gamer who might move on to play other games, to invest time in gaming as a hobby and as a community, isn't that a net win for gamers and for the games industry as a whole?

There are people out there who no doubt have a hundred different reasons why this is somehow a terrible idea, one that somehow compromises everything that games 'stand for'. But if meaningless exclusivism is what games 'stand for', then count me out. These people are welcome to their precious little club - and they'd best enjoy it while it lasts.

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