FromSoftware’s Elden Ring hit shelves less than a month ago, and the action-RPG is already being hailed as one of the best games of the year. Yet this near-universal acclaim hasn’t arrived entirely without controversy. Yes, critics and gamers agree that Elden Ring’s massive open world is well-designed and that its combat mechanics are addictive – but they also agree that the game is very, very hard to finish, too.
Perhaps inevitably, the game’s punishing difficulty soon reignited the ongoing debate around difficulty versus accessibility in video games. On one side, you have gamers who see the challenge a game like Elden Ring presents as way for them to test (and prove) their gaming skills. On the other, you have those who argue that these games should be overhauled so that gamers with disabilities can enjoy them, as well.
Both sides raise some valid points, however, the truth is we don’t need fewer tough games like Elden Ring – we just need more tough games to be fully accessible.
Understanding the appeal of tough games
It’s easy to paint gamers who love brutally tough video games as masochists who get off on the constant frustration and humiliation of their many crushing failures. It’s also not hard to chalk up their advocacy of hard video games with gatekeeping behaviour. You know, that bizarre phenomena where some gamers get off on the sense of superiority they feel about excelling at games that others find too difficult, and see titles like Elden Ring as an unofficial litmus test that weeds out the “real gamers” from the supposed pretenders who lack the dedication needed to “git gud”.
Certainly, there’s a decent-sized chunk of hard video game fans who subscribe to one or both behaviours (especially gatekeeping). Even so, it’s unfair to tar this entire segment of the gaming community with the same brush. Plenty of proponents of hard video games like them because of how rewarding they are in the long run. These gamers point to the sense of accomplishment they feel after mastering a tough game like Elden Ring; at how satisfying it feels to stick at something long enough that you eventually start to improve. Unlike the “git gud” mentality, these gamers aren’t interested in proving they’re better than someone else – they’re focused on becoming better than themselves, instead.
So no, hard video games aren’t an inherently bad thing, nor is it wrong to enjoy them. At the same time, though, the emphasis games like Elden Ring place on difficulty typically comes at the expense of how customisable they are. This in turn automatically prohibits a sizeable subset of gamers from playing these games – even those who would gladly devote hours to them – because of their disabilities. No game should have to cater to every gamer, but when a group of gamers finds a title virtually impossible to play (much less finish) because it can’t be recalibrated to accommodate their physical or cognitive disabilities? That’s a problem – and an unnecessary one, at that.
Greater customisation and smarter design means a more level playing field
If (like me) you don’t have a disability, chances are you’re not fully aware of the many barriers to entry games like Elden Ring present to those with disabilities. Fanbyte’s Grant Stoner – a games journalist who has a neuromuscular disorder – recently published an illuminating rundown of the ways in which Elden Ring does and doesn’t accommodate gamers with physical disabilities, raising several issues that would never have occurred to me.
Stoner’s article calls out Elden Ring for its lacklustre control customisation, subpar subtitle options, and limited visual settings. To put this into perspective, just imagine: you’re trying to take down a tough beastie like the game’s Death Rite Bird, except you’re physically incapable of using all the keys required to do so? Or that you can’t even see or hear the Death Rite Bird coming, for that matter? Suddenly, Elden Ring doesn’t seem to reward persistence so much as it punishes disability. After all, there’s challenging and then there’s just plain unfair.
That said, Stoner also credits FromSoftware with making Elden Ring more accessible than its previous releases, like Dark Souls III and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. He highlights the game’s targeting system as a huge help for gamers with similar physical disabilities to his own – as it helps them to manage their physical exhaustion levels – as well as those with impaired vision. Stoner further applauds Elden Ring’s generally inclusive game design, which features at least one character class that doesn’t rely on lightning-quick control inputs, deploys checkpoints generously, and encourages players to summon human or AI support characters when the going gets tough.
Thanks to these relatively minor concessions, Stoner reports that he was already 15 hours into Elden Ring when he sat down to write his article. Sure, his player character had died countless times by that point, yet he was happily plugging away at the game on its one-size-fits-all difficulty setting. Crucially, Stoner wasn’t asking FromSoftware to add an “easy” mode or to reformat the game’s minimalist UX to provide more handholding – all he needed to dive into Elden Ring was a way to level the playing the field.
Ultimately, that’s really what it comes down to here: striking the right balance between tough and fair. A game can be as challenging as its developers like, so long as its design and settings are equally as accommodating to players with disabilities. With Elden Ring, FromSoftware has already proven that even the most unforgiving game has the potential to be accessible to everyone without compromising on the difficulty so many gamers find appealing – all it takes is a little more care and consideration during development. And really, what’s so hard about that?