‘Accessibility’. For some, the word means making it to the second floor of an art gallery or knowing that they’re about to enjoy a comfortable lavatory experience. For gamers, it means entering the dark world of regenerating health bars, frequent checkpoints, and a functioning navigation system. So when Dark Souls Director, Yui Tanimura, announced to the gaming media that Dark Souls 2 was to take a more ‘accessible’ direction than it’s predecessor, comment threads and message boards almost burst into flame with the ferocity at which detractors lambasted the decision. Of course, later Tanimura clarified the comments as incorrect wording; Dark Souls 2 was to remain as “hardcore” as both of its brethren. So is accessibility really a bad thing in relation to games? Here I aim to argue that there is a place for a degree of accessibility in every game.
It is extremely important for us to first contrast “accessibility” against the term “difficulty” and “depth”. The word “difficulty” concerns how much tenacity or raw skill it might take to overcome an obstacle. “Depth” describes how intricate a game or system’s mechanics are. It is fair to describe Dark Souls as a “difficult and deep” game. Accessibility deals with a completely different subset of player experiences. By definition and in relation to games, the word deals with how easy it is to “access” a game and learn it’s mechanics or rules. It is important to differentiate the latter two words (difficulty and depth) from the subject of this piece (accessibility).
A perfect example of accessibility is the Forza Motorsport series. The game allows players to turn on and off an array of assists in order to slowly improve at the game. The pay off for mastery is deeply embedded into the game design; the ability to set significantly faster lap times and earn more money. Not only does this system offer tangible benefits to the player, it encourages players to improve and extends the reach of the game beyond hardcore simulation fans.
So, how can we apply the tenets of accessibility to Dark Souls? One of Dark Souls’ weakness lies in its obtuseness; its inability to competently explain its game systems before the player makes a mistake. Some label this as “the beauty of Dark Souls”. When it is possible to have to restart the game after 30 hours due to building up a character in the incorrect way, there is only one label that comes to mind… Poor Game Design. If the game included a simple respec option it would be instantly more accessible without neutralizing the difficulty or skill-based nature of the game.
Another example of poor game design leading to perceived difficulty is the lack of signposting or level design cues when pointing the player to the next area. This leads to the illusion of difficulty due to players encountering enemies that are much too hard for them. Whilst I appreciate that this enables speedruns or low-level runs to be achieved, the lack of even subtle signposting is startling. Adding a guidance spell or a better way for players to guide others would fix this issue but allow hardcore players to still enjoy bypassing parts of the game.
At this point it is important to point out that Dark Souls is an extremely accomplished game. It excels in providing a deep rewarding combat experience and a tense atmosphere. However, Dark Souls 2 can deliver the same fantastic experience but add a hint of that oh-so-dreaded “accessibility” without spoiling the broth. But ultimately, a dose of accessibility will bring more players to the franchise which can only help From Software to deliver us an even grander experience.