On some level, it’s curious to me why this From Software game, in particular, has sparked such widespread discussion in the gaming community about difficulty and accessibility in video games. Don’t get me wrong, there are important discussions to be had there, and these games do provide some excellent in-roads. On the software end, none of the From Software games have particularly great accessibility settings, and they are some of the most difficult high-budget games on the market.
A lot of intelligent people have yet to realize those are two different conversations to be had. The difficulty is not the only factor in accessibility. The people calling for more accessibility in games like “Sekiro” often are looking for things like more colorblind modes and options for turning off places where button mashing would be required. This group is looking for things like “Celeste’s” assist mode. Not everybody has bodies that allow them to button mash, and they should be allowed to play too. People calling for an “easy mode” just wish these often obtuse but popular games were easier to pick up and play.
The two groups are often confused for one another. People who attack those in the “easy mode” group in the name of “artistic integrity” often end up also attacking the accessibility people, and it’s unclear if they mean to. The discourse is muddled and toxic. I’d rather not wade further into it.
Another interesting lens to look at “Sekiro” through, one that goes a lot less talked about, is a conventional, universal version of the games . As a series, the From Software titles have kind of gone the way of the “System Shock/Bioshock” games. Every entry has similar mechanics and thematics, the only difference being is that, as time goes on, traditional mass appeal has become more emphasized.
Compared to a lot of its precursors, “Sekiro” looks like “Uncharted” at least if you compare their commercials It looks cool. It’s marketed, and constructed, as a game for the “mainstream” gaming audience, which is typically, and falsely, conceived as young and male. It’s a game about an unbeatable ninja dude who has to rescue his young ward. It’s heavy on the cutscenes. Critically, it’s the first of these From Software action games that doesn’t let you change your character’s gender or appearance.
For example, compare “Demon Souls,” the first of the modern From Software titles. It’s certainly a more oblique game. Like all the “Souls” games, there’s a heavy tabletop RPG influence, so meaningless, obtuse numbers and menus abound. Combat is slower, there’s more space between checkpoints, and there are no optional minibosses to gleefully sprint past. Even for people without accessibility issues, it has to be a more mechanically disagreeable game — there’s no element of pick-up-and-play here. But it’s also the only From Software game with a gender presentation slider, where you can role-play as a non-binary Pyromancer, and the game recognizes that as a valid option.
This is an important topic to talk about with games, not how a hypothetical “easy mode” might compromise their artistic integrity, but how market forces have already driven these games away from their more gender expressive roots. Complex gender expression in games is so rare, isn’t that something which deserves to be protected from the market just as much as any difficulty deserves to be maintained? There’s nothing about the protagonist of Wolf in “Sekiro” that strictly required he be a man. Like most of the From Software protagonists, he’s largely a blank slate, albeit a rather talkative and determined one this time around.
Obviously, none of this is to say that the developers at From Software are sexist or even that “Sekiro” is a sexist work. “Sekiro” is a load of fun. Everybody with the time and inclination should give it a play. This is all just to point out how little attention the conspicuous removal of female player characters has gotten compared to the other coverage of issues surrounding From Software and their creative decisions.
This is the first From Software game of this type without any sort of playable female character, but rather than talk about that, and look into the market forces and creative choices which informed such a choice, journalists are getting harassed and leaving Twitter for admitting they used cheats to beat the game. It might just say something about what kind of “artistic integrity” specifically is valued by the gaming community at large.
Marty Forbeck is a video games columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.