I know this is a contentious opinion, but I genuinely believe every game with the budget to do so should include assist options, and yes, this does include games that are meant to be challenging, like Dark Souls.

Before you pick up your pitchforks in rage, let’s first describe what assist options are, and the difference between them and an easy mode. Assist options are a list of options which can help a player reduce the difficulty in a certain area, like dodging or aiming. This can make games less stressful in specific areas, meaning players don’t have to compromise difficulty they were just fine with in one area to alleviate difficulty they were having in another. Easy modes are settings which allow players to engage with challenges at a less intense rate, allowing the challenge of a game to fit how the player wants, or needs to engage with it. Easy modes typically affect the world, for example enemies could be less powerful, less frequent and-or less aggressive, while Assist options more so affect player abilities and stats, like making their defence more powerful or allowing them to be less accurate. Whilst functionally different, the effect is practically the same (assist options can sometimes include settings which I would consider to be cheats, note that this article isn’t arguing for the “necessary inclusion of cheats,” rather I’m arguing for the accessibility these modes and options bring).

In my opinion, assist options are typically better than easy modes as they are more adaptive to each player, allowing less abled players to pick areas in which they need to tone down difficulty, rather than toning down all difficulty for the sake of making one area easier. For example, I have a disability which makes it tricky to do precise aiming with a controller, so I need some form of aim assist which is typically found under assist options. The game “Control” has some great tools to help with this. The game features a toggleable “Enhanced Aim Assist” option which allows players shots to still hit an enemy whilst being less accurate, as well as that another option that helps with aiming is “Aim Snapping”, this locks the camera onto an enemy, so the player is always aiming at them, this reduces the need for aiming with the right stick significantly. There is a lot more than aim assists included, for players who have trouble dodging, there is a damage reduction modifier, or even an option to become immortal if the game still proves too difficult. Control is what I’d consider to be a gold standard for gameplay assist options, I think it caters in many ways to help those who struggle with games and allows them to have a challenging yet fun experience, rather than a brutal, near or genuinely impossible experience. On the other hand, you have games like Rise of the Tomb Raider, which instead of including assist options separate from the games difficulty, ties them all to the easiest difficulty, this included an aim assist I needed. This made the games combat really easy for me and therefore less enjoyable than it would be if the enemies were damaging me at the regular rate. This didn’t ruin my experience, but it felt frustrating as I knew a solution to solve the easy combat difficulty could be implemented with little effort. The solution Control has to this issue is far more intuitive than Rise of the Tomb Raider’s.

With assist modes allowing people who were previously unable to play games to partake in the activity, it seemed difficult for me to understand why people would be against it. I’m not here to hide the other side of the argument, in fact I think some arguments are actually very valid concerns backed up with some philosophy I’d actually agree with. So, let’s explore some of these arguments. A common one I see is that difficulty can be used as a tool to emphasise the themes of the game and is therefore a crucial part of the experience. When difficulty is optional, the artistic merit of a super difficult experience is weakened as there will be people who can’t relate to having a challenging experience. This idea is supported by game director Yoko Toro, he describes games as a means to transfer emotions from the developer to the player, it is his goal as a writer to do so. Games to him are simply a collection of tools that allow that to happen, and these can explore the potential the medium provides. Tools can be striking visuals, or a heart-warming story and, yes, challenge. I don’t disagree with his analysis of the medium, games are a powerful medium that can create some of the strongest emotions in its players. However, I think what the argument misses is that peoples’ response to challenge and the emotion bought by over-coming it is variable. In a lot of games, the purpose of challenge is to reward patience and persistence, keeping at it until you have the reward of actually completing it. They are designed so that most people who want to engage with the game can complete it with enough effort, understanding where they went wrong and improve their strategy based on previous attempts, frustration might be an emotion they feel, but it’s frustration at themselves, the knowledge that they could improve. But for a lot of people, frustration might come from the fact that the physical dexterity, for whatever reason, isn’t present within them. This type of frustration is not part of the intended experience. Allowing the difficulty to be altered so that the frustration is founded from knowing they can improve, rather than their lack of physical dexterity means they’ll still be experiencing the same feelings intended by the developers. For example, Ghostrunner is intended to be a difficult experience, the player is meant to be able to go through its levels while not taking any damage, as enemies and obstacles instantly kill the player. The player has to kill the enemies and make use of a number of movement mechanics in a fast paced manner. Due to this, during the middle of the game, the challenge required me to use the right stick at a pace I could not keep up with, this led me to feel like I had a lot of unfair deaths, as I could not see incoming enemy attacks. A lot of this game’s challenge comes from staying vigilant in such a fast paced environment. However due to me not being able to move the camera as efficiently as a typical player, my frustration from that challenge was with myself not having the physical dexterity to beat the game. So, I looked to the, admittedly lacking, selection of assist options and turned on a shield that allows the player to take one hit and increased the rate at which my special recharged. This made my unfair lack of vigilance a lot less punishing, as I knew I had an opportunity to tank a hit, I also knew with an increased special recharge rate that I’d have more chances to better evade. This did not make the game easy, and I still came away from the game feeling like I overcome an insurmountable challenge. The game also features an option to slow it down, which I turned on a few times as the inputs required were too fast for my dexterity, but I played the vast majority of the game with that option off as the fast pace was an appeal for me. The reason why I say Ghostrunner’s assist option were lacking is because, apart from the option to decrease the speed, I think the game only allowing one shield and the special recharge rate still being slow could still alienate a few players from the game who like the fast pace. I managed to get by, but I can imagine for others the difficulty was still too high. But I think still having that assist shows that games can have difficulty options whilst still not compromising on the designers intended experience.

The argument about how difficulty contributes to an intended experience and therefore shouldn’t be able to change is mostly an argument against easy modes and not assist modes (although the argument of “difficulty shouldn’t be changeable” carries over). This is another reason why Assist modes are superior to easy modes. With assist modes, the option has to be found when a player has already started a game, it forces players into its default difficulty first, which subtly tells the player that this is the indented challenge, any deviation from that might compromise their experience. Whereas with easy modes, the option is displayed at the start, which might lead players into a misguided decision of picking the easier option if they heard the game is hard. The decision not being one presented to the player, rather one they have to seek out makes these options a lot less intrusive to players able to engage with the default challenge and more likely to be used by the people who genuinely need them. Games that include assist options like Celeste and Control have text which tells the player before turning them on that these are intended for players who are genuinely having an unfair time with the challenge, which makes it explicitly clear that turning them on is a deviation from the intended challenge for the typical player.

A common argument for an inclusion of an easy mode or assist options is that they’re an optional feature, players who don’t want to engage with them don’t have to, it doesn’t affect them, whereas players against those things will respond “because they are inclusions in difficult games, it does cheapen our experience knowing difficulty is optional, also players who make irrational judgement due to impatience might turn them on and regret it, as the reward was not earned through the intended struggle.” The first point about difficulty being optional is true, but if assist options were to be implemented in games rather than easy modes, most players won’t be confronted with that option, there is a clear intended difficulty and to edit it without needing to would be deviating from the intended difficulty, so the inclusion shouldn’t cheapen the difficulty or the sense of reward you get after overcoming it. As for players having a momentary lapse of judgement and then regret it after realizing the difficulty is where they get the reward from, that is a reasonable concern, I can’t say that doesn’t cheapen the experience as I’ve been there. In Celeste, I had a limited time before I needed to do something else and was so close to finishing it, wanting to see how the game concluded I turned on infinite dashes and invincibility to rush to the ending. This victory felt empty to me, and I soon realized I made a mistake not just turning the game off for later. I did later return to that point to finish the game properly, and whilst this time the victory did feel better, I knew if it was my first time it would have felt much more rewarding. That being said, there was an instance where I did actually need to use them. During the middle of the “Farewell” DLC level, the final level of the game, an input which was previously only used by speed runners becomes a required ability to learn in order to beat the level. Whilst I tried to do it constantly, the input just became too hard for my physical dexterity to pull of consistently. So, I turned on invincibility and infinite dashes to complete the level. Celeste was at that point one of my favourite games, so having an assist mode there to help me see the story through the game and, at the very least, observe the levels was very valuable. The debate then becomes “Is the exclusion of assist options (and therefore also the people unable to access the game without those options) worth it to save players from turning them on in a momentary lapse of judgement?” Having been on both sides, the irrational decision maker and the player who relied on them to complete the game, I have to conclude that the inclusion of Celeste’s assist mode allowing me to see the game to its end is far more valuable than my irrational decision to turn them on when I didn’t need too. To say that games should value the irrational decision makers more than disabled players is extremely wrong. It’s saying that people should be intentionally excluded because of something that is not their fault so that other players are forced to exercise patience (something the gameplay relies on) and have no possibility to make any silly decisions they would otherwise be accountable for in a game meant for entertainment purposes.

Some people may say that a lot of discussion is going into action-like titles, games that require a lot fast pace inputs like Dark Souls and Cuphead, but other game genres such as with the puzzle titles can also be difficult for people with cognitive disabilities. I will admit, this is an often overlooked part, even by me. My struggle with accessibility come from fast paced games, rather than puzzle ones, however they are still worth a mention as they can cause some issue. These games are much harder to propose a solution for and would require a lot more effort to implement. How do you assist people with puzzle games without giving too much away? Whilst there’s no example that I have seen of a game doing this, perhaps a game can give a small hint or the solution to a part of the puzzle after some time, something like 5 or 10 minutes, this will be enough time for the player to attempt it from the start before needing help, also as the game gives more hints or solutions over time, the puzzle may become easier. Another solution would be to allow the player to skip the puzzles. Games that don’t rely on puzzles for their main gameplay, like Insomniac’s Spider-man, have an option under accessibility to do this, but for games that are primarily puzzle games, giving players that option might make the gameplay unappealing.

To conclude, game difficulty is a great tool to setting the mood and feeling of a game, I do not want difficult games to go. That being said, games branded off their difficulty create an experience inaccessible to many disabled players, something that assist modes can remedy in a non-intrusive manor. Whilst the inclusion may raise concerns with people using them when they shouldn’t, that trade-off is much more important. Now that I’ve said this, I’m going to border my house from the Elden Ring fans, this couldn’t have made them happy.

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