accessibility is not when dark souls has an easy mode

alt title: nintendo poisoned accessibility discoursea livin’ post13 min read

People think un­der­stand­ing how to make shit ac­ces­si­ble is hard, and to some ex­tent, I can’t blame them. Objectively, the real world has many, many ex­am­ples of “accessible” choices that are of­ten out of place, and even if you aren’t the per­son to use them, you can see some­thing like this:

a photo i personally took, of a stair lift; the stair lift says the words "no freight", implying that a thing that should be durable enough to handle a motor scooter has a far more strict weight limit, just to kind of make it feel even more menacing
(this is un­der cc0, be­cause it’s my photo and i get to de­cide the rules)

and, like, al­right. This is a lift, right, it un­folds Link to foot­note 1 and has a shitty lit­tle guardrail and it very slowly takes you up, in the most painfully long times­pan you’ll have ever felt on top of some­thing, and you can un­der­stand that even if you don’t know the specifics, this ob­vi­ously looks bad, right? It’s for a num­ber of steps small enough to where you could have just found a ramp to put there—it’s not vis­i­ble here, but there is a mas­sive stretch of empty space off to the side where one could be—but even then, even if it tech­ni­cally works, it in­ten­tion­ally sin­gles out every­one who might need it.

This same es­tab­lish­ment, Link to foot­note 2 for the record, has an el­e­va­tor, but only ac­ces­si­ble from the un­der­ground park­ing. There’s a sec­ond el­e­va­tor, for nav­i­gat­ing to a dif­fer­ent part of the build­ing… and that el­e­va­tor puts you at the bot­tom of these steps, never the top. Very cool!

For the record, ac­ces­si­bil­ity as a phi­los­o­phy is ac­tu­ally pretty easy, bad ex­am­ples like that just throw you off. The thing you’re mak­ing—pro­gram, web­site, real-world place, what­ever—should work like this:

  1. Assuming you know why peo­ple want your thing, it should as­sume every­one would want it for that rea­son. Yes, even if it seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive at times! Even if some­one was com­pletely blind, they would­n’t be on a site for eye­glasses if they did­n’t want to check out eye­glasses.

  2. It should be in­te­grated in such a way to where it does­n’t look like it’s sin­gling any­one out. Ramps and el­e­va­tors are a per­fect ex­am­ple of this; we don’t think of ramps and el­e­va­tors as be­ing only for dis­abil­i­ties, be­cause they’re so in­te­grated into the en­vi­ron­ments they’re in. The mo­ment it im­plies some­thing lesser in the peo­ple most likely to use it, you’re mak­ing some­thing seen as too shame­ful to use by the very peo­ple who re­quire it.

  3. Most im­por­tantly, they should be built with the knowl­edge that, to those who needs these things, hav­ing them is non-op­tional. If they can’t go up the stairs, they can’t go up the stairs; if you try to make it about whether it’s “easier” or “harder” for them to do things they can’t do, you’ve al­ready missed the point.

If there’s a bit of rep­e­ti­tion here, it’s be­cause I gen­er­ally am bring­ing home one over­all point: don’t be an ass­hole about it if some­one needs some­thing. If you have any gen­uine un­der­stand­ing of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, you’ll catch on pretty quickly that these rules are ob­vi­ously go­ing to make you come off as rude when you break them, be­cause they are pretty rude.

I can talk about good ex­am­ples of these things, but that would still not com­pletely tell the full story. Instead, let’s talk about the worst ex­am­ples, and to do that, it is with great re­gret that we’ll have to talk about videogames.

Nintendo, for all the ways that it can make good games, has de­liv­ered a curse unto the en­tirety of the world, one that of­ten­times looks like this.

assist mode, i.e. a mode for literal children
the demons awaken

This is Assist Mode, and it’s a fea­ture in Super Mario Odyssey. When turned on, it gives big, com­i­cal ar­rows on the ground telling you where to go, it makes it so you can’t flat-out die from falling into pits, and it gives Mario twice as much health over­all. It is an easy mode, and it is, quite lit­er­ally, for chil­dren. This is a mode de­signed for your 5-year-old nephew to play, be­fore he knows that a Goomba is bad, or that a coin is good.

If I had to de­scribe to you the num­ber of times that this—the baby easy mode de­signed for ba­bies—was ex­plained to be an ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­ture by peo­ple who should ob­vi­ously know bet­ter, I would gen­uinely lose my fuck­ing mind. Game jour­nal­ists seem to have strug­gled with why peo­ple might pos­si­bly be of­fended by this, and in do­ing so, they’ll of­ten­times re­veal hav­ing no ac­tual un­der­stand­ing of what a dis­abil­ity truly is.

For con­text, Mario Odyssey is a game that, among other things, has mo­tion con­trols that could­n’t be turned off, mean­ing play­ers with hands that, for one rea­son or an­other, are shak­ing, were now stuck con­stantly mis­in­put­ing those con­trols; was on a con­sole that, on launch, had no means of remap­ping but­tons, some­thing that was in­ex­cus­able even back then and took years for them to ac­tu­ally im­ple­ment; and, above all else, is a game whose strengths lie in its ex­plo­ration and cre­ativ­ity in how you nav­i­gate a space, some­thing that Assist Mode ac­tively ru­ins.

The as­sump­tion here is not merely that Assist Mode mat­ters more to dis­abled play­ers than any ba­sic tog­gles, but the as­sump­tion that be­cause those play­ers can­not phys­i­cally do cer­tain things, they must be equiv­a­lent to some­one who sim­ply can­not be both­ered to do that same thing. Your nephew, if given enough time and willpower, could do all the things this game asks of you. Someone who can’t press the trig­ger but­tons to ground pound, on the other hand, would’ve been ef­fec­tively soft­locked the mo­ment they hit a point where that’s the only op­tion.

Because, af­ter all, if we wanted to play the same game as every­one else—if we were here be­cause we wanted the same ex­pe­ri­ence as our friends—we’d sim­ply not be so dis­abled, right?

The mo­ment you see this in games, you can­not un­see it. Games called “accessible” will, of­ten­times, have ex­tremely ob­vi­ous ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues, be­cause when a games writer says that word, they ac­tu­ally mean for them, the peo­ple with sus­pi­ciously work­ing limbs, and not you. Nintendo, in par­tic­u­lar, has an ab­solute ado­ra­tion for all of its worst qual­i­ties, whether it be in mak­ing “accessible” videogames with a track record for caus­ing ir­re­versible dam­age to your hands, or in as­sum­ing that if you can’t do cer­tain things, it must be on ac­count of you be­ing any­where from 3-6 years old, and then sub­se­quently treat­ing you like you’re that.

It is a very, very big prob­lem. Every time I hear about “accessibility fea­tures” in a game, I have to re­search a bit to learn if they ac­tu­ally mean le­git­i­mately cool ideas that let peo­ple play the game how they’d want, Link to foot­note 3 or if it means that it just, like, has one less menu for you to go into be­fore a game starts.

And, hon­estly, it’s why I have re­spect for one se­ries, in par­tic­u­lar.

Dark Souls, if you can be­lieve it, is pretty rough. I know, I imag­ine to any­one who even knows what that game is, I’m caus­ing minds to be blown, but bear with me here.

It’s not just rough as in hard, but rough as in pun­ish­ing; Dark Souls wants you to think and play in cer­tain ways, and it will move moun­tains, of­ten­times di­rectly into your face, to get there. This is, in fact, the en­tire sell­ing point, and that’s why you buy the game; when peo­ple com­plain about bosses in a game from its de­vel­oper, Fromsoft, it’s of­ten­times be­cause they’re too triv­ial to break apart, be­cause when peo­ple buy a game all about some­thing like Dark Souls, it’s dis­ap­point­ing for some­thing to not de­liver that feel­ing of dread!

Dark Souls, and all the soul­s­likes to go with it, is, to my best un­der­stand­ing, prob­a­bly the only one to have dodged this phe­nom­ena for this very rea­son. The Dark Souls Easy Mode (hereby re­ferred to as DSEM for short), along with all the west­ern de­sign philoso­phies to go along with it, is so long-run­ning that peo­ple have pretty ef­fec­tively built an en­tire bit of it, com­plete with Ubisoft-ass HUD.

Writers, some pos­si­bly well-mean­ing, but moreso those who are used to ac­ces­si­bil­ity as a check­list and noth­ing more, tend to get very up­set about this mock­ery. I think there’s some ar­gu­ments in some things souls games may have prob­lems with, some things you could, per­haps, tog­gle, or even set, such as a spe­cific set­ting, but let’s not lie to our­selves, that’s never where it goes. It al­ways comes back to DSEM, an ul­tra-baby-tier tog­gle, be­cause even now, there’s a strug­gle to un­der­stand what ac­ces­si­bil­ity ac­tu­ally means.

Perhaps the most ob­nox­ious out­put of this was when Dark Souls came to the Nintendo Switch, in which peo­ple said it should be eas­ier, for ac­ces­si­bil­ity, since it’s a Nintendo con­sole. In case you’re won­der­ing, this was also dur­ing the time that the Switch had no but­ton remap­ping, be­cause of course that’s where every­one’s pri­or­i­ties lie.

It’s im­por­tant to note that these games do have ways to make the game sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier, as the en­tire games’ on­line sys­tems are de­signed to do such a thing, to the point where peo­ple have made en­tire chal­lenges out of solo­ing bosses for you, specif­i­cally. Hell, there’s sum­mons in Elden Ring that are so ob­vi­ously meant to make the game eas­ier, not us­ing them be­comes a self-en­forced chal­lenge run!

These don’t count, though, be­cause if you re­spected those as be­ing what they are, you might have to ad­mit that the game can al­ready be made eas­ier, while still work­ing as in­tended, and the point of DSEM as a con­cept is to in­ten­tion­ally break that in­tent. Not merely a re­jec­tion that ac­ces­si­bil­ity is when you let peo­ple play the game as it’s sup­posed to be, but a firm be­lief that any me­chan­i­cal pur­pose or in­tent of a game is in­her­ently flawed, some­thing stop­ping the true goal of let­ting them, specif­i­cally, not have to con­tend with a game’s dif­fer­ences and quirks, a war cry of the able-bod­ied who pre­tend they speak for any­one else.

Accessibility for me, the one who does­n’t need it, but not for thee, the one who does.

No, DSEM should not ex­ist. On the con­trary, all forms of DSEM should be nuked from or­bit and, in the few cases where that might cause ac­tual ac­ces­si­bil­ity is­sues, it should be re­placed with proper, non-con­de­scend­ing, spe­cific tog­gles and set­tings. Just be­cause some­one can’t deal with some­thing like, say, the text size on the screen, or the hold­ing down of a spe­cific but­ton, does not mean they want an easy mode, it means they want a way to deal with the one, sin­gu­lar thing they have is­sue with. By lock­ing such things be­hind a sin­gle, easy mode set­ting, you’ve ren­dered it im­pos­si­ble for them to ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence the game that they pur­chased.

Disabled peo­ple are not chil­dren. We are very acutely aware that when we pur­chase Dark Souls, we are get­ting Dark Souls. Every time you bring, unto the world, a DSEM, you re­mind us that we’re of­ten­times not al­lowed to truly play the games we want, not for any sane rea­son, but be­cause you did­n’t ac­tu­ally know what our prob­lem truly was.

It brings me back to the stu­pid lift. It has that same mis­un­der­stand­ing of what dis­abled peo­ple ac­tu­ally need, that feel­ing that the peo­ple who made it would rather con­tinue to make you feel like a bur­den, rather than just do­ing the eas­ily-proven-to-work meth­ods that don’t feel so con­de­scend­ing. There’s space for a ramp! Hell, there’s al­ready an el­e­va­tor there! Just give me ac­tual ac­cess to that el­e­va­tor!

I just need to go in, quickly get one thing, and then get out. What I don’t need is a lift that takes longer to bring me up and down than it takes for me to get that one thing!

But, no, be­cause who­ever put that lift here was­n’t one to ac­tu­ally ask any­one how any­one with mo­bil­ity is­sues might per­ceive this, there is in­stead an un­used lift where lit­er­ally any­thing use­ful would be, wast­ing per­fectly us­able guardrail space. I’ve never seen any­one use a lift like this, and I likely never will, since I imag­ine if you tech­ni­cally had no choice but to use it, you’d sim­ply de­cide not to en­ter the store at all.

DSEM, to me, is a con­ve­nient lit­tle short­hand of that con­de­scen­sion. When you feel like you’re sup­posed to do ac­ces­si­bil­ity, whether out of le­gal re­quire­ment, or out of some­one say­ing you’ll make more money off it, but you don’t ac­tu­ally know what any­one who re­quires it wants.

Being ac­ces­si­ble is­n’t hard. You’ve just gotta try to not be an ass­hole. If you don’t, you’ll make some­thing as dogshit as that, and the peo­ple you’re pre­tend­ing to help will no­tice.

  1. …Obstensibly, any­ways. You know, I never ac­tu­ally checked how you’re sup­posed to un­fold this spe­cific lift to get on it.

    Hang on, do you need to do that your­self? Is there an­other rea­son this is a com­plete waste of time that I did­n’t take into ac­count!? Return to ar­ti­cle via foot­note 1

  2. I dis­cov­ered this af­ter mak­ing an on­line or­der for pickup at a lo­cal store, and learn­ing that the pickup lo­ca­tion is at the top of some stairs… that is to say, a dif­fer­ent set of stairs, be­cause the stairs pic­tured here was for the tra­di­tional en­trance, and the other—where the pickup was—was at the exit.

    Even if I was will­ing to de­base my­self on this thing with my dis­abil­ity, I still would­n’t be at the right spot! Return to ar­ti­cle via foot­note 2

  3. Check the com­ments of this video, in which some­one is quite lit­er­ally talk­ing down to a blind man that he’s us­ing the ac­ces­si­bil­ity fea­tures wrong, which re­ally does just send the point home, does­n’t it? Return to ar­ti­cle via foot­note 3 by nomiti ityool 2024
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