Posts by Tag / TOPIC: Accessibility (5)

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Assist Mode is great; I’d like a Forgive Mode too.

I applaud the intent behind Celeste’s Assist Mode that allows for tweaking aspects of the game and lets players of varying skill level and physical capability enjoy overcoming an appropriate challenge. And I hate to come across as complaining about it. But the fact is that Celeste is a game that I found very frustrating and I wasn’t able to fix that with Assist Mode - because Assist Mode doesn’t let you tune punishment.

Celeste is a precision platformer. You have a set of abilities: running, jumping, wall-jumping, wall-climbing, and an air dash. Some abilities are limited and get refreshed by standing on solid ground. You must use these tools to get through a series of platforming challenges in varied environments with their own varied mechanics, such as platforms that move when you air dash or midair gems that replenish your abilities without you needing to land.

Most challenges in Celeste really have two parts: the puzzle of figuring out how to use your limited abilities and the particular environment to navigate each obstacle course, and then actually executing your solution with precise timing and positioning. To use my own terminology, this is a tactical challenge (figuring out what to do) followed by an action challenge (doing it). They are difficult in different ways and can separately be interesting/dull or hard/easy to individual players.

This is risky, because it means a player has to enjoy and be sufficiently competent at both the tactical and the action challenges in order to enjoy and progress through the game. Someone who likes charting a path through each screen but then lacks the reflexes to actually follow that path is not going to have a good time.

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Climbing the Mountain Because It's... Wait, Where Is It Again?

For me, a lot of Celeste’s difficulty felt unintentional.

First, some background about me: I have a terrible sense of direction. It’s hard for me to build mental maps of areas and to visualize where locations and landmarks are in relation to each other - and thus to figure out how to get from one place to another.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, I was once asked for directions to a building that was literally next door to where we were standing. I pointed in the wrong direction. This is not an atypical example.

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The Designer is Dead: Five Reasons to Go Beyond Intended Experiences

Games are designed to create particular mental and emotional states in their players. The Dark Souls games use difficulty to “give players a sense of accomplishment by overcoming tremendous odds”, Dead Rising’s replay-enforcing time limit and oddball weapon options encourage humorous experimentation, Far Cry 2’s unreliable weapons force players to improvise in chaotic battles, and so on. We call this the game’s “intended experience.”

Good games are those which successfully guide their players to worthwhile experiences, so the designer’s intent is key to a game’s quality. This leads some of us to conclude that designer intent should be elevated above player freedom - that players should be prevented from altering a game’s experience lest they ruin it for themselves.

“Decisions like [Dark Souls’s difficulty level, Dead Rising’s time limit, and Far Cry 2’s jamming weapons] might be controversial, but if they’re an integral part of the experience that the developer is trying to create, then the player shouldn’t feel like they’re entitled to be able to mess with this stuff through options, modes, and toggles. Because that would screw with the developer’s intentions and could end up ruining the game in the long run.”
—Mark Brown, What Makes Celeste’s Assist Mode Special | Game Maker’s Toolkit (at 22 seconds) (to be fair, the rest of the video adds a lot of nuance to this position)

I strongly disagree with this. To me, the designer’s intent is the starting point and not the finish line. If we cling to it and discourage players from exploring any further, we rob it of most of its value. Here’s why.

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Preparation, Strategy, Tactics, and Action: Phases of Challenge

Many games are tests of skill. Players succeed or fail at the game’s goals based on their physical dexterity and reaction time, general knowledge and reasoning ability, understanding and internalization of the game’s own mechanics - anything a game can test. But much of that skill is applied before the moment of success or failure.

Victory in a chess match may come from physically moving your piece into a position that checkmates your opponent, but that isn’t the hard part. And the hard part of beating Doom isn’t the button press that fires the last shot on the final boss - it’s everything you did to enable that shot. These goals, and indeed most interesting goals in games, actually have multiple stages of challenge that funnel into each other.

PREPARATION STRATEGY TACTICS ACTION

Here’s my conception of the phases of challenge. This is a fairly abstract framework, since it’s intended to be generalizable to every skill-based game. To help pin it down a bit, let’s take a closer look at each phase and then discuss how they interrelate. Once that’s done, I’ll go into some implications these ideas have for game design.

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In Praise of Easy: Lowering the Barrier to Entry

Easy Button

The challenge/punishment confusion is a major source of disagreement about video game difficulty, but it’s not the only one. Even when we have set punishment aside and are very clearly discussing only challenge, we run into trouble. Let’s take a look at the question of how much “easy” there should be in games: