The Game Less Played: ‘Inaccessible’ Games

I play a lot of games of these days that I’ve played before, and in that regard it is difficult to find something that rouses in me the same feeling of excitement that I used to get when I was young and would play a video game. Back then, everything felt new and different because I was experiencing it for the first time. Now, being a seasoned gamer of almost 20 years, I’ve been exposed to a lot the industry has to offer. The first console I ever played was an Atari 2600 at my grandmother’s house. I’ve dipped my toes into the mysterious thing that is Japanese gaming, and along the way I’ve managed to enjoy titles from almost every genre imaginable. I’ve made it a point to seek out varied experiences. So, it’s harder for developers to really impress me with their game. That being said, large publishers and well-known developers didn’t exactly go out of their way this last generation to give me new and exciting experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it is impossible to have new experiences in today’s industry. In fact, that’s not the case at all. The indie scene and a few publishers and developers are putting out really unique games. But, for the portion of the industry that puts out AAA games, a concerted effort it being made to go after the same audience time and time again, and this leads to some unimaginative design.

Today, the process of developing a game takes place largely within the context of business. The creative processes at work have taken a back seat to numbers. Marketing statistics and data and focus group testing is what drives design decisions. Developers are then forced to cherry pick design principles to sell games, in the hopes that their decisions will allow the game to appeal to the largest possible audience. I want to talk about one of those design principles. I want to talk about accessibility.

What does accessibility mean? That’s a tricky question to answer from consumer side of things. It’s perfectly understandable that people want to be able to “pick up and play” a game without having to go through a 20 to 30 minute tutorial. Accessibility is crucial for the success of some titles. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise wouldn’t be as popular as it is if it didn’t have a certain degree of accessibility incorporated into the game’s design. But I think we’ve fallen out of equilibrium in how we think about it when we review and critique games and when designers sit down to make games.

For many, there isn’t a distinction between accessibility and difficulty. Your average gamer may play Dark Souls or XCOM: Enemy Unknown and say it isn’t accessible; but, this isn’t true. That is a case where accessibility is being mistaken for what is actually difficulty. Both of these games are very accessible. They explain everything you need to know to be able to play the game. You get the basics, and that’s all you should get. The rest is up to you to figure out. It’s not that these aren’t accessible, it’s that they are extremely difficult. They punish your every mistake and make it very hard to recover from them.

So, Dark Souls and XCOM: Enemy Unknown are cases of mistaken identity. But, what about games like Civilization V: Gods and Kings, Europa Universalis III, or Wargame Airland Battle? All three are strategy games of some variety. What sets these games apart from the Dark Souls and XCOMs of the world is that they ask a lot from the people who play them. Each of these games have deep and complex systems and mechanics at work, and they each ask players to learn the intricacies that tie all aspects of their respective game design together. These games are not accessible. But, they don’t deserve our derision and scorn because of it.

It is easy, in the day and age of “pick up and play”, to shun the games that ask a lot of players. It’s easy to simply label them as niche games and set them apart as fundamentally different experiences that don’t fall into “mainstream” gaming. Separate but equal isn’t exactly the approach these games deserve. Never should you not recommend a game to a friend because it’s “not accessible enough.” Since when did accessibility become a measure of our willingness to engage an interactive experience? And therein lay my point. As a design principle, accessibility has penetrated to the very core of game design. It is seen as something that is essential in order to have success because players have been conditioned to expect an experience that doesn’t ask very much of them at all.

These games, the so-called inaccessible ones, shouldn’t be set aside as experiences that players should be wary of engaging. If anything, their developers and publishers deserve our respect for such uncompromising game design. Contrary to what I’m sure the developers themselves would say, these games are for everyone. Europa Universalis III isn’t just for the grand strategy junky. It’s for everyone. Try it, and if you don’t like it on its own merits, then fine. Put it to rest if you have to. But when players, journalists, and designers—and, yes, even the designers of the “inaccessible” games—label these games as “for a specific type of gamer” they are selling the medium short and being a bit disingenuous to the creative processes at work.

Maybe it’s not that games are inaccessible. Maybe it’s that gamers are lazy. We want the convenient, the “right-away”, and the instant gratification that easily grasping a game mechanic can give you. However, I’m not going to fault anyone who would rather play Assassin’s Creed III than Crusader Kings II. I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m calling for some sort of uniform definition of “sameness” that is to be applied to the process we go through when deciding what to play. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. One of the things that I love about this industry is the variety and uniqueness of experiences that it offers to players. Never, in a million years, would I ever suggest that the two games I mentioned above are the same or that they were made for the same audience. Yes, previously I did state that Europa Universalis III was designed for “everybody”; but, I only mean that it isn’t designed to deliberately weed out certain players. It’s a very different kind of game made to appeal to someone who loves a menu-driven grand strategy game. But, that alone shouldn’t be the determining factor.
I only wish that accessibility wasn’t seen as something that gauges the barrier to entry, and that it instead was used to measure how well the overall design of the game introduces certain mechanics or concepts. Be a little more adventurous in what you let yourself experience. Make it a point to play things you don’t think would necessarily appeal to you. Take advantage of the fact that the medium you love, video games, afford you the opportunity to try the things you like, and the things you don’t.

jonshamlin

jonshamlin

jonshamlin

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  • jsonmez

    Absolutely right! Agree with everything you said!

  • Great article. I would agree with the central point (as I read it) that we should respect genuine and uncompromising design, even if it detracts from accessibility. As a hardcore fan of the series, I might nit-pick that Dark Souls is fairly inaccessible, as it never explains some of the key systems in the game, such as how humanity works.

  • Gustavo Pontinha

    Amazing. This is the best article I’ve ever read about the movie. It says everything I had in mind after watching it. I wish Snyder and Nolan had the chance to watch this Christopher Reeve interview back in the 80’s. What he says from 5:00 on and specially at 6:13 is all they had to hear: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkcLRL9cBtk.

  • Daoofgeek

    The examples you give of Superman are the character at his best. This Superman was in his first fight with a foe who, once he started to gain a better grip on his powers would be too much for Superman. With no kryptonite around and the city halfway leveled as well as Zod’s promise to kill every human on Earth, what was his choice? The “lazy writing” contention is, in itself, a lazy response. Because you do not agree with the situation, it’s called lazy (and make no mistake, I’ve heard others say this as well without offering any workable solution for the situation).

    Your point about modernizing Superman is a valid point though the example of Superman #22 actually parallels the situation Kal-El found himself in during Man of Steel.

    I do have a question when one talks about morals and the foundation of a character. How could one call Superman the paragon of virtue if, by not killing Zod, millions would die? That’s not a hero; it’s a selfish person who is more concerned with him/herself than the lives of others. A hero is one who is a beacon of hope but, at the same time, realizes that sometimes the ideals he lives for may not benefit the “greater good” 😉

    Despite disagreeing quite a bit with your article, I find that it was beautifully written and while I may not agree with you, I will say it gave me pause to think a bit more on what I found to be a very compelling narrative.

    • BrianLeeMartin

      Thanks for the response, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I would argue that, in Superman #22, he’s not actually in a similar situation at all, and sentences the Phantom Zone criminals to death as the sole remaining figure of justice on a devastated world. Part of my problem with the death of Zod in MOS is that I didn’t feel like the film had earned the right to do that with the character–I was unconvinced of there being no alternative.

      As for what to do about the “lazy writing”, part of the problem with what happened here was that all of the collateral damage leading up to it gave me a, “Oh, SUDDENLY he cares about Zod killing people?” feeling that deflated the entire intended effect of the scene. But there’s already been a lot said about that around the web. Obviously, sending Zod back to the Phantom Zone would have been one way to go about it. It might sound pedestrian or anticlimactic, but there are clever ways to approach it (one of which I’ll recommend you check out here in a minute). Of course (and this speaks to a larger problem I had with the film that I didn’t really get into here), doing that would fail to “speak to” (in the minds of the screenwriters and producers) the modern audience this film was shooting for. I think movies as a whole lean on the “hero kills the bad guy” thing WAY too much now (although it’s a far worse movie than Man of Steel, I felt ill when Optimus Prime murdered Megatron IN COLD BLOOD in Transformers: Dark of the Moon–of course, MOST of that movie made me feel ill). Anyway, for an alternative idea that maintains Superman’s integrity and achieves exactly the same dramatic effect Man of Steel was going for, I’d point you to Max Landis’ YouTube video about his proposed reboot of the Death and Return of Superman. An idea like the one at the end of this story could have easily been adapted to fit MOS’s plot. It’s a long video, but definitely worth watching!