This week I completed two of last year’s best games: Celeste and Dead Cells. It struck me that, while they both support their players, their philosophies regarding difficulty and accessibility could not be more disparate.
Celeste’s developer describes their game as “a platformer about climbing a mountain”. The developer of Dead Cells describes their game as:
…a rogue-lite, Castlevania-inspired action-platformer, allowing you to explore a sprawling, ever-changing castle… assuming you’re able to fight your way past its keepers.
One of these descriptions is simple. The other contains three genre-portmanteaus and a gauntlet throw. As such, I expected the former to be easier and more accessible than the latter. Games are more than their blurbs though and I was delighted as both games subverted my expectations in their own distinct ways.
Celeste, I quickly learned, is a hard-as-nails platformer. I died 2928 times during my playthrough but, because the game never felt like it was judging me, I wasn’t deterred. I died not in violent spurts of gore but in playful poofs of energy and was instantaneously spawned back to the start of game’s mercifully short sections. Celeste certainly expected me to stumble but clearly rooted for me to succeed.
This unbending but kindhearted philosophy permeates the game. It’s present in the rigid but masterable mechanics, in the motivating musical score, and in the plot, which sees the protagonist come to terms with mental illness and overcome self-doubt. A more appropriate blurb for the game appears on a postcard the protagonist receives early on, it reads: “Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!”
Dead Cells is not kind. Named in homage to Dark Souls (the tagline for which is “Prepare to Die”), it’s a game squarely aimed at experienced players. It demands fine motor skill, swift reaction times, pattern recognition, genre familiarity and a heap of free time in order to complete. As a result, if you move swiftly, jump precisely, and slice accurately enough to complete the game, the rewarding sense of prowess is palpable.
Yet what fascinates me about Dead Cells is the extent to which the player’s mastery is an illusion.
Most obviously, the game presents itself as a Roguelike (a genre characterized by the permanent death of the protagonist) but offers upgrades that persist no matter how many times you die. This makes it easy as a player to conflate your growing aptitude with the protagonist’s growing arsenal.
Furthermore, without telling the player, the game employs nearly-invisible assists that can mean the difference between life and death. For example, if you press jump marginally after you’ve run over a precipice, you’ll still be able to launch yourself upwards, kicking off of thin air. Similarly, if you slash left when an enemy is to your right, the game sometimes rotates you, ensuring that you strike true. According to game designer Sebastien Bernard, there are nearly 40 of these hidden assists in the game.
This stands in contrast to Celeste, the purportedly kinder game which, while infinitely patient and encouraging, will not bend one pixel to accommodate your failings. It also makes a mockery of the abrasive, gatekeeping sub-culture that insist that you’re cheating yourself of a valid experience if you modify a game’s difficulty or bend its rules — Dead Cells is quietly cheating for you
Where Celeste is objectively kinder and more accessible than Dead Cells is in its assist mode. I used it once to circumnavigate a particularly thorny maze of brambles. This spared me a frustrating half hour, which I appreciate, but that pales in comparison to what assist mode means to other people. For some, this mode is the difference between enjoying Celeste and not being able to play it at all.
Moreover, it means being recognised and respected by a gaming culture that has been historically hostile to your presence. It’s common for games to penalise players for using assists. They’re pejoratively referred to as easy mode, baby mode or, worse still, girlfriend mode. Illustrating of how deeply seeded this exclusionary ideal is in games culture, Celeste’s designers, who care deeply about inclusivity, called it “cheat mode” until late into development, where they eventually settled upon the less judgemental “assist mode”. In keeping with the game’s inclusive tone, there is no penalty for utilising assists.
Both of these games deserve our praise. Celeste, for proving that accessibility never jeopardises and can often complement a team’s creative vision, and Dead Cells, for underhandedly lending a hand to the gatekeepers that supposedly don’t want one.
Games are for everyone, and Celeste and Dead Cells are just a taste of the innovations in accessibility currently sweeping the industry. From God of War to Super Mario Odyssey, assist modes and accessibility options are now commonplace. Developers are speaking increasingly openly about the hidden assists they provide players, spreading expertise among creators and refuting exclusionary consumer culture. Even more encouraging, hardware manufacturers are investing in adaptive controllers and system level accessibility options.