Critics are saying Sekiro is too hard & not accessible to its audience. Is it really? Or is it just a victim of lazy video game journalism?
Difficulty in video games
Difficulty is a factor of mechanical complexity that exists in each and every single game. This complexity is comprised by the control factor (reaction of the player's eyes and hands with the elements of the game) and structural complexity (challenges that must be overcome, such as enemies, elements of the scenario, etc).
In video games' early days, structural complexity was the main element that differentiated difficulty levels in a game. This was not the case for Arcade games, in which player control would be tested to the extreme for economic reasons. In this case, remember that Arcades were coin-operated machines. Their key element to get players spending money was a balance between delivering a progression gameplay and preventing players from spending too much time using the same machine. That's why the element of time is so common in Arcade games.
Going back to the 2000s, games began to keep players increasingly trapped in a combination of gameplay and story. No wonder expensive cutscenes have become industry standard, making games more attractive and often more accessible to an audience with less hours available for their hobby.
With the advent of online, mobile and social networking games, most digital games have become "easier", taking into account that player retention time has become a form of income for developers. It is noteworthy that many new players born in the early 2000s grew up in a transition environment in the industry, in which games became increasingly "easy" for economic reasons.
With the release of Dark Souls in 2011 and its popularization beyond the niche of players of its predecessor Demon's Souls, the difficulty in digital games came to be praised as a rite of passage for many players, especially the younger ones. This "cult of difficulty" continues to this day, as we find Sekiro, another game developed by From Software, as the rite of passage of the moment.
Although it manages communities of extremely toxic players, from the point of view of game design, that was something quite relevant. Dark Souls has influenced several current games, such as Salt and Sanctuary or The Surge. However, its "difficulty" is a legacy of previous games by From Software itself, such as King's Field, Shadow Tower and Tenchu.
If you list the mechanics that make Dark Souls an interesting game, it is easy to notice that all of these mechanics were used in some game of the 3 series above. This does not take credit from the current productions by From Software. It only goes to show a process of continuous evolution in the same game genre. Something seen in companies like Nihon Falcom and Platinum for example, in addition to making clear the need to seek evolution within a genre, something that can be noticed on Bloodborne, for instance, as it creates new mechanics in the already established system.
Game Media vs Difficult Games
Media related to digital games have always tried to maintain a balance between public expectations and the publishers' interests, with little success. Just remember that major publications tend to give more attention to AAA games and consequentially get publicity for the publishers of the same games.
Obviously, this raises questions about the legitimacy of game reviews, but even more, reporter's need to actually test the games they write about. Think about cases involving reviews written by sites such as GameSpot, IGN and other channels in which it was quite evident that journalists did not play the "reviewed" games, but only tested them for a few minutes, if anything. They would simply walk away without understanding the role of game mechanics and would merely stress the games' visuals and soundtrack, rather than the gameplay itself.
With so many videos posted on Youtube and Twitch these days, I don't find it impossible to imagine that some journalists could be skipping play the actual games altogether by just watching gameplay videos. In this myriad of games released every day, this is even justifiable, since it is unfair to demand these professionals to play every game out there and succeed in all or even the majority of them. In this environment, journalists will justify poorly reviewed games by blaming game designers instead of pointing out the very pressure they're under.
In the case of Sekiro, the justifications were of several kinds. Some talk about the game difficulty being way too exaggerated, even if it provides a great range of mechanics focused on movement and defense, which are still not found in many current titles. I can't help but feel like they're actually rejecting innovation for the sake of finishing their writing and calling it a day.
This has obviously led to questions such as why the game does not have an easier level of difficulty. Remember the goal of the game is to overcome every enemy, whether in frontal combat or running in a stealthy fashion. If the game were easy, it would be a ride. And Yes, by keeping that in mind, the player can run from all enemies and only face 6 or 7 enemies the whole game, if desired.
Accepting failure and moving on
We all fail in games. This is a common thing. It is part of the whole deal of gaming. The possibility of failure is also what makes players keep playing. Focusing the criticism solely on the difficulty only conveys the message that game review authors were unable to deal with their own frustrations.
Adding arguments to this criticism, such as saying that the game is not accessible (even when the author has never written anything on the subject, then leave this argument to experts) or criticize the time the player spends to perfect the game (understand that many players want to play only 1 game at a time, sometimes for years on end, it is a player's choice not the critic) are arguments without nexus in the eyes of the players.
So, my suggestion lies on facing the difficulty in playing and commenting on the gameplay beyond frustration, after all, there is always something beyond the frustration of losing, right? No? Ok. So, in that case, the game needs to be evaluated as incomplete. But remember that a bad review can generate an avalanche of similar criticism, just to average with other publications. And those criticisms become less effective when compared to players' opinions, devaluing the publication. So, journalists, keep trying! Maybe find fun in a difficult game and have fun like the average public.