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Saturday, June 13, 2020

Why "Accessibility" Isn't a Virtue

In many ways, this post is the spiritual successor to my one on obscurity. As is the case with most of these essays, the idea behind this one began with a simple observation. I'm someone who likes to watch lots of reviews and video essays about various shows, movies, books, games, et cetera, and one thing I've noticed is that a lot of reviewers will either reward or dock points for "accessibility," that is, the quality of being accessible to a large audience.

Yet that trend always slightly rubbed me the wrong way, because to me, the amount of people who can or will be exposed to a piece of art does not change the quality of the art itself. There are some creations of the highest quality that have a "high barrier of entry," i.e., aren't widely accessible, and likewise there are many with great accessibility that aren't that good, like late night talk shows, MTV, and Cassandra Clare novels. This ties into the "popular =/= good" point that I like to bring up from time to time. Of course I'm not some hipster who thinks all popular things are bad, in fact in my last post I talked about the appeal of shows like The Office, but I do think it's important to be able to differentiate between organic and manufactured popularity. I'd say something is organically popular if it didn't have every advantage at the start, and its popularity is superficial if it's manipulated into fruition; take Billie Eilish for example. Her popularity is entirely superficial, since her family was rich and worked in the music industry. They basically forced her into popularity by pulling all the strings they could, and to great success.

In a defense of The Office, the show had very humble beginnings and its popularity was purely organic. This is evident largely in the first season of the show, the show's low mediocre budget, and the audition tapes which you can find on YouTube.

However, why is it that so many reviewers--and people in general--seem to condemn "inaccessible" creations as somehow inferior?

There are actually several major reasons, none of which are very good.

But first, we should talk about the benefits of accessibility.

One habit I've adopted as a byproduct of taking sign language classes is thinking about what games are playable without volume--in other words, could a deaf person play this game and still understand it?

Obviously things like subtitles during cut-scenes are a start, but what about audio cues? I've noticed that some competitive multiplayer games are actually completely playable without volume and you wouldn't have any major disadvantage if you muted the game. For example, a game that has both visual and audio cues simultaneously does this the best.

In Guild Wars 2, when a sniper is taking aim at you, you hear a loud rumbling noise that warns you about the incoming danger, but you also see a big red circle appear around your character and over your head. So even if you muted the game and listened to music instead of the in-game noises, you would still know when a sniper was taking aim at you.

However, this largely and almost exclusively applies to multiplayer online games. What about single-player games? (Or "partially" online games?)

In all honesty, it seems that things have been condemned as "inaccessible" if they're complex, require a lot of time or attention, or aren't easy to consume casually.

But is that actually a bad thing? It would seem like there's a time and place for both--a time for casual sitcoms that are nice just to have on in the background and enjoy while you're unwinding, and a time for more serious and complex forms of entertainment for when you want to go down the rabbit hole.

I'd say the first major reason why ease of access is considered a virtue is commercialization and consumerism; when something has a high barrier of entry, it can't largely be marketed to the masses.

To highlight this, allow me to introduce you to the basic plot of an animated movie series called "The Garden of Sinners." This is one of the greatest franchises I know of, but has a reputation for having a notoriously high barrier of entry.

This is because the plot is extremely complex, and the movies are out of order chronologically, with the first movie actually being 4th in the timeline of the 7 total movies.

This is a movie series that you couldn't accurately summarize in a short synopsis; yes, you technically could summarize it, but any short description of the series would be misleading because of just how dense the series is.

To summarize to the best of my personal ability, the movie series follows a young woman who previously shared a body with another person. She grew up with a middle-aged serial killer sharing the same body as her, and they had to take turns using it--he'd agree to give her full control of the body during the day, and in return she'd let him use it at night where he'd use their body to commit murders. Through a series of supernatural events, he is separated from the body and she gains complete control of it, while he gets his own body; she uses her knowledge of the murders committed by her former split-personality to solve a series of supernatural murder mysteries with the help of a paranormal expert and a well-intentioned normie who accidentally finds out too much and winds up in the middle of it.

That's just about the gist of it, although that still leaves out many massive details, and yet even in that condensed form that couldn't be easily marketed in a little commercial to mass audiences. The story has so many twists and turns, and nothing is explained to the viewer; this is largely because there's virtually no exposition, and any exposition that does arise is nothing more than subtle mentions during dialogue that's easy to miss, and seemingly tiny details can end up having massive effects on the story. As others have pointed out, anyone who isn't paying 100% attention would miss something and then immediately have no clue what the hell was going on because the story would leave them hopelessly behind. This makes it so that it can't be watched (or at least enjoyed) casually because it demands the viewer's constant attention, because if they miss a single detail they won't understand anything that's happening.

Not to mention the sensibilities of the show's topics; it takes a long, hard look at some really controversial and sensitive subjects, being a series that isn't afraid to make commentary on some really gruesome stuff, including drug addiction, mental illness, rape, murder, and suicide. When it comes to tying it with the bit about requiring your attention, it's really a show that makes you think--this is a show that rewards intellectual curiosity and cognitive dissonance. It makes you think one thing then reveals another, it challenges many of the popularized beliefs held by society as a whole and can make the viewer afraid of their own passive participation in monolithic thought-systems.

That, with the episodes being completely out of order, basically makes it really difficult to get into. But that isn't a bad thing; the show wasn't devised with mass viewership in mind. One reviewer who shares the same sentiment I do described Kara no Kyoukai "The Garden of Sinners" as, "Demanding, but extremely rewarding."

I don't think there's a better way to describe it; because of the show's minimal exposition and its subtlety with how mysteries are revealed, the viewer feels like a genius if they manage to figure out what's going on. Very few shows are both as entertaining and thought-provoking as Garden of Sinners is, animated or otherwise.

One argument I hear a lot is, "No game was ever ruined by an Easy Mode." I have a few things to say about that.

Firstly, how would you even prove that? And second, I've actually played games that were far too easy on the HARDEST setting, to the point where they were completely boring. When a game is extremely easy and there's literally no challenge or effort required, the game feels lazy, boring, and repetitive. There's no suspense, the player knows no matter how little effort they put in they'll still win easily. And that's not a good thing. It's the same thing with stories that don't commit to consequences; if plot-armor saves 72 characters from death, then why would the viewer care about totally-dramatic-death-number-73? There's no intrigue or suspense when total victory is already guaranteed. And while you could argue that the existence of the easy setting is not the main issue, the lack of difficulty in general definitely can be.

But there's another reason why difficulty settings might ruin a game--balance. Most games are only play-tested on the medium difficulty setting, so the reviewers and developers don't actually know if the difficulty setting will change anything. Usually the difficulty setting just increases or decreases enemy stats like health and damage. But if it's extremely easy to kill enemies because of how predictable they are, then increasing their stats won't actually make the game any more challenging. Now, it's still easy to kill the enemy AI characters but they take slightly more ammo to finish off. Whoopdy-do.

The main reason with balance, however, is that if there are no difficulty settings whatsoever, the player experiences the game exactly the way the developers intended. You know that the specific challenge (or lackthereof) of an enemy encounter or situation was hand-crafted just for you to experience it. They like to say, "Just set the difficulty to High," but the problem is that doesn't usually work. Instead of turning an easy game into a difficult one, now it's an easy game that requires slightly more patience. The type of people who play FromSoftware games want a game that will kick their ass, and the only way to actually achieve that properly is if the developers set out to do so.

However, this makes me bring up one major point; and that is the fact that most people are using the word "inaccessible" wrong.

When they say "inaccessible" or "high barrier of entry," they really mean "Not easy to enjoy passively." But this is what's called a soft lock, not a hard lock.

The term "soft-lock" is used to describe certain things that block progress, usually in a video game like in Metroidvanias. A hard-lock is something that completely denies access to something else--for TV shows or cinema, a hard-lock would be a movie being banned in your country. For example, if a movie was banned in China for criticizing the Chinese government, no one in China could watch the movie (unless they had some extreme hacking skills or something).

If an obscure TV show or movie used to only be available on Netflix, and couldn't even be streamed on 3rd-party sites, and then one day was removed from Netflix, that would be a form of a hard-lock too.

A medium lock (if there was such a thing) would be something like money. Maybe something is available, but you have to pay extra for it. This is the case with HBO shows like Game of Thrones. You can't just pay for streaming or cable, you have to pay the premium in order to watch HBO exclusives too. This is something that will stop many people from watching it.

However, a soft-lock is merely something that isn't considered "low effort" to the average person. In Dark Souls for example, you can go straight to the hard area called "The Catacombs" and "Tomb of the Giants" at a low level even though it's a bad idea because of how much stronger the enemies are. But that's a soft-lock, not a hard-lock; a dedicated player can play those areas early if they really want to. I did the same thing by fighting the boss Sif at a low level even though most players don't fight Sif until near the end of the game, and it was super hard but I eventually beat her.

Yet, Dark Souls has been criticized for having a high barrier of entry and being "inaccessible" because of its difficulty and vague story-telling, with mainstream journalists saying it should have an "Easy" setting to make the game more accessible to a larger audience.

Pardon my French, but that's connerie. This is largely because:

1. Its difficulty is the theme of the game, since it's meant to be an allegory for conquering depression,


2. It isn't actually inaccessible in the first place.

What do I mean by this?

Well, the average AAA video game costs $60, and right now you could buy Dark Souls for $40. All it takes to play the game is for someone to purchase and download it. Boom, now you can play Dark Souls. While I don't condone it, you could probably pirate it for free somewhere, and it also goes on sale a lot for much cheaper, so I don't think calling it "inaccessible" is actually accurate.

The same goes for Garden of Sinners; in fact, the entire movie series can be watched on Crunchyroll for free.

But when these whiny journos complain about something have too much "barrier of entry," they're really complaining about people being able to understand or find enjoyment in something they can't. Anyone can watch Garden of Sinners or play Dark Souls, they aren't hard to get access to whatsoever, but they're hard to "get into," that is, develop an understanding of what they are.

I've seen instances of people saying they couldn't finish Inception and other Christopher Nolan movies like Interstellar because it was too confusing or hard to follow, and yet Nolan is considered one of the best screenwriters and directors of all time, up there with Tarantino and Spielberg.

Yes, his movies are dense and complicated, but that's not a bad thing. That doesn't mean every movie should be made complicated and confusing on purpose, but if it's a byproduct of good design that's not a bad thing. That doesn't mean that simple movies and television are bad, just that different creations can be good for different reasons. I mean, Shrek is a pretty straight-forward and easy to follow movie series, but they're great movies nonetheless. Some creations benefit from their simplicity while others benefit from their complexity, it's all about the nuance and the intended experience curated by the directors and writers.

If we were to start seeing all "high barrier" movies, shows, books and games as inherently flawed because of its accessibility, that would aim to stop people from creating anything complex. Hypothetically if everyone strived to make only "accessible" entertainment, there would be no complex stories made. What a narrow-minded view of the world.

There are also some things that are seemingly accessible but secretly inaccessible (at least, "inaccessible" in the way they misuse the word). I think Coraline is a great example of that.

One reason I'm a huge fan of Coraline, besides my love for traditional stop-motion animation, is because the movie is absolutely packed with secrets. In fact the entire story is actually hidden, there's the "story" and then there's the real story.

It reminds me of how old games have a fake final boss; in a lot of older titles, it was common for there to be a slightly anti-climactic final boss, so most people would beat them and have no clue that there was a REAL final boss that was hard to find and much more epic to fight.

The recent 2D Metroidvania Hollow Knight kept this tradition alive; in Hollow Knight, you fight, well, the hollow knight at the end of the game, and he's a tough final boss but not that epic.

But there's actually ANOTHER secret final boss, the "real" final boss if you will, who's much more powerful and epic. To get to them, you have to discover a hidden item and put together some clues about the environment, and doing so will reward you with the real final boss, Radiance.

That's sort of what Coraline's story is like. Just like how most people might finish Hollow Knight's average final boss and feel contempt and satisfied without ever knowing about the true ending, most people who watch Coraline will be satisfied with the average plot without knowing about the much cooler secret one.

What do I mean by this?

Well, in Corlaine the story seems pretty straight-forward at a glance. It essentially boils down to a dark retelling of Alice in Wonderland, where she discovers the "rabbit hole" to another world (the door) only it's dark instead of fun. (Not that Alice in Wonderland doesn't have any dark parts, because it does with the beheadings and stuff.)

But that's not what Coraline is actually about; there's a ton of major secrets scattered throughout the movie that reward the attentive viewer. One way in which it's easy to verify secrets is the simple fact that it's stop-motion animation; because stop-motion animation requires that every tiny detail be carved by hand over the course of thousands of hours, nothing ends up in the frame by accident.

In a live-action movie, a person walking by in the background could be a secret, or it could just be some random person who happened to walk by that went unnoticed during editing. In Star Wars something like this happened when a stormtrooper hits his head in the background, but they didn't notice when editing the movie so it made it into the final cut.

Afterwards they added the sound effect to make it seem like it was intentional, but it was a blooper that made it into the late stages of the editing.

However, in stop-motion movies this doesn't happen. It takes hundreds of hand-carved facial expressions to make a character say a single line of dialogue. So if something appears on a license plate, some guy or gal spent hours carving it into place.

This makes it easy to find the secrets that were intentionally put in the movie by the creators (well, they aren't easy to find but it's easy to identify which ones are actual secrets).

One example is how in the beginning of the movie, there's a single shot where Coraline puts some seeds in the doorway--bleeding hearts and pumpkin seeds. Then, later on in the movie, the Other Mother creates the garden with bleeding hearts and pumpkins. Someone spent hours hand-making those little seed packets, so stuff like that is completely intentional.

There are so many things left unsaid at the end of the movie--why is the Other Mother made of metal? Who is the boy in the painting? Why does the door lead to the other version of the house? Who is the Other Mother and why is she there? Why does the world start to crumble into an abyss at the end of the film? Why is the cat able to teleport between the two worlds? What's with the dolls? And why buttons?!

The movie makes you think that these aren't important and that they don't need to be answered, and that usually is the case with most animated movies. If there's any magic or unexplainable occurrences in a Disney movie for example, people don't expect a logical explanation; they'll just accept it as part of the plot and continue watching. Yet Coraline actually systematically answers every single one of these questions and more one-by-one without telling the viewer explicitly.

The actual plot is big and complex so I won't be going into detail about it here, but what seems like a dark retelling of Alice in Wonderland is actually a crazy supernatural story about pocket universes, self-sacrifice, martyrdom, and immortality. It's a pretty crazy rabbit hole to go down, but the average viewer isn't punished for not discovering that, because the movie at a glance is still a good film even if you don't know any of the secrets. Just like how Hollow Knight is still awesome even if you didn't know about the secret final boss.

These are instances where something has a secret inaccessible side, but its inaccessibility is superficially created purely because it's a secret. If they were told to the viewer / player, these secrets wouldn't be secrets anymore, and would just be a part of the product. Yet they're made all the more better for it. These sort of "secret" stories and endings enhance the experience for everyone because a lot of consumers will feel that there's some mysterious thing that they can't put their finger on, and will either embrace not knowing or will look again more closely and discover the rabbit hole. Someone watching Coraline for the first time without knowing all of the hidden secrets would, unless they were a total dolt, still get the feeling that they missed something even after they reached the credits. That intangible "X" factor if you will, and that is largely in part due to the movie's ambiguous ending and the loose threads that never got tied up or directly answered. It's easy to leave the movie wondering about those unanswered question marks.

The second major reason why people see high barriers of entry as a negative thing is this feeling of entitlement; people in general have become increasingly lazy, especially when it comes to consumerism, and they just want something easy and generic. I mean, why else would people still watch MTV or read Buzzfeed? Why else would WatchMojo have millions of subscribers?

This is not to be confused with a "mainstream bad" claim, as I have said there are organically popular things that are of quality, The Witcher 3 being a huge one for me, but rather this is a message about the trend of people complaining about content that wasn't made for them.

Sekiro actually respects its players by respecting their intelligence and problem-solving skills.
You also have shitty articles like this one claiming that games exclude women because women are "objectified," but of course everyone is objectified in video games. All the dudes have massive biceps and 12-pack abs, it's just the way a lot of games are, especially fighting games. They'll complain that games objectify women but won't bat an eye at the massive wall of muscles that are Kratos, Master Chief, Doomslayer, and every male fighter in every fighting game.

Game journos:

"OMG Lara Croft's character model is way too sexualized, look at how much video games objectify women!"

Meanwhile, Kratos's character model:

But with that said, while a lot of the "exclusions" are pure bullshit, there are games, movies and other forms of entertainment made for a specific demographic. There are some games made for men and some games made for women, although that's just a byproduct of demographics existing in the first place.

If everyone on the planet had the same interests, then there would be no targeted demographics, but that's just not the case.

A game like Minecraft is universal and mostly appeals to every demographic, while a game like Dark Souls appeals almost exclusively to men while a game like The Sims will mostly appeal to women. That doesn't make The Sims bad--it's just a fact. Studies have proven that most action and RPG games are played by men while women tend to play the more social games like The Sims, Animal Crossing, GMOD, etc.

But are those games "sexist" towards men because a lot of men aren't interested in it? Of course not. And they don't even exclude men in the first place; lots of guys play the Sims, Animal Crossing, and GMOD even though they're social games, and likewise there are girls who will like Halo and Dark Souls. Halo and Dark Souls aren't "excluding" women just because women aren't interested in it. Is American Housewives excluding men simply because men aren't interested in it? Of course not. But if a guy wanted to watch American Housewives and enjoys it, there's nothing stopping him from doing that. It doesn't have a "barrier of entry" just because it appeals to a certain demographic.

Likewise, Garden of Sinners, Inception, and Dark Souls / Sekiro don't have a "high barrier of entry" just because most people aren't interested in them. Dark Souls, Bloodborne and Sekiro aren't "exclusive" for being designed for people who enjoy hardcore action RPG's, and Garden of Sinners and other deep and complex movies / series aren't inaccessible purely because they're made for people who enjoy deep and thought-provoking story-telling.

This notion that people have that if something wasn't made for their specific demographic, that it's "excluding" people like some sort of club is ridiculous. Anyone can watch Garden of Sinners or Inception, anyone could play Dark Souls or Sekiro. They aren't some exclusive club that you need a password to access. Anyone can consume (and try to enjoy) them at any time, and if you don't enjoy it, that's fine because there's sure to be other things made for your specific taste that you will enjoy.

The idea that if a form of entertainment appeals to or was made for a specific audience that it's "inaccessible" and therefore excludes people is an egregious line of thinking. Yes, there are some things that appeal to large audiences, like sitcoms, Minecraft, Marvel, etc., but if everything was designed with barrier-of-entry being a priority, then no niches would exist. No niches could exist, because a niche is defined as something with very subjective taste that won't appeal to everyone.

It would, by and large, be the death of innovation and creativity. Not all content was made for everyone, and that's OK. I won't complain about things that weren't made for me--I'm totally fine with there being some franchises and fandoms that I likely won't ever be a part of because they don't appeal to my taste; there is nothing wrong with that.

If someone doesn't like Inception because of its complex story, that's fine; that's their opinion and they can like whatever they want to like.

But if someone said, "movies like Inception shouldn't exist because they aren't accessible to everyone," now they're just trying to stop anyone from having any fun. It reeks of, "If I can't enjoy X thing, no one should be able to enjoy it."

If I can't enjoy Dark Souls, no one should be able to enjoy it.

If I can't enjoy Sekiro, no one should be able to enjoy it.

If I can't enjoy Garden of Sinners, no one should be able to enjoy it.

Never mind that that, ironically, would exclude the types of people who do enjoy that stuff, despite their so-called "barriers of entry," but I think I rest my case.

At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with accessible content and when content is made better for it, I think it's great that many people can get into it easily. It's made a lot of good things possible.

But I just as equally respect the creators with the balls to make something for one group, even if it's not a group that I consider myself a part of, and say, "This is hand-crafted just for you guys, and if others don't like it, that's okay." Mad respect to the people who stick with their creative vision even when they know it won't be for everyone.

And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.


  1. Hi Dylan! I was searching for people on Blogspot that have listed 'The Dark Tower Series' as their interests, and I came across your blog.

    I really enjoyed reading this post, you have some really interesting and 'on point' views in regards to accessibility. One thing I might differ with you on (and I do it respectfully) is that many female video game characters are hyper sexualized, with even less clothes then Lara Croft. However, with men, a display of torso and abs and arms from a man may seem more of a display of his strength. Not to say it's not for sexualization purposes as well! But I always felt the main purpose was to display the strength/masculinity/'alpha-ness' of the male character. So, while the objectification is there, the underlying reasons are different.

    But then again, I am not familiar with video games so I'm sure you must be having a way better insight than me.

    Curious to hear your thoughts! And if you like, you can check out my blog:

    1. Thanks! I'll check it out! As for the strength argument, I actually thought about that but the reason I couldn't settle on that line of reasoning was because it's common for these male characters to be physically flawless in every conceivable way, not just muscular. They also have gorgeous faces, deep sexy voices, etc. But that's not a bad thing, I for one love attractive things and people. I'm all for both men and women in media being unrealistically attractive. I'm confident enough in the average person to be able to distinguish between "realistic" and "unrealistic" body standards, you know? But if we're going to be looking at the same people for hours on end, we might as well enjoy the view. Ladies do this too of course, had an ex once tell me the only reason she still watched Supernatural was because Jensen Ackles was in it and she thought he was hot. Can't argue with that logic though because I'm straight and even I couldn't occasionally stop to admire him.

    2. You make some great points - totally agree!