I have a confession: I play video games on narrative mode. “Narrative mode”, in case you’re not aware, is the new setting that is taking the gaming world by storm. In the beginning, games tended to have three difficult settings: easy, medium and hard, or if the designer was feeling polite: casual, normal and experienced.
Some games added layers of greater difficulty with modes called imaginative names like “nightmare mode” or less imaginative names like “very hard” or “extra hard”.
In recent times, some game designers have started adding especially easy modes for people who just want to experience the story or the exploration. Horizon Zero Dawn, The Witcher 3 and Mass Effect Andromeda, all games in which the pleasure is as much in the journey as the destination, have modes designed for people who just want to be able to wander through fields of robotic dinosaurs, troublesome elves or villainous aliens without having to worry too much about combat.
I have lots of excuses for playing on narrative mode – I’m a busy person who doesn’t have time for difficult video games, I sometimes play while catching up with people on the telephone, and so on – but the truth is that I play games on the easiest available setting because I am dyspraxic and as a result getting my hands to do what my brain wants it to do is often a somewhat fraught process. The promise of narrative mode is that if you bash x enough times, however inexpertly, eventually the monster you are fighting will take pity on you and die and you can get back to roving the countryside collecting chaos emeralds or whatever.
The problem is that not all narrative modes – whether they’re called “story mode”, “very easy mode” “beginner” or “sweet Jesus, Stephen just how much handholding do you need” – are created equal. Some make it harder to access plot-related scenes: the Kingdom Hearts franchise makes it much harder to unlock the best ending if you play on easy mode. As I discovered when I started babysitting, a surprisingly large number of games for children do this, a particularly stupid and cruel thing to do both to a six year old and to anyone who looks after a six year old, who will regularly be forced to complete the most difficult levels in order to unlock the best ending of a game.
Others go too far in the opposite direction and have no real challenge at all. The problem with Mass Effect Andromeda is that the narrative mode is really no challenge at all while the higher settings are far too difficult: what the story modes of Horizon Zero Dawn and The Witcher 3 get right is that they are easy enough to actually complete if like me you are rubbish at gaming, but they actually feel challenging.
The reason why easy or narrative modes are often so badly designed is there are some people in and around the gaming industry who think that the point of video gaming is to be the very best – but actually the point of playing video games is to have a good time. For some people, having a good time means taking out the Thresher Maw without taking damage and putting it on YouTube, and that’s fair enough, but for other people it means a battle that is just challenging enough for them or simply getting to enjoy the story and the scenery.
That’s why Xbox’s decision to bring out a controller for people with muscular disabilities, that can be bought in any store rather than adapted at great cost by charities, is great news and not just for people who will be able to enjoy video games more easily. It’s an acknowledgement that gaming is, as Playstation’s slogan puts it, for the players. Not the good players, not the most able-bodied and fast-moving players, but for everyone who wants to have a good time.