In order to throughly examine this work and provide fair criticism, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.
What does it mean to try and fail? When you’re young, maybe in your early twenties, still enamored with a certain sense of wonder in the world, but unconvinced of your own abilities to grasp at it, what should propel you towards success? For some few, their lives are more or less regimented into a series of Five Year Plans--stepping stones for success on an incline, with maybe the occasional side step or stumble. For most of us, life is not so gracious. Most of us see a predictable path of failure that seems so inevitable that we feel we shouldn’t try in the first place. That incessant nagging voice in your head threatens you with possibilities of life-long failure, bringing up past mistakes and missteps to fuel its own self-deprecating ego. You push it away the first time and clamber up the side of that mountain, but you fall. You fall down, and the voice gets louder. Do you try again? How would you even begin? Is failure just a series of learning experiences? Or, rather, is it what you fear--has that sinister voice been right all along?
This ceaseless struggle is the underpinning of Celeste, a platformer by developers Matt Thorson and Noel Berry that is in the same vein as Super Meat Boy with all the young-adult angst of Life is Strange. The mashup may seem jarring, but the game’s larger message of perseverance and self-care in the face of hardship meshes incredibly well with the seemingly impossible-to-conquer level design. Tight controls combined with a fair and forgiving checkpoint system make for gameplay that propels you forward while making you feel grateful and accomplished for every tiny victory along the way.
In Celeste, you play as Madeline, a young twenty-something with vague motivations who is nonetheless intent on climbing to the summit of Celeste Mountain. The game makes it clear from the outset that something is strange about this mountain. A creepy old woman, named Granny, living near the base hurls insults and mockery at Madeline as she passes, casting doubt on her ability to conquer the climb. Almost immediately after Madeline begins her trek, strange things begin to happen. A demonic doppelganger named “Badeline” begins to sabotage Madeline at every opportunity, whether that be stalling a ski lift or aggressively pursuing her through her dreams. The game makes it clear early on that Badeline is a representation of Madeline’s inner conflict--an all too familiar mixture of depression, anxiety, and mediocre accomplishments. Madeline persists despite these hardships, but the mountain doesn’t simply allow her to push these negative thoughts away. Mental illness demands to be acknowledged, and that acknowledgment is what leads to healing.
Among the cast of characters is also a young guy named Theo, a sort of acquaintance/older brother figure for Madeline, and Mr. Oshiro, a ghost concierge who continues to look after Celeste Mountain’s dilapidated resort. Over the course of her journey, Madeline interacts genuinely with these characters quite regularly. Her relationship with Theo progresses from climbing companions to close friends as the two face various challenges on their way up the mountain. Their interactions with one another feel very natural and the slow build of that relationship earns its place by the end of the story. By Chapter 3, which takes place in the aforementioned ghost hotel, the duo have only run into each other a handful of times. So when Theo warns Madeline that she should escape from the resort as soon as possible, her refusal and his subsequent acceptance of that refusal feels totally natural for two people who really don’t have any history. As the climb continues, the two begin to rely on each other in tough situations, both physically and emotionally. A scene with the two riding a gondola lift demonstrates the necessity of emotional support structures, and features a extremely brief, yet pleasant mini-game designed to ease Madeline’s panic attacks. The minigame is suggested by Theo and involves keeping a feather suspended on-screen in a small white box. The idea is that Madeline’s breath is keeping the feather afloat, and the return of this game later on, when Madeline is alone and desperate, shows the impact that friendship and self-care techniques can have on an individual’s struggle with mental health.
The gameplay of Celeste fits incredibly well with the work as a whole. Each stage requires extreme precision and you will die, constantly (my final count was 1,824). But I kept trying, much like Madeline. The controls are simple, requiring nothing more than a jump, dash, and climb mechanic which begins to fail after a few seconds as Madeline loses her grip, and the game throws you back into the action quickly with only a brief half-second pause before the stage begins again. My experience was inhibited by the Switch Pro Controller’s problematic directional pad, so I recommend playing on the PS4, Xbox, or PC instead. Every chapter introduces a new mechanic which will rapidly become integral to the player’s success. These mechanics vary in both complexity and enjoyability--a feather power-up that allows you to fly around the stage for a brief time feels far superior to an olmec head that rockets in one direction across the screen when activated--but none of them outstay their welcome. The game’s penultimate chapter reintroduces the player to each of these mechanics sequentially, before the final ascent to Celeste’s summit mashes them all together in a brutally rewarding stage where each checkpoint counts down Madeline’s approach to the top.
Over the course of my 10 hours with Celeste, I came to feel interested in platformers in a way that I never have before. The genre has always intimidated me with its demands for careful, calculated movements, but a narrative structure about forgiving your own failures and perseverance in the face of struggle comforted me and pushed me to conquer the challenge. Matched with an energizing chiptune soundtrack, Celeste is a joy to play and a feat to finish. Those seeking the challenge can indulge themselves in the game’s B-Sides, collectibles that unlock harder versions of each chapter, and the epilogue chapter which unlocks with the acquisition of an extremely well-hidden collectible. Though I can’t say these harder challenges interest me all that much (my own masochism only goes so far), they are a nice addition to a game that feels entirely welcoming to anybody willing to put in a little work. 2018 has started out strong with Celeste, let’s just hope it can persevere.