By now you’ve probably heard of Celeste, the latest game from developer Matt Makes Games. For the unfamiliar, it’s a retro-styled platformer about a young girl named Madeline, as she attempts to climb the titular Celeste Mountain, for reasons yet unknown. Along the way, she encounters several other characters including Theo, an aspiring photographer from Seattle, Granny, an old woman who lives at the foot of the mountain and Mr. Oshiro, the concierge of a nearby abandoned hotel. Each new section of her climb forces Madeline and those she encounters in her journey to confront the things that currently stand in their way.
At first glance, the game may seem like a typical 16-bit adventure, but as the game progresses it quickly becomes clear that Matt Thorson and his small team of collaborators have created something truly special. Celeste is both an excellent platformer and an engaging meditation on the perils and methods of tackling depression and anxiety. It is not pretty, but it is, sometimes, very beautiful.
For a game originally created as a prototype in four days during a game jam (and later expanded into a full release), Celeste looks great and features one of the most memorable soundtracks in recent memory (courtesy of composer Lena Raine). Its also blessed with tight controls, intricately designed levels and loads of secrets to discover – and despite its difficulty, Celeste has received nothing but high praise from critics since its release.
In fact, most gamers are so in love with Celeste that the game is one of the best-reviewed indie titles in recent years. Of course, not everyone is in love with the game. On a recent episode of the NXpress Podcast, my co-host Patrick Murphy addressed his frustration with Celeste, mostly due to the way the game controls and its punishing game design. In Celeste, you die a lot, and as Patrick stated, it should be clear to anyone reading a review of Celeste, that playing the game can be extremely frustrating and not every player will appreciate its difficulty. Moving across the mountain is typically an intimidating experience since hazards such as spikes and traps scattered across each level will kill you with a single touch. Each of the eight chapters – a linear series of rooms that range in size – have their own unique platforming mechanics that require patience, determination and an ability to complete a sequence of precise jumps and dashes without a single mistake. Needless to say, the game is tough.
To the credit of the developers, however, Celeste may be difficult but it is simple enough in that it barely has to teach you its simple controls. What I mean by that is Madeline’s abilities are limited: You can run; you can jump; you can dash in mid-air and you also have the ability to cling to vertical surfaces for a short period of time – all of which is mapped to just three buttons and a joystick. And learning these movies is no different than any other 8-bit or 16-bit platformer. Furthermore, respawning is just as quick as dying, and since the checkpoints are scattered across every room, you never find yourself having to replay an entire section over and over again. Also, as Brent Middleton wrote, the game offers a judgment-free “Assist Mode”, which can either make Madeline invincible, give her infinite stamina, or increase the number of air dashes at your disposal. You can even skip entire chapters if you like, which is useful if a particular room in one area is giving you trouble. Simply put, Assist Mode lets you break the game.
“Celeste first and foremost tells a story about mental health and self-actualization…”
Changing the difficulty settings does come in handy for those who struggle with sequences that require precise platforming skills in quick succession but unfortunately, it may also alter your appreciation of the game as well. This is, after all, a game intentionally made to be difficult, with 30 levels designed for speedrunning and precision reflexes – and by making it too easy, you may be doing yourself a disservice. The reason why I mention this is simply because everyone I know who dislikes Celeste, played the game with the help of Assist Mode.
You see, what makes Celeste stand above its peers is how it indistinguishably ties its difficulty to its message. In the end, the mountain at the center of Celeste isn’t just an obvious metaphor for Madeline’s struggles, but for our own. Each time you die can no doubt be frustrating but the game encourages the player to never give up. Not once does it mock you, instead, it places you back to where you died allowing you to try again, hoping this time you will succeed.
“Celeste is a wildly creative game that plays on your heart and your head, stunning in its rich imagery and ambitious in its themes…”
Celeste first and foremost tells a story about mental health and self-actualization, and using the titular mountain as a representation of a young woman’s struggles is downright genius. Madeline suffers from depression and panic attacks, and as she climbs the mountain, she is forced to face and overcome her inner demons.
Madeline goes through an incredible character arc rarely seen in games and when it comes to telling a story, Celeste does more in its short running time than most triple-A blockbusters do, despite having hours of cinematic cutscenes, professional voice actors and million dollar budgets.
One of my favorite moments comes when Madeline stumbles across a strange mirror and sees the negative version of herself in the reflection. When the mirror shatters, her self-image escapes and her doppelganger then proceeds to haunt her every step endlessly. It’s a simple metaphor for her character’s psychotic breakdown but the execution is what makes it memorable. This dark version of Madeline is abusive, unforgiving and manipulative but no matter how hard she fights, Madeline realizes she can never fully escape her double’s shadow (much like someone can never fully escape mental illness). It is only when she comes to accept her darker side, that she is able to move on with her life.
Video games have a terrible track record when it comes to addressing mental health issues, but Celeste avoids the trappings of melodrama to produce a message that is both pragmatic, and positive. And that is what makes Celeste so unique – here’s a game that says, you might not be able to escape your illness, but it is possible to find ways to live with it.
Celeste is a wildly creative game that plays on your heart and your head, stunning in its rich imagery and ambitious in its themes ranging from the dangers of social media to abusive relationships, general insecurities and not letting go of the past. The central metaphor of the mountain is not subtle in the least, but that’s okay. What’s remarkable is how it seamlessly blends the allegories and story beats into the level design with many of the different characters manifesting their anxieties and traumas in creative ways. And that these themes are never hammered home, makes them all the more powerful.
If you haven’t yet played Celeste, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s so breathtaking in its artistic ambition, so technically accomplished, so morally expansive, so fully realized that it defies the usual critical blather. Buy it, play it, and celebrate each and every death. Just remember that Celeste is meant to be hard, and Assist Mode is an option (not the default) added in last minute due to the backlash Cuphead received. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with adjusting the settings, but by not at least trying to play the game as it was initially intended to be played, you are missing out on a truly unique experience.
– Ricky D