Just breathe. Why are you so nervous?
“The following is a contributor post by the Ink-Stained Mage.”
You can do this.
That’s the first thing one of the most rage-inducing games I’ve ever played tells me.
You can do this.
It’s the message at the heart of a game that’s about much more than climbing to the top of the mountain. Celeste uses brilliantly atmospheric music, tight and simple controls, and compelling characters to weave a narrative about anxiety, the toll it takes, and how we might overcome it. It’s beautiful, challenging, and doesn’t overstay its welcome. And it’s one of the best games of 2018.
The game opens with the protagonist, Madeline, arriving at the foot of Celeste mountain, and asking an old woman if she’s on the right path. The woman laughs at her and warns her that the mountain has strangeness in store. Madeline shows her stubbornness and continues onward.
Upon leaving the woman’s home and beginning your climb, you find yourself crossing a stone bridge. Then the tutorial shows you your most versatile tool. The dash. The bridge collapses underneath you and forces you to take a leap for solid ground you can’t possibly make. A bird drops down and shows you the controls to dash, sending you flying towards safety and teaching you in the process. It’s a split second decision, the first of many, and don’t be surprised if it kills you. Because that one single moment teaches you a few other things. Death comes early and often, the game respawns quickly when you inevitably mess up, and you only have a second or two to make the right decision in most situations. Those lessons stick with you throughout the game, where required reaction time drops and the need for precision rises as you progress through the game’s eight chapters.
You, uhh, “learn” a lot in this game
Early on in her climb Madeline meets Theo, an adventurer in it for the insta-follows. He’s everything Madeline is not. Light, breezy, happy, self-assured. His demeanor is so different from hers as to be alien to her. She’s downright confused that he isn’t worried about the danger of the climb. They part friends, and Theo becomes a key part of her journey upward.
Now we hit the crux of the whole adventure. The moment where the story really kicks in, you face your first truly difficult challenge, and the tone is set for the rest of the game. The dream sequence. Here we meet the dark side of Madeline. Nega-Madeline is the collected insecurities and anxieties of our protagonist. The voice that tells her she can’t do it. That this climb is foolish. That she’s ruining everything, just like she always does. Once you finish the small scripted set of dialogue, you have to escape your dark doppelganger. She hounds you, making the same moves you make down to the pixel, not letting you think or get your feet under you. Stopping means being caught, means another death in the counter, means starting over.
This is the true brilliance of Celeste.
A game can have brilliant mechanics and be light on story. A game can tell its story through beautiful, cinematic cutscenes. Hideo Kojima has made a living on such games. Neither approach is wrong. But Celeste tells its story and teaches us through its gameplay. Anxiety is that voice telling you to worry. Telling you you’re screwing everything up. It doesn’t let you rest, or think, or breathe. I know. And the way Celeste depicts it is frankly incredible.
It isn’t just the chases with your darker self. Each screen presents a puzzle that can seem impossible. Some you dance through. Some you throw yourself against over and over and over until you feel like throwing your controller and rage quitting as the heat of a thousand suns burns from within. But every challenge is beatable. Every death respawns you quickly on the same screen. As challenging as the game is, it lets you know, just like with its first screen of text, you can do this. It even goes so far as to keep track of your death count and remind you to be proud of it. As in life, each death means you’re still trying. Learning. The first time I played through Celeste, I died more than 1100 times. And I never felt like the game was unfair or cruel. It was difficult, but by golly, we were gonna get through this.
Near the endpoint of the game, right before its most expansive level, you find yourself with Theo on a gondola ride moving up the mountain. Halfway up it breaks, and Madeline experiences a full-fledged panic attack. Her dark half shows up to watch, dark tendrils creep in from the sides of the screen, engulfing the open sky and forcing an oppressive and claustrophobic feeling onto you. Discordant music plays, drowning out Madeline’s theme. This is truly a worst-case scenario.
Pictured, one cinnamon roll, left.
Theo stands by Madeline, and talks her through her attack. In this section, Madeline imagines a feather that she must keep aloft with her breath. You hold or release the A Button to keep the feather in a small moving box. I challenge you not to breathe along with that feather, to feel the slow breaths swell in your chest. This is the quietest moment of Celeste. The calm in the storm. The moment you are specifically told to take a moment, breathe, work yourself down. This moment changes absolutely everything about the story of Celeste, and the mechanics of how you play certain stages.
This added years to my life, fixed my credit score, and waxed my car.
This is the first point in the game that Madeline has been giving a coping mechanism, a way to work through her panic attacks. So the next time she faces off against that dark part of herself, one of the last fights of the game, feathers appear around the area where the challenge takes place. Each time Madeline touches one, she’s given the power to fly, and to strike at her dark self. This is the game, through mechanics, teaching us about coping mechanisms. It’s important to note that this is the first fight where Madeline isn’t running from or avoiding her dark self. She’s chasing it.
And when Madeline beats it, when they truly confront one another, it doesn’t vanish. It doesn’t die out or go away forever. Much like anxiety. It’s always going to come back. But Madeline understands it now. And in Celeste this manifests through a second dash you are gifted. A needed skill to traverse the final area of the game.
Who’s a good manifestation of inner trauma and panic? You are!
So that’s how Celeste’s fluid mechanics tell us a story, teach us a lesson. But what about the other parts of the design? We touched on Lena Raine’s soundtrack earlier, and will a bit more specifically at the end, but how can you tell a story in other ways without giving us blocks of text? The other clever ways this game tells a story is through the art and the level design.
Celeste is a beautiful 16-Bit game. The art is lovingly rendered and takes full advantage of the limited scope of the art style. Each area feels distinct but still like it belongs to the greater whole. And the area design always matches up with the mood each area looks to convey. The hotel level, in which the ghost of a former employee has yet to come to grips with the closing of the establishment, is cluttered and messy with tight alleys and corners. The final ascent is bright and warm and colorful. The Mirror Temple is strange and out of sync and discomforting. The first few screens are broken and strange. Not as wholly out of touch as the Mirror Temple, but definitely enough to let you know that something unnatural is going on on Celeste Mountain.
But 16-Bit art, while it can be beautiful, doesn’t lend itself to expressive emotions. So during all of the dialogue much clearer hand-drawn art of the characters faces is displayed so you can read the emotion on their faces. A sprite likely won’t be able to display frustration and fear and hopelessness as well as you like. But a fully animated face? Normally the clash of styles may seem like it should detract from the aesthetic, but both lend themselves to the emotion of the game. Now, let’s look at Celeste’s level design.
As lead game designer Matt Thorson says, “We’re always looking for ways to offload our narrative onto our level design.” He talks about how he wants to make sure that each area of the game has its own unique story arc, but still feeds into the larger story. Like crafting an album, he likens each level to a song and the area to an album. And then to get fractal, each area as a song in the album that is the whole game. They can each tell their own story, but they have to work together. Nowhere in the game is this more evident than in the Mirror Temple, and the final ascent. Up until the Mirror Temple, most of the game has been linear. There are side paths off of the main trail, but they generally unlock secrets or options. Usually, there is one true path that leads to the end of each area. Not so in the Mirror Temple.
This is fine.
Most of this level is the product of Madeline’s mind. And for the first time, the level is highly non-linear. You can wander, get lost, run into dead ends, and solve things in different orders. (While you can solve things in different orders in the earlier hotel level, each section still contains the “one true path”.) The Mirror Temple is dark, vision is often cut short, and it jumps in and out of focus like it’s having a hard time fixating on one version of itself. The dark part of Madeline insists that this is all her own creation, her own mind. Fitting that this is the level that isn’t straightforward.
The final area is the next core bit of brilliant level design. Most platformers will stack techniques you learn in the game on top of one another as it progresses. Learn to jump here. Learn to dash here. Now do them together. Now do them together on a time limit. And so on. Celeste’s final ascent takes everything you’ve learned up to this point and hurls it at you. Walls of spikes, driving winds that throw off your timing, bouncing clouds, momentum generating blocks, every wrinkle the game has put in your way to this point is on full display, usually in concert with one another. But at this point, you’ve mastered these techniques. While the area is frustrating and hard, you know at this point that if you keep at it you’ll eventually succeed. Just as Madeline has finally embraced her anxieties and learned to confront them, the player is given the most difficult challenges of the game with the knowledge that they can overcome.
This is fine.
Level design as narrative. Point well taken Matt.
So let’s get to the review! How does Matt Makes Games’ Celeste stack up?
The 8-Bit Review
Celeste’s graphics are simple. But they are varied and beautiful and haunting as the game requires. From bright and welcoming forest levels to the vaguely unsettling hotel to the dark and haunting mirror world, Celeste’s design is always interesting and never distracting.
Lena Raine can score as many games as she wants for whoever she wants as far as I’m concerned. Her soundtrack is beautiful, reactive, and highly personal. She pours the experience of her own anxieties into it, and knows how to turn the dials to cue the player toward certain moods.
Madeline’s first trip into a dream is light, pretty, but heavy on the synth. It’s weird, but not unpleasant. Strange, but not dangerous. The Mirror Kingdom on the other hand… well. Disconnected, strange, downright haunting. Raine even recorded whispered words of fear and worry and plays them backwards over the music. Brilliant and haunting.
There are only three things you can do in Celeste aside from walk. Dash, Jump, and Wall Climb. A lot of games will astound you with the breadth of what you can do. Celeste goes for depth and gets a lot of play out of those three simple actions. Each one is easy to learn, taking no more than two button presses. And as the game layers in new environmental wrinkles, what you can do with those actions changes and grows in new and interesting ways that never feel stale. As noted before, mechanics reinforcing story wins you bonus points.
I went into Celeste flying pretty blind but the story takes you in quick and grabs you. Or it did for me at least. The tale of a girl determined at first to escape, and then to confront her anxiety and the problems in her life as she attempts a seemingly impossible task is both relevant in our world today, told deftly, and hugely compelling. It’s a glimpse into what games can be. It loses a point for being very full of exposition, and for leveling long paragraphs of text at you which disrupt from the pace.
The story mode of Celeste is a 7-ish hour game, but once you start looking for challenges, it starts to grow. Hidden in each chapter at the end of an optional set of challenges is a B-side cassette tape that unlocks a harder version of the level. Finish all the B-sides and find enough crystal hearts, also hidden in each chapter, and you’ll unlock the C-side levels as well. The B- and C-side levels offer much more difficult challenges that require more precise command of the controls and a lot more patience. Find it all and you’ve effectively tripled the length of the game.
…gods above this game gave me problems. But that’s part of its core mechanic. Every puzzle is eminently doable but is likely going to kill you a dozen times before you get it right. You’ll get frustrated, you’ll take a minute to step away from the game sometimes if you’re like me, but you’ll revel in every challenge you conquer, and throw yourself at the next one fresh off that high. And you won’t have long to wait before you hit that next stumbling block.
I know there are games out there that tackle anxiety, depression, or mental health. Games like Loneliness by necessary games and Flower by thatgamecompany are classic examples of the genre. And challenging 16-bit indie platformer is a genre all its own. Where Celeste earns points is where it deals with the subject matter, how its mechanics reinforce that message, and how stunningly well it stays true to itself in all facets of the game.
My Personal Grade: 10/10
It takes a lot to earn a perfect grade. And, looking at the individual scores, you’ll notice they aren’t all perfect. But this is my personal opinion section. How this game affected me. How doggedly it made me try, iteration after iteration, to solve its puzzles. How the story resonated with me. On an objective level, it isn’t a perfect game. No game is. But Celeste was special to me. It spoke to me on a level few games do. And it was damn fun.
Not every game needs to push the medium as an art-form, or as a way of interactive storytelling. Not every game needs to confront difficult topics. Escapism is a thing and sometimes we need exceptional dumb content to relax. And to be honest, this stuff is hard to do well, and ridiculously easy to screw up. Celeste covers serious subject matter with grace and aplomb. It replicates the feeling not just of climbing a mountain, but of learning to deal with your darkest thoughts. It’s a stunning entry, and one I’m happy to throw at all of my friend’s heads until they give it a play.
Aggregated Score: 8.8
The Ink-Stained Mage, aka Andrew Turnwall, sells books, writes microfiction upon topical request every Monday on twitter @AndrewTurnwall, and has an undying love of all things story from books to games to whatever it is his dog and cat are staring at in the corner.
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