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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Celeste Perfectly Unites Story, Theme, and Gameplay

Continuing my ongoing attempt to highlight and analyze amazing indie games (especially those on the Switch), I would like to discuss one of the year’s best titles, Celeste by Extremely OK Games (previously of Towerfall fame*). For anyone curious, I played the Switch version, but it’s available on pretty much any platform you’d want to play it on.

*Which, it was recently announced, is itself coming to the Switch at the end of September, if you haven’t tried it yet and are looking for an excuse; it’s wonderful in its own right!

Celeste is a rare beast, a game that is mechanically tight, incredibly well-designed level-wise, and fun to play while also being an incredibly moving narrative and thematic experience. For those who haven’t heard of it yet, the premise is pretty simple: a girl named Madeline arrives at a remote peak (the titular Celeste Mountain), looking to escape some sort of (initially undefined) personal trauma by climbing it. Along the way, she meets a variety of figures that aid her in her journey, with the entire story rendered in some simple-yet-beautiful pixel art graphics, and with one of my favorite game soundtracks supporting the whole thing.

The game is an incredibly tough platformer, challenging players in a variety of ways while also being one of the more forgiving games of its kind. Save points are frequent in the normal course of a level and carry through between sessions, and on top of that, the game has a variety of options to tweak the challenge in almost any way imaginable so that anyone can feel comfortable playing it, regardless of whether or not you’re the type of person who can beat a classic Mario game in ten minutes. That in and of itself is pretty notable; Game Makers Toolkit has more on these features, which is definitely a worth a watch.

If you’re at all curious about it and want to go in unspoiled of the deeper plot details, I would absolutely recommend trying it! From here on out, I’ll be getting pretty deep into the nitty-gritty of the story.

With that out of the way, let’s move on to Celeste’s themes and their synchronicity with the gameplay. As you play through the game, it becomes pretty apparent that Madeline is dealing with depression, anxiety, some combination of the two, or something similar. It’s not exactly hard to see if you play it; she more or less admits it in conversations with other characters, and the mountain literalizes this struggle with the physical manifestation of her dark side (referred to in-game as simply “Part of You”, but since lovingly nicknamed “Badeline” by the game’s fans and developers).*

*My favorite touch might be the hidden backtracked confession in level five; after passing through a magic mirror, you get a literally-reversed message about mental health struggles that starts at the moment you find Madeline’s friend Theo, all as you explore a confusing dream world filled with eyes in the walls and enemies. I’m a sucker for impressionistic art that makes metaphorical experiences literal, and this hits all my emotional checkboxes.

In every possible sense, from the total view of the entire work, to broken down all the way to the smallest unit the game allows, Celeste is about acknowledging, facing, and eventually overcoming these mental struggles. Trying to ignore them and move on only harms Madeline; indeed, the game touches on this in its messages for the player, noting that it tracks your in-game deaths because you should take pride in all your failures and how they’ve made you better, rather than trying to pretend they never happened. And of course, they recognize that every person is unique, offering a variety of both accessibility options and self-imposed challenges (how many different collectibles and secret levels you want to challenge is totally up to the player, with no real difference other than a sense of personal accomplishment) for each player to decide what constitutes “beating” the game, just as each person has their own set of personal struggles to overcome.

The overall structure of the game’s story mirrors the attempts of someone in a depressive slump trying to try things to jar themselves out of it, and the “good” and “bad” periods that go with it. In every level, Madeline sets out to do things that could, in theory, help her cope with her mental state, but only half of them end up positive experiences. Which ones help are even alternated, creating an “up-and-down” effect to the narrative. The odd levels (prior to the finale, level seven) represent the down periods, with things like meeting people, sleeping, trying to help others, and generally challenging herself ending poorly. Sleeping at the end of the first level leads to the dream world of level 2 that creates Badeline. Trying to help Mr. Oshiro, the man/ghost who owns the hotel of world 3 (and someone suffering from a his own set of unresolved mental health issues) leads to tensions flaring with Badeline, and Mr. Oshiro chasing the two of them off the premises after he turns into a monster. Chasing Theo into the ominous mirror temple in world five ends with the two of them stuck in a strange alternate world, with Madeline having to save Theo from being stuck in a crystal.

Of course, all of those have their own issues that made them flawed coping mechanisms, whether it was trying to ignore the underlying anxiety; trying to regain self-worth by spreading yourself thin trying to help a stressful/ungrateful third party; or charging in to a situation that makes you uncomfortable at someone else’s whims (of course, the last one is partly on Theo, for pushing Madeline too hard and not listening to her).

The even chapters stand in stark contrast however, with Madeline’s small attempts at comfort working much more effectively. Calling her mother at the end up chapter two to just discuss her feelings ends on a positive note after a heart-to-heart with her new friend Theo. Level four ends with her meeting up Theo again, where he teaches her a mental trick for calming down after a panic attack (which involves focusing her breathing through imagining a feather).

But the sixth part is easily the most helpful. After she tries to cast out the Part of Her before the level starts, the two are sent her back down to the base of the mountain; she then uses her new power-up, the feather (pretty clearly calling back to Theo’s help two chapters), to catch up to Badeline and reconcile with her, rather than totally send her away. Through acknowledging and accepting her problems, rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, she becomes stronger, and the two of them (now recombined) are twice as strong (with a new gameplay mechanic and aesthetic changes to Madeline to literalize this growth), and able to re-summit the entire mountain in the grand finale.

But it’s not just the overall narrative structure that speaks to Madeline’s struggles. Even the gameplay mirrors the theme at the story’s core. As mentioned, Celeste is the kind of game that prides itself on its difficulty, in part because that’s kind of the point. It’s meant to be a seemingly insurmountable task, like conquering your inner fears and anxieties.

And, as mentioned earlier, the game breaks that challenge into smaller chunks, with each room’s doorway serving as both a checkpoint to return to when you die, and a save point to reload from should you decide to take a break and walk away for a bit. And, narratively, that’s the point; breaking an insurmountable challenge into still-hard, yet more manageable sizes with time to reset in between is a way to cope with the metaphorical and literal mountain staring you down. In between these levels, the game even gives you a variation of the feather/breathing exercise; the level-select screen is a simple, calming view of the mountain while a light and airy piano melody helps to clear your mind.

Playing Celeste is like staring at the fractal patterns of the snowflakes that fall on the eponymous mountain. At every level of scrutiny, you see the same message of personal growth reiterated. Examining it at any level gives you a new appreciation for the multitude of ways it approaches its subject matter. This incredible level of design and attention to detail is a big part of why it’s one of my favorite games of 2018.


  1. Another positive Celeste review. It is so tempting to grab this game but sadly I’m awful at platformers.

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