-SPOILERS FOR CELESTE AHEAD-
On January 27th 2018, a game named Celeste released on Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC. This game first came onto my radar with an appearance in the January 11th Nintendo Direct Mini. The fast-paced platforming, in particular, drew me in. Also, it’s from the same developer – Matt Makes Games – that brought us the brilliant multiplayer title Towerfall: Ascension. Yet, still, Celeste defied my expectations – all because of how a touching story was interwoven so wonderfully with the core platforming.
Celeste is about a girl who just wants to move forward. That’s how it all started out. Talking to the ID@XBOX BLOG, Designer Matt Thorson was asked whether the story or the gameplay came first:
Our initial concept for Celeste was just “a platformer about a girl climbing a mountain.” The mechanics came first, and as we developed the game we were surprised to see how big a part of the game the narrative was becoming. In the end, narrative ended up becoming the center of the game that the rest is built around, and we’re really proud of the story Celeste tells.
More specifically, this girl is named Madeline (she can be renamed) and is just trying to climb a mountain. Great – simple narratives work for platform games like Mario all the time. You get into learning a simple toolset of climbing, jumping and dashing to make your way through the levels. However, the first of these ends not with a flag, or an arbitrary line to reach. You meet a memorial for those who have fallen trying to climb Celeste (the name of the mountain), and make your campfire by it. Madeline, complete with charming portrait and text, exclaims how she thinks this might all be a bad idea.
From here on, the narrative really starts to come in. Early in the second level, you find a mirror which brings form to a different version of Madeline – one more hostile, more generically evil-looking. Naturally, “Badeline”, as the developers named her, has to be avoided or defeated. She haunts the player, chasing, threatening. You’re literally climbing up, up, as far away from the bad side of Madeline as you can, and towards your personal goal of the summit. As you go through the levels, environments get tougher, more difficult, and more claustrophobic. Areas are tighter, jumps more precarious.
The mountain, and the game itself, is constantly a reflection of Madeline’s mindset. This is something only an interactive medium could do for this story. Players can be made to perform moves that, without them even knowing, fit into what the characters are experiencing. Now, Celeste is a hard game. You try, try, and try again, racking up death counts in the hundreds – but it is an encouraging, and crucially very enjoyable, type of punishing. You are trained to expect failure, and learn from it. One chapter even starts with a letter telling you how it’s a positive thing, as it means you’re trying. Respawns are instant, and you keep going. You make it to the next screen – somehow – and restart the cycle.
Just as Madeline is constantly trying to progress and change how she thinks, the player is doing the same. It happens without you even knowing, reflecting the whole point of her journey. She came here to leave her life behind for a while, but her problems have come along too, plaguing her every step of the way. Now, my personal experiences by no means compare to the debilitating depression suffered by many. Nevertheless, this hits home. Sometimes in life, all you want to do is push things down, rise away, and forget about them – especially when it is silly things you know you shouldn’t worry about so much.
It’s rarely that easy, and Celeste does a wonderfully subtle job of talking about it. In the early chapters, you find Theo – a modern hipster of sorts, coming to the mountain to take photos for his InstaPix account. Theo is kind, and understanding; about halfway through the game, after a tense sequence, Madeline and him escape in a gondola. Midway across the chasm, it stalls. Suddenly, Madeline’s constant movement to that point has stopped, and it all catches up to her – all the anxiety, all the stress. She has a panic attack (as aluded to by an earlier phone conversation with her mother, this isn’t new), which is presented with tentacles and darkness, a motif of Badeline throughout a large part of the game. It’s exaggerated, but effective.
Theo manages to calm her down, but it’s a powerful moment that leaves the Madeline sprite breathing noticeably heavy. Not long after, sitting by a campfire, the game brings down all barriers. An expansive conversation between both Madeline and Theo, and the challenges each of them face in there lives, is talked about plainly and candidly. It’s marked by being able to choose the order of conversation, unlike anywhere else in Celeste. Madeline talks about her anxiety and her depression, and Theo tries to understand. With just a small amount of dialogue, Celeste does more than some open-world RPGs manage with novels worth. Out of nowhere, Celeste goes from a fun 2D platformer to one of the most moving character stories in a long time. Equally, if you need it to be just the former, you can skip all the cutscene stuff. Just know that there is a special story here, too.
So Madeline continues on. She climbs, and she climbs, claiming to have a new attitude. Negativity will not hold her back anymore! You’re nearly there – the game even starts to present itself like the end is coming. Oh, but that’s the easy option, where talking about your problems and getting help instantly conquers issues. Celeste pushes it further. Badeline shows up, angry at being left behind. She’s furious that Madeline wants to abandon her – she is just as worthwhile as her! Madeline is thrown down, crashing through screen after screen, until you hit rock bottom. Landing in the water at the bottom of Celeste mountain, it seems as though nothing has changed.
The ending sequence of the game becomes something else. In a long, winding battle against Badeline, Madeline eventually realises that the resolution isn’t to forget or remove the side of herself she doesn’t like – she actively apologises when Theo sees the monsters that Badeline produces – but to embrace her. She is part of her, whether she likes it or not. What Madeline can do is try to make her, and therefore herself, do things in a better way. With renewed determination, Madeline sets off for the summit. Now, Badeline is an assist, propelling her up distances she cannot cross. Accepting the whole of herself, flaws and all, things are clearer. The game even gives you an extra dash ability. It’s a glorious sequence.
In the space of 5-10 hours, Celeste makes you care about Madeline and those around her, and examine your own mindset as a consequence. Are there things you would like to face up to about yourself? It’s better to do that instead of attempting to hide it away and pretend it doesn’t exist. Celeste could have rested on the laurels of it’s fantastic gameplay and been another great, brutal indie platformer, but it goes one further and surprises you – it even surprised the developer. Designer Matt Thorson, in a Kotaku video (which is worth watching), says this about the narrative element of Celeste:
“… when we started the game, I also did not expect us to do that, to go there and it’s just like a way we ended up pushing ourselves like, out of our comfort zone… “
What an apt way to describe it. Throughout Celeste, Madeline is made to realise that just deciding to go and climb a mountain or push something away isn’t the hard part. Really going out of your comfort zone means facing up to the problem, realising it’s part of you, and trying to do better. Oh, and if you’re not looking for a disarmingly absorbing story? Well, beating a seemingly-impossible challenge after 500 tries is fun too.
Watch out for my full review of Celeste!