Celeste and the Art of Seeing Ourselves

by Jason Flatt

Celeste is the first video game masterpiece of 2018. It is also one of the most realistic depictions of self-doubt and anxiety in the medium.

Some video games help the player see themselves in its main character by leaving them silent and allowing players to assign them a name. Other games strive towards this same goal by creating dynamic, engaging narratives. Matt Makes Games’ 2018 masterpiece Celeste finds a different way.

Celeste features Madeline, a character on a journey to summit Celeste Mountain. The task is harrowing and the player is as uncertain as the other characters she meets as to why she feels so compelled to make this journey. Nonetheless, Madeline has a deep emotional attachment to this mission and is bent on completing it at all costs: physical and mental. Celeste is a platformer with pristine pixel art as its main visual medium with various 3D modeling throughout the menus and gorgeous paintings between levels. The game has a soundtrack that sounds consistently new, even when it is actually recycling its own themes. Ultimately, what makes Celeste special is that it is just as challenging to its player as it is to its main character, as well as being well-worth playing for its mechanical and sensory reasons alone. Where most it stands out is that it is also one of the most realistic depictions of self-doubt and anxiety in the video game medium.

Celeste MountainWe All Have A Mountain To Climb

The exposition in Celeste is kept to a minimum. The player is dropped right into the plot with no understanding of what is happening or what is to come. Instead, they are shown what Madeline is up to through natural conversation with other characters and an inner-dialogue. Even as the story carries on, little backstory is ever revealed. Madeline is running away from something and came to Celeste Mountain to prove to herself she can summit the mountain without giving up. From the very start of the game, Madeline is mocked by an old woman who has no faith in the main character’s ability to make it to the top of this dangerous path. Madeline refuses to be intimidated by the strange woman and carries on to encounter several other important characters that ultimately help reveal more about her.

Early in her trek, Madeline meets Theo, another hiker who is a bit abrasive and uncomfortable at first, and Madeline is hesitant to accept his kindness. Shortly after this encounter, a big part of Madeline’s impetus is subtly revealed via a nightmare where she frantically calls an ex-boyfriend. The scene seems mundane at the time, but, after more exposition and a subsequent experience with the ghost of a hotel concierge she wants desperately to help but finds she has only made worse of, it can be understood that this ex-boyfriend is part of a pattern, real or perceived. Madeline is afraid that she is only capable of disappointing people and abandoning them. This is part of why she feels she must climb to the top of Celeste Mountain.

There is one more character Celeste wrestles with that illustrates Madeline’s struggle with self-worth and self-doubt: the Part of Herself. Not very far into her climb, Madeline encounters a magical mirror that reveals a darker, maniacal version of herself who subsequently escapes the mirror and torments, mocks, and antagonizes Madeline for much of the rest of her journey. The Part of Herself is the physical embodiment of all Madeline’s fears and the most tortured aspects of her personality. She is selfish, rude, and pushes others away from her. Constantly deprecating to Madeline, the Part of Herself constantly trying to convince Madeline to quit climbing the mountain and to give in. She tries to present herself as a rational thinker, looking out for Madeline’s best. When Madeline ignores the Part of Herself, though, she lashes out and makes Madeline’s life miserable and far more difficult.

Celeste Part of MeThe Essentiality Of Forgiveness

The Part of Herself is menacing and represents the self-doubt and loathing that so many people are cursed with. Celeste is imbued with a gameplay that is the perfect remedy for these ailments. Celeste is a difficult platformer. Especially in its challenge maps, the game is not easily fumbled through. Yet, the gameplay is as soft and forgiving as any challenging game could be. There is virtually no punishment for failing in Celeste. Death results simply in a burst of color and the immediate opportunity to try again from the beginning of the current screen, which each level is broken down into many of. Unlike other recent, similarly difficult games, there are no long loading screens and no lost progress. There are no lives. There is no game over. The player can leave the game and come back to the same screen they last attempted should they choose. Everything about Celeste is saying to the player that if they fail, that is okay, to be expected, and an inevitable part of their eventual success.

Each level in Celeste has a new platforming element to learn the mechanics of. Save for the very first moments of the game and providing clarity over which button does what, jumping, dashing, and holding on to walls, there are no tutorials. Every new element the player learns to overcome is learned by encountering deliberate level design. Every new platforming element is always showcased first in low-risk environments so as to encourage failure as the player tries various means of interacting with the new elements before getting them right.

This is all not to mention the games assist mode. Assist modes are not a novel concept, even “Triple-A” titles have featured them, including the most recent Mario title. What can often be a barrier to completing games or unlocking achievements becomes a mere part of the forgiving process in Celeste. Not only are players not barred from progress when the assist mode is activated, but utilizing it is a requirement for completing the stamp collection that is a part of each save file. Instead of becoming a mark of shame and further stigmatizing the natural human need to ask for help. Even the most experienced platformers are invited to practice the oft-daunting art of humility.

While forgiving mechanics may not make Celeste unique on their own, the relationship between the forgiveness the game provides the player and the forgiveness Madeline needs as a character is powerful. Playing through the game, the player can only surmise what afflicts Madeline from context clues or personal experience. The depression and anxiety Madeline cyclically endures only becomes outright apparent when she and Theo are victims of a stalled lift and Madeline has a panic attack. The entire portrayal of Madeline’s mental landscape is deeply realistic, and so is the lesson the game’s forgiving nature of its mechanics. The non-punishing system Celeste maintains asks players to be easy on themselves when they fail, just as Madeline must learn to be easy on herself when she fails. Forgiveness for failure, accepting that success is within reach and within control, and persevering towards goals with reliable friends in tow is the recipe for healing that echoes between Madeline and the player through the controller itself.

Celeste CampfireA Cast Of Would-Be Outcasts

Madeline is far from the only character in Celeste that is going through something challenging. Theo has trouble with his self-image that is illustrated by his constant attention to his look, taking selfies, and incessant need to share online to harbor others’ attention. An entire level of the game is dedicated to helping Theo wade through his self-doubts. Another stage of the game focuses on the side character Mr. Oshiro, the ghost of a failed hotel concierge. Oshiro knows he is a failure at his business but cannot get over it, so he takes advantage of Madeline’s kindness to feed his ego. The through thread between Madeline each of these secondary characters is that their weaknesses would be best balanced by each other’s strengths.

Madeline has a superior ability to care for others, to the point where she clearly invests more in them than herself. She is always hurt by the rejections she receives, or, by the fear she has that she might be. Madeline’s strengths are exactly what Theo needs to help his vanity and help him feel more confident in his own skin. She can help him think about others and affirm his value when he is bent on rejecting himself. Mr. Oshiro could learn just that same that his previous failures did not doom him forever if only he could pause to recognize that Madeline is actively offering him the help and support he desperately needs to get back on his feet. Ultimately, Theo’s more selfish nature is just what Madeline needs too. He is eventually the one who provides Madeline the tools she needs and the confidence to use them that allows her to calm down from her panic attack. When her deep-caring selfishness and his unabashed willingness to focus on himself are combined, it results in self-forgiveness; something they both are in need of.

The mountain itself is a character too. Celeste Mountain is a bizarre locale. Its base is comprised of an abandoned city supposedly left behind by a mega-corporation that did not care about it and left it behind. It is part of the same story that left Mr. Oshiro’s hotel in ruins. Celeste Mountain is the physical embodiment of all that Madeline has to overcome. The mountain was abused and abandoned, leaving it dangerous and nearly impassable. Madeline is determined to climb the mountain. To do so, she must not become like it. Her hardships cannot harden her. She must rise above the lot she has been given and not allow it to shape her.

Celeste Self-ForgivenessJournies, Not Destinations

Celeste has a litany of ways to play: playing to finish the main story collecting all of the hidden strawberries, collecting all the crystal hearts, speedrunning, no-death running, completing all the challenge levels, or any other way a player might come up with. None of the additional options feel required and there is never much pressure that the game applies to have any particular experience. By making everything beyond the core of the game feel so optional, there is a sense of freedom to tackle Celeste Mountain at the player’s own pace and by whatever means they feel comfortable with.

Over the course of Madeline’s journey up Celeste Mountain, her run-ins with the Part of Herself only get worse. She continuously attempts to reject the Part of Herself because she both fears and abhors it. Madeline knows that she has a part of herself that she is uncomfortable with, perhaps even hates. The Part of Herself is a personification of Madeline’s self-loathing. The lesson she is meant to learn from the mountain is not at the peak though. It is in the doldrums of her journey.

When Madeline physically falls to the lowest point on the mountain, she also falls mentally to her lowest point. It is through this desperation that Madeline begins to consider the advice everyone around her had been giving all along: to befriend the Part of Herself. Of course, Madeline does eventually make it to the peak of Celeste Mountain, but that is not what she comes to be grateful for. Her self-forgiveness pays off. Madeline is able to stop and listen to the Part of Herself’s cry for help and answer it. This is, of course, with great thanks to the friends she makes along the way. Madeline and the Part of Herself combine together to form a superior being capable of all feats. In this finale, Madeline emblemizes what the game saught to teach its audience from the onset: self-forgiveness, accepting faults, and using them to propel forward is the way to conquer anything.

Celeste Strawberry PieThe Mountain Changes Everyone

Madeline is warned before she begins her adventure that she has no idea what she is getting herself into. Madeline and the player mirror one another through the entire journey in Celeste down to that very point. Even knowing the premise of the game in advance, the direct relationship to Madeline’s struggles and feelings provided by the game mechanics and its overall presentation make Celeste entirely unique. Players will go through a metamorphosis over the course of playing this game just the same as Madeline because they are Madeline. Whatever emotional weight is brought into the game is beautifully found in her character’s difficulties in the beginning, but leaves everyone transformed by its spectacular end.

Playing Celeste on the Nintendo Switch is optimal playing experience, allowing players to hold the game closely and feel even more directly attached to it through that tactile connection. No matter how this game is enjoyed, though, it will long stand as a reminder of self-love, replayable challenge, and the power of blending player experience with story to create a powerful and moving piece of art as well as an impeccable gaming experience.

Celeste was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch. More than 15 hours were poured lovingly into the game. All images within the article are screenshots from Jason’s playthrough. Celeste is available for purchase on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

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