Wot I Think: Celeste

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You’re climbing a mountain. It’s hard, especially when the wind is cutting through you like a knife and angry spikes are pulsing from the walls. Sometimes you’re not even sure if the mountain is actually a metaphor for every difficult thing you’ve ever done in your life. That’s how much trouble you’re having getting to the peak.

That is my brief summary of Celeste, a game that has flung me into the abyss hundreds of times, battered me into submission, and placed me in predicaments that are as unnerving as they are challenging. It’s a tricky platform game, with a beautifully melancholy story, and enough creativity on show to give me strength even when the going got so tough I almost lost hope.

I won’t presume to know what your personal high-bar for platformer perfection is. You might be a Mario person and if so, we can probably find common ground in the inventive wonders of the Galaxy games. Maybe Super Meat Boy is your clotted jam, in which case let’s share a quick high five because, yes, I believe it’s a reflex-test of fine quality and superb design. You might even want to branch out into something more story-based like the excellent Owlboy. Good choice; I’m with you.

Or maybe you like Sonic.

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The good news is that whichever camp you fall into, Celeste is almost certainly going to hit the spot. I’d expected something like a modernised Ice Climber, since mountain-climbing is the theme, but although it never loses sight of the slopes, plateaus and peaks, Celeste is much more than a snow-bound game about going up instead of going right.

You can run, you can jump, you can grab a wall and climb, and you can dash in the air – a multi-directional form of the double-jump. Each movement is exquisitely animated, and your hair changes colour to let you know whether the dash is charged, but you’re not getting any more powers. That’s your lot.

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Instead, every new chapter introduces fresh ideas built into the levels themselves in a way that might make Yoshiaki Koizumi applaud. Instead of unlocking abilities, you’re always fighting with or against environmental hazards, from strong winds to mirror worlds and deadly, spikey corruption that grows underfoot and underhand. The windy levels in particular offer the kind of Meat Boy-like high-intensity dodging and weaving that requires steady nerves and an ability to complete a sequence of jumps, grabs and dashes without a single mistake.

And the story that holds everything together feels almost jarringly honest in its depiction of ennui, wanderlust and anxiety. It’s not a game with the kind of plot twists that could necessarily be spoiled, but the way the emotional core is exposed as the journey becomes more brutal and unforgiving is pitched astonishingly well. I’m reluctant to say too much more on that front but for those keeping count, this is another game that brought a tear to my eye.

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Not because it’s a tragic game, though there is a deep sadness on the mountain, but because the conversations teeter between despair and hope in a way that rings entirely true to me.

There are only a few characters to chat with along the way. A couple of them live on the mountain, one of them is a fellow explorer with a completely different outlook on life and a different set of goals. He’s mostly about self-discovery and selfies, whereas your character, Madeline, seems like she’s driven by steely determination at first – simply wanting to go somewhere that seems impossible – but reveals other motivations during the ascent.

Most of the time, the story takes a backseat, with conversations happening at breaks between levels or at intervals during them. I never lost sight of it though, even when I was close to losing my patience as I died for the twentieth or thirtieth time while trying to traverse a particular set of obstacles. In that way, I found the story genuinely inspirational, pushing through my platformer pain barrier because I wanted Madeline to succeed, and because I wanted to see what became of her.

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I desperately wanted a happy ending.

Eventually, I decided that if I were even going to have a shot at any kind of ending that didn’t involve giving up and walking away, I might need a little help. That’s convenient because I really want to say something about the way this exceedingly difficult game provides so much assistance and support that I never feel like I’ve been abandoned in the cold. There are many wonderful things about Celeste but its attitude toward the challenge it presents is the one that most impressed me.

How do you make a game easier when it already provides infinite lives and extremely generous checkpointing? There’s no combat so it’d be impossible to tweak enemy numbers or strength, though there are a couple of chase sequences that could perhaps provide struggling players with an extra hit-point. It’s a sticky problem.

And it’s one that the developers haven’t just solved, it’s one that they’ve solved so elegantly that I hope everyone is paying attention. Simply put, Assist Mode lets you break the game.

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You can choose to slow everything down if that’ll help, which will be of particular use to those who struggle with sequences that require lots of button presses and changes of direction in quick succession. You can make Madeline invincible so that spikes and other hazards pass right through her. You can have infinite stamina so you can hang onto the side of a wall forever without losing your grip. You can increase the number of air dashes at your disposal, effectively allowing Madeline to take flight. You can even skip entire chapters, useful if a particular mechanic introduced in one area is giving you loads of bother.

It’s a great way to make the game more accessible and there’s absolutely no judgement involved. I’m using Assist Mode on my second playthrough to find all the collectibles. They’re strawberries and that seems to me like a very fine thing to collect. Early on, a postcard on a loading screen informed me that the strawberries aren’t important; don’t feel pressured to collect them, it said. It’s fine. But it might be fun to grab them all if you want a tougher challenge!

Another example from another postcard: “Be proud of your death count. The more you die, the more you’re learning.”

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This is a game with tight controls, intricately designed levels full of clever tricks and traps, and a heartfelt story that reflects on and engages with issues of emotional and mental wellbeing. I’ve not even mentioned the music, which is some of the best I’ve ever heard in a game. Delicate, sorrowful and then, suddenly, EXCITING as the pace demands.

It took me almost eight hours to complete and apart from some mild frustrations in one of the final worlds, which felt like it had more wild goose chases and dead-ends than the rest of the game combined, I enjoyed every minute. The more I think about it, the more the events of the narrative seem beautifully intertwined with the messages about difficulty and the Assist Mode.

Celeste is a difficult game about overcoming difficulties. Come for the challenge, stay for the joy of Madeline’s company and the generosity of this wonderful game.

Celeste is available now for Windows, Mac and Linux, via Steam and Itch for $19.99.

23 Comments

  1. Faldrath says:

    “the going got so tough I almost lost hope”.

    Oh, great, another one of those games. Certainly not for me, I’m terrible at platformers.

    “Assist Mode lets you break the game.”

    Uh, what? This is brilliant. The story is also good? So maybe I can play this after all? Wishlisted.

    There is a lesson here somewhere.

    • Babymech says:

      The lesson is… UR NOT GUD @ GAMEZ DUMMY

      Seriously, though, there’s no lesson. Some games will have assist modes, other games won’t and that’s fine. In all the ‘debate’ about games with easy mode or hard as nails mode, nobody has made a good case for why games in general should or should not gravitate to one approach or the other. Let the creators decide, and buy the ones that appeal to you. They don’t need to be taught any lessons because you hate one approach or the other.

      • Faldrath says:

        Eh, I think erring towards greater accessibility is almost always the way to go. To the inevitable “but Dark Souls!” argument, I say it’s an exception (and I do love me some Dark Souls) that can probably be explained historically/sociologically (it coincided with the dawning of the video age on the internet, it managed to create a like-minded community around it unlike almost all communities that came before, there was marketing, the game is brilliant, etc., etc.). Most of the games that tried to follow in its footsteps regarding difficulty were nowhere near as successful.

        Cultural objects usually only present a problem of cognitive accessibility – you might not understand “Ulysses”, or a piece by Schönberg, but almost everyone is equipped to *read* and *listen* to them. Games, beyond cognitive accessibility, also present the issue of “physical accessibility”, so to speak – you usually need to input series of commands to be able to “consume” the product. And this can go beyond a much larger share of the population than a regular cultural object.

        Mind you, when I say “cognitive” I don’t mean simply a story, or a plot, or dialogues. Any game presents cognitive challenges – even a bullet-hell score-chaser: you need to understand what is it you control, what you’re fighting, how you fight, how to accrue score, how to avoid death… they are all cognitive challenges. I might understand them all but be unable to progress beyond the first level because of very low physical accessibility.

        Of course, the authors (and the publishers) make the decisions regarding physical accessibility. They might make it very low as a strategy to attract a certain kind of consumer, but, in all honesty, those games (obviously there are exceptions) don’t tend to last very long in the cultural field – games with memorable cognitive challenges (story, mechanics, etc.), on the other hand, are the ones we usually consider classics.

        • Urthman says:

          I mostly agree with this. The only problem I see is that it’s very hard to know ahead of time whether banging my head against something difficult is going to result in mastering a skill that is super-fun to use, completing a satisfying challenge, or just useless frustration ended by an unsatisfying lucky break or simply quitting.

        • April March says:

          Cultural objects usually only present a problem of cognitive accessibility – you might not understand “Ulysses”, or a piece by Schönberg, but almost everyone is equipped to *read* and *listen* to them. Games, beyond cognitive accessibility, also present the issue of “physical accessibility”, so to speak – you usually need to input series of commands to be able to “consume” the product. And this can go beyond a much larger share of the population than a regular cultural object.

          See, this is where I disagree. I ultimately ended up agreeing with the GIT GUD guys, if for no other reason that I think a game has as much right to be balls-to-the-wall hard than it has of being universally acessible. The problem is that games think they have to be hard, so games in which difficulty isn’t the center point also refuse to add accessibility, because the Average Gamer would feel their proud assaulted if, say, Assassin’s Creed allowed you to fly or become invincible or invisible – even those that’s an option that would cause the game to lose nothing for those who don’t want it.

          But I digress – I wanted to discuss that paragraph specifically. So, yes, anyone can read “Ulysses”, or listen a piece by Schönberg. However, I could also teach you how letters sound in Portuguese, and then hold you a short story written in it. You’d be able to read it, but you wouldn’t be able to tell me what it was or what you thought of it. I don’t think there’s any difference between that and reading the entirety of Ulysses if you don’t get it (though that’s probably a bad example – no one gets Ulysses). Which is to say, I think physical accessibility, in this context, is not different from cognitive accessibility – it’s just more immediately visible. Understanding and comprehending a novel is an integral part of what we refer to as ‘reading’ it, more than just the physical act of turning letters into mental phonemes.

          Which is not to say Celeste is bad for adding these options – quite the opposite. It knows what it wants to offers, and offers it. Just like Cuphead did, by offering something else completely different. What matters is that both fit with what the designers wished to express with the game.

          • Faldrath says:

            (hello fellow Brazilian) There’s a problem with your reasoning: knowing how the letters sound isn’t the same as learning how to read. Case in point: my four-year old daughter knows how to recognize and pronounce all the letters in the alphabet, yet she can’t read yet.

            Anyway, my point is more that cultural objects usually require only cognitive activity to be “consumed” – doesn’t matter if people like or dislike them, or if they understand what it’s about or not. To read Ulysses, you need to know what the words mean, even if they’re not used in their ordinary meaning or syntax most of the time, and make references to tons of things you don’t know.

            Games, specifically, require some sort of physical input. In this they’re only comparable to, say, contemporary art installations or works where some sort of physical input is needed for the work to reveal itself. But in contemporary art, as far as I’m aware, very few, if any, works require physical inputs many/most people aren’t capable of.

            This is not cognition, per se. As I said, I can completely understand how a bullet-hell works, yet I might not be able to execute the inputs at all. Whereas if I don’t understand Ulysses, the problem isn’t in my *physical* ability to interact with the book, it’s in the sphere of cognition.

            But really, we’re mostly talking about the same thing – it’s just our value judgments that differ.

          • GeoX says:

            (though that’s probably a bad example – no one gets Ulysses

            Hmph! I get Ulysses just fine. Now if you were to point to Finnegans Wake, you might have a point.

        • edgepixel says:

          RPS, the only gaming community where James Joyce and Shonberg can get mentioned. The comments section is a often a goldmine, where you can pick up clues to expand your gaming knowledge, or merely knowledge in general. Thumbs up.

    • Toupee says:

      I don’t think this game is all that difficult — at least for the main story. Granted, you’ll die lots, but it’s a constant joy, just tricky enough to make mastery of the new mechanics of each area delightful, and never overstaying its welcome. It’s faaaaaar from Cuphead level of difficulty. I was at the story’s epilogue after about 8 hours, which is PERFECT for me.

      Now, that being said, the optional B-Side levels are DEVILISH!

  2. Juan03 says:

    Is there any talk of a GOG release?

    If it’s already DRM-free on Itch, maybe that’s not such a big step.

  3. Dominic Tarason says:

    Celeste is a lovely thing, and I can say that after only getting halfway through my first playthrough.

    There’s more to the unlockables than just hunting strawberries, too. Each of the 8 worlds contains a hidden Mix Tape, which rewards you with a ‘B-side’ remix of that world. Brutally hard, but accompanied by some lovely, chill new music. It’s a good chunk of extra game to aim for.

    Celeste can be brutally, uncompromisingly hardcore, but it does so with heart and understanding and always offers the option to just turn off the hurting if you’re not feeling up to it today.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Waltorious says:

    Celeste is high on my list of games to play, as I’ve been a fan of Matt Thorson’s games for years. If you like Celeste, consider looking through his back catalog of games, most of which are excellent and free.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      Indeed, Matt has been making games since forever. He was doing hard-as-balls before it was cool, with Jumper and Jumper 2 which are the earliest games of his I remember playing.

  5. disconnect says:

    Nothing to do with the Dragon’s Lair emulator Daphne then?

  6. gsilver says:

    Platformers where the walls are made of spikes (like this one…) have never really appealed to me. I was kind of excited when I first learned that the Towerfall people were working on a new game, but the moment I saw a spike-wall screenshot, I knew that it wasn’t for me.

    I like Sonic… Just the main games on the Genesis + Mania.

    • edgepixel says:

      Super Meat Boy’s level design appealed to me greatly, but it was enough to play the first level in the demo to understand that “No, this game was not made for me. Pity.”.

  7. Josh Grams says:

    Anyone have thoughts on how it compares to the free PICO-8 version (link to lexaloffle.com)? That was fun for a while but then it got ridiculously hard and the backgrounds got so eye-wateringly hideous that I had to quit.

    • Kyrius says:

      I would say the new game is as difficult, but with a lot more variety in it gameplaywise. Actually, there is the PICO-8 version built inside the game, you’ll just have to find it to unlock this extra mode. After finding it you can play it anytime from the main menu.

  8. Toupee says:

    I love this game.

  9. Nixitur says:

    I have almost finished the game (only one chapter to go, I think), and I love it so much. Chapter 6 really made me tear up quite a bit.
    And the B-side levels are just wonderful. Each chapter has a brutal bonus level all of its own. The B-side of chapter 1 is probably harder than regular level 3 or 4. But I suggest you give ’em a shot if you find the cassette tapes. They take the same handful of mechanics as the main chapters, but do even more interesting and way harder things with them. They always made me go “Wait, you can do that?” several times, especially chapter 5.

    Some games draw you in with their story, characters, and writing. Some draw you in with great level design and mechanics. Celeste does both on an extremely high level.
    It’s quite possibly the best precision platformer I’ve ever played.

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