“gee you haven’t written in a while.” gee, you haven’t read in a while. this got a little hostile. i think we got off on the wrong foot here.
i have had a year, and if you see this you probably see me on twitter, where i overshare it. Having A Year is why i haven’t had the time or energy to post, or draw really, even though i badly want to do both. and everybody is mad negative in avalanche circles right now, so instead of getting really really frustrated by any of the things i want to be frustrated by…. let’s talk about an incredibly well designed game i’m playing the shit out of.
let’s talk about celeste.
celeste is a platformer that came out last year, almost exactly a year ago actually. it’s about a girl named Madeline (or whatever name you input) climbing a mountain, the titular Mt. Celeste. she isnt real sure why she’s doing that, just that she feels like she has to do it. what ensues is a masterwork of design that, even when i’m furious at my repeated deaths, never stops being fun. what ensues is a game thats only tutorial is a bird that tells you what buttons you need to know a couple of times, which instead uses its level design to teach you how the environment works. what ensues is a difficult, tight platformer… that also comes with an “assist mode” to keep it accessible for people who are maybe not masters of the genre. youtube is drowning in videos about how well designed this game is. i like this one, where Snoman talks about how the game teaches you how to play it by…. letting you play it.
the absolute giants of platformers are the games that consistently get this right. i’m talking old school super mario and donkey kong country, yall. this game’s level design is at that… level, sorry. sorry.
what the video above hints at, and what i mainly want to talk about, though, isn’t the game design. there’s a hundred million youtubers who are better than me at talking about game design. this is about narrative and from here on out i’m spoiling the shit out of celeste’s story.
the first piece of madeline’s story comes out of the mirror early in level 2, Old Site, which i think is my favorite level to run so far. she encounters a mirror and inside is a darker version of her – the enemy the celeste speedrunning community lovingly refer to as Badeline. after you learn about the space blocks, badeline starts to chase you. and you may not notice this during the first couple of screens of the chase, because they’re easy – she chases you by mimicking your movements about the level a few seconds after you. if you delay or backtrack, she can kill you. oops.
badeline shows up a few other times in gameplay, including in a truly stunning boss fight that you just have to experience. if you’re like “steph sorry i’m never going to play this game” then just hop on youtube and spend like 5 minutes watching it. it’s the only boss fight in the game, but the level she’s in is called Reflection.
but badeline has only come out of madeline. celeste mountain has a mysticism about it – whatever inner demons you have, the mountain brings out as physical manifestations that you have to defeat as you climb the mountain itself. for selfie-obsessed Theo, it’s to do with his sense of control and being watched. for Oshiro, the hotel guy, it’s an intense depression rising from self-doubt. for madeline? badeline is just good ol fear.
she hounds you. she tells you you aren’t a mountain climber. she tries to get you to turn back. she gets defensive in a fight with Oshiro, causing him to lash out in a tough chase sequence. she tries to stop you from progressing past the mirror temple, and that’s where the story does its story thing.
madeline has had enough of badeline and tells her to kick rocks. badeline thinks that’s the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard, and she kicks you off the mountain, in a very literal way, down into a lake or something. madeline tries to find her way out of here, but she’s giving up on the idea of climbing the mountain. she just can’t do it.
early in the game we encounter an old lady who just laughs at madeline for thinking she can do this. for some reason, there she is again in level 6, and she convinces madeline that, no, not only can you not kick out a part of you, you have to stop fighting it too – you have to understand it, and make right with it. so they chat for a minute while madeline figures out that badeline is scared and trying to keep madeline safe, at all costs. the only thing to do now is find her and come to an understanding, work together.
celeste has come to my life right in the middle of doing a lot of very scary transitiony stuff. i’ve been dogged the entire way by stress, shame, a sense that terrible things will happen, imposter syndrome, and just overall crippling…. fear. i am climbing this mountain while part of me protests, loudly, that i can’t possibly do that. of course it helps that this is a truly phenomenal platformer (and speedgame), but this is really a case of the perfect game coming to me at the perfect time.
now badeline is pissed, and won’t talk to madeline, doesn’t think she is coming in good faith here, and what happens next is that bossfight.
have you ever wrangled with a part of yourself you weren’t real happy about, or maybe an old, bad memory, like the kind that changes you?
the way you “attack” badeline is just by hurling yourself into her. she can’t stand to have you come so close, so she bounces you away and backs off farther, throwing up even more defenses. you do this over and over through tougher gauntlets and challenges until she finally relents. she doesn’t really believe you can climb celeste mountain still, but she’s at least going to try to help. the music gets… light, relaxed, and you can double-dash now, symbolizing how you’re working together (madeline’s hair changes to indicate how many dashes she has available. when she has two, she gets badeline’s flowing pink hair.)
finally. chapter 7. celeste throws perfect music at you here to change the attitude. it’s free, exploring, excited even. no more of the foreboding atmospherics we’ve been enjoying–don’t get me wrong–but the music is just, palpable excitement. and then obviously with badeline’s help you’re able to scale the mountain and beat the narrative of the game. there’s a lot more game to be beaten, but that’s the “main story.”
people say this story is about mental health, about depression and anxiety, and they aren’t exactly wrong. but i think it’s a lot more general than that. i cannot imagine a more effective metaphor for accomplishing something in your life that you don’t think you can accomplish. by climbing a physical mountain, this little tightly designed retro-aesthetic jump-n-dash-em-up tells a beautiful story that we all live at one point or another. and it does so, like that video said at the top, by encouraging you to beat a video game that will feel, at one screen or another, impossible. how many layers are we at here? we tell the story of doing something you didn’t think you could do, by beating a game that feels at times like you can’t get through it, about a character climbing a mountain while she’s dogged by a manifestation of her fears. three levels.
this game is on every platform (lolpun) and not expensive. you have no excuse not to pick it up, unless you just legitimately cannot stand a platforming game, in which case that’s okay. please don’t come tell me why you don’t like platformers. you don’t have to. but for everybody else… (sigh) this game was on every short list for game of the year for a damn good reason. it’s my new speedgame for now, not that i’m good at it yet. i think my xbox controller isn’t the best choice, maybe a dualshock would be better because of how the directional inputs work, like it’s hard sometimes with the control stick but this controller’s D-pad sucks ass… but also i’m just trash at the game lmao. anyway the developers of celeste clearly intend you to speedrun it. there’s plenty of tools in the game like in-game timers, multiple check points you can load up the levels into, death counters, etc, and when runners find timesaving glitches, as long as the code isn’t broken-broken, the developers pretty much just go “oh that’s neat” and leave it in the game. but even casually. this game is a masterwork and you should play it.