The first game that really stood out to me this year was Celeste, a hyper-difficult platformer about trying (and mostly failing) to climb a treacherous mountain and learning to smile in spite of the setbacks. It still sticks out to me as one of my favorite, and most memorable experiences of the year.
Celeste is a game you will die in often, probably in the magnitude of tens to hundreds of time per level. Despite it’s high difficulty though, Celeste doesn’t take the gamer-gunk approach of tonally wallowing in it’s brutal difficulty (read: Dark Souls). Instead, it opts to consistently cheer you on. The bright and optimistic color pallet of the retro-stylized Mt. Celeste, combined with the variety of cheerful characters you interact with, serve to draw you in in spite of it’s difficulty instead of because of it. Even the load-screen interstitial cheers you on, treating your “death” count as evidence of how hard you’ve tried thus far.
Outside of the window dressing, it’s the gameplay loop that primarily reinforces our hero Madeline’s resolve, which involves her jumping, climbing, and dodging perils and spikes as she scales the Mt. Celeste. While most platformers treat “losing lives” as a failure state, Celeste treats as a necessary path to Madeline’s (and your) growth. This is in sharp contrast to a lot of platformers that try to give you a “death shaming” sad trombone moment, often followed by a lengthy load time. Even the most recent Mario game, which is hardly an unforgiving experience, still takes just too long to deduct ten coins from your account and bring Mario back to life.
Once you miss a ledge or swan dive into a stalagmite, you are immediately brought back to the beginning of a screen and invited to try again. Honestly, I can’t think of any games in this genre that respawn you this quickly, and it’s pretty significant. Before you can even dwell on the fact you screwed up, you have already dusted yourself off to try it again. By forcing you to play this game with your id alone, you improve yourself playing the game on an instinctual level while guiding Madeline through increasingly perilous maps.
This ethos of this “die and try again” gameplay loop is rhetorically reinforced by the storyline itself. Madeline is a listless girl who sets off to climb Mt. Celeste just to prove if she can do it, who needs to come to grips with the physical manifestation of her own shortcomings. By coming to terms with who she is, she finally feels empowered to complete her goal of reaching the peak.
Celeste’s storyline follows Madeline as she faces her inner demon to learn to not fear failure is. In practice, sure, it’s a bit precious. But one thing I love about Celeste is that the core theme of the narrative is rhetorically reinforced by the gameplay mechanics itself.
I remember recently reading an article about how social media is causing this phenomenon where people are finding it more difficult to get into new hobbies or crafts. Whereas previously, you could paint a watercolor or cook an appetizing meal with only your own previous efforts to compare to, now there are a million Pinterest boards and Instagram accounts showing you the Prime Apex of everyone’s creations in every conceivable field. Even our hobbies, which are ostensibly supposed to be stress-relieving, are now something we are encouraged to indirectly compare in on a global scale. I know I certainly feel that way about writing on this silly blog, even though I only share the articles with only five or so people at at time.
In a way, even video games are trending in this direction. By logging onto Twitch you can find people playing games at a level you can’t even fathom. It’s enough to make you look and think, “whats the point if I’ll never be this good?”. Celeste feels like a direct commentary against this mode of thinking by demanding a high proficiency of play from the player and cheering them along the whole way. It makes everyone that plays it start out as a chump and finish feeling like a you are decked out in Red Bull gear in a hotel conference room on a Awesome Games Done Quick live stream. When I look back at my video captures of some of the ultra-difficult “B-Side” bonus levels I completed, I look back in awe as the fact they were something I actually could do.
Another tangential point, but speaks to Celeste being the “total package”, is the sublime, synth-heavy soundtrack by Lena Raine. The soundtrack makes the game perfect for the Switch, since you can’t help but pop in your earbuds and play the game in handheld mode to enjoy it. While hard to articulate, each track really vibes with the tone of each level, be it scoring a particular cutscene or capturing the overall energy of a platforming sequence. One of the joys of suffering through the game’s ultra-difficult B-Side levels are getting to re-enjoy variations of the soundtrack remixed, as you’re implanted with the lingering memory of each song from the main story.
In short, I can’t think of the last time I’ve played a game that so confidently knew what it wanted to be and executed on every aspect so perfectly. It’s a game that brings me back to that time as a kid who could spend whole afternoons throwing myself at a challenge, while giving me the tools and encouragement to finish it as an adult. Celeste lingers within me as a feeling my brain constantly wanders back to even though I’ve played probably tried fifteen games since finishing it.
In shorter: Celeste da Best. Or, at least it would be, if it weren’t for tomorrow’s game.