Early in the platform game Celeste, you accidentally break a mirror and release a shadow version of yourself. “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to finally get out of your head,” this shadow double says. “We need a hobby, but this…you are many things, darling, but you are not a mountain climber. Be reasonable for once. You can’t handle this.”
Celeste is full of such moments, all coalescing into the most affecting media experience I had in 2018. A twist on the platform game, a stalwart genre of video games, in Celeste you play as Madeline, a young woman who decides to climb a mountain for vaguely formed reasons. Along the way she is beset by doubt – self or otherwise – and yet she continues climbing, not really sure why, except that she feels that she must.
Climbing the mountain, named Celeste and inhabited by some odd side characters, requires the player to master increasingly challenging – and the game gets incredibly challenging – jump combinations across all manner of stages. Each of the game’s zones, ranging from a haunted hotel to the mountain’s ridge, introduces new obstacles to this central jump-dash-jump conceit. It’s all illustrated in beautiful, pixelated graphics.
The game becomes exceptionally difficult, but it’s very nice about it. I died upwards of 2,000 times while playing (it helpfully keeps track for you), but only occasionally would I become so frustrated that I’d quit playing for a while. When you die you simply respawn at the start of the challenge that felled you, and so laborious backtracking is minimised.
In fact, the game encourages you to celebrate the fact that you’ll die so often. “Be proud of your death count,” on-screen text said after one of my many humiliations. “The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!”
This here is the brilliance of Celeste. The gameplay and its story are wonderfully fused. Madeline’s journey to overcome her self-doubt is not an excuse to jump over spiked ravines and dash onto platforms – it is the jumping and dashing.
Celeste is inarguably the hardest game I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the few that I’ve determinedly finished.
The game’s main villain, her shadow self, the self-declared “pragmatic part” of her, is not just a character in a cut scene. After telling you to give up on climbing the mountain, she becomes part of the level, chasing after you by replicating your exact movements. As you jump and dash across the stage you forge the path that this manifestation of your self-doubt follows, and you literally have to outrun yourself in order to finish it.
When things get too difficult, as they did for me on a few occasions, the game’s assist mode can temporarily give Madeline special powers to overcome particular stages. I felt determined to finish as much of the game as I could by myself, but I also felt okay about asking for help: a reflection of Celeste’s brilliant alignment of my feelings with those of its protagonist.
It all just works. I’ve always been a ‘casual gamer’, and I generally like the idea of challenging, expansive games more than the reality of playing them. Celeste is inarguably the hardest game I’ve ever played, but it’s also one of the few that I’ve determinedly finished.
Its coherent creative vision helped: each element of this game feels of a piece. I played the Nintendo Switch version of Celeste, in the console’s handheld mode for short bursts with my headphones plugged in. It encouraged a kind of self-reflective intimacy between myself and the game, helped along by a stunning soundtrack, composed by electronic artist Lena Raine. Her score perfectly ebbs and flows in accordance with Madeline’s emotional journey across each stage.
In addition to its main story, Celeste is packed with optional strawberries to collect across the mountain. The game offers no real pressure for you to get them. “Strawberries will impress your friends, but that’s about it,” it tells you, which absolved me of any guilt I might feel about not chasing after them.
I don’t want to overstate its effects, but I finished this game a little wiser, a little more open, a little more confident in my own resilience.
In the end, Celeste works so well because it incorporates the act of playing it into its central exploration of mental health. It inevitably prompts self-reflection. I don’t want to overstate its effects, but I finished this game a little wiser, a little more open, a little more confident in my own resilience. It changed me for the better, in other words, and it excited me about the future possibilities of its form. It’s been a while since a piece of media – video game or otherwise – has done that.
Celeste is available on Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, macOS, and Linux.