Celeste: my thoughts

I’ve never been a video game reviewer, and I’m certainly not going to start now, but I picked up Celeste this week, thanks to a Switch sale and my amazing Tetris prowess. I finished the main story portion of the game last night, so I’d like to offer my thoughts on what’s considered by some to be one of the top indie releases of the past few years. Bear with me, because this does connect to the rest of PPC. Eventually.

The gameplay

Celeste is a 2D pixel-art platformer where you’re expected to die. A lot. The difficulty is, in parts, brutal. Deaths are easy to come by, successes are rare and relieving, and the game pushed me to my limit in multiple spots.

You play as Madeline, a young woman who wants (for reasons we’re never truly told) to climb the fabled Celeste Mountain. Along the way, she has to solve a ton of jumping puzzles, most involving numerous spikes. You can jump, you can dash, and…that’s about it. Oh, and you can grab on to walls for a few seconds. No weapons, no enemies other than bosses at the end of each chapter, just you and whatever the mountain throws at you.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun, and it reminds me of a lot of retro games, just with better music. And while it is a hard game by any measure, it’s not a sadistically hard game like, say, Super Meat Boy or the Kaizo mods of Mario games. This is a challenging game most of all. As I’m not a platforming guru, Celeste tested me sorely. The game tracks your total deaths, and those rose fairly steadily with each chapter: about 50 for the first, climbing to 425 for the climactic “Summit” level.

Basically, the gist of it is this: if you want a challenging, yet rewarding, platformer, this one’s worth your time. But there’s also a story buried in there, and it’s that story which made me want to write.

The story

Madeline is troubled. She’s determined to climb this mountain, for whatever reason, and that’s laudable. I know I’ve doggedly pursued some questionable goals in my life. I’ve faced trials, and I’ve kept going through some tough times in pursuit of what I truly want. On the other hand, I know what it’s like to give up when the going gets too tough, too. So once the story of Celeste started developing from “I want to climb” into something more, I paid attention.

The mountain has magical powers, it seems. A kind of magic mirror in a ruined town near its base separates a part of Madeline’s personality, or psyche, or something. The character is literally called Part of You, and it’s kind of a palette-swapped version of our protagonist. Rather than the red hair and healthy skin of Madeline, her “dark” part is a purple-haired vampire.

This part is, as far as I can tell, supposed to represent her fears, misgivings, and so on. It’s always telling her that she should give up. Go home, because there’s no point in continuing. Okay, I’ve got one of those, too. Thing is, it’s called all of me.

In a talk with the stereotypical “bro” NPC Theo, Madeline talks about depression and anxiety, and I get that this is intended to be central to the plot, but…it just doesn’t work for me. As someone who really does suffer from both of those, the depiction rings so false that I was cringing at points. It’s not a mater of “Just try harder, and you’ll make it through.” That’s not how it works. No amount of platforming is going to solve the problem of the deck being stacked against you. “If you don’t stop, you won’t fail,” is the moral of the story, and…that’s not true. If it were, I’d have a job that pays enough to live on, not just the occasional freelance gig. I’d be living with my partner (and I’d call her my wife) instead of desperately scrambling to rearrange my life so I can meet her in person just one time before she finally gets tired of waiting.

In other words, the story of Celeste simplifies a complex, very personal topic in a manner that rubs me the wrong way. It’s good that games are trying to discuss such subjects, and I’m glad it doesn’t go too far into political rambling. (The worst sin here, in my opinion, would be the forced “diversity”: there are no white male characters at all, but that’s unfortunately the norm for the games industry these days.) And maybe its depiction of depression and anxiety work better for other people. I’m sure some do feel like they’re at the bottom of a dark ocean. But I don’t.

The verdict

As I stated above, I’m not a reviewer. This is, to my knowledge, only the second time I’ve gone into such detail about any media I’ve enjoyed. But maybe I’ll do it more from here on out.

Anyway, if I had to put a number on Celeste, I’d give it probably a 7 out of 10. I’d call it too hard for “casual” players, and the pixel art style might put some off. I like that style, however, so I find the aesthetic truly beautiful in places. The music is excellent, although a couple of the tracks are a little repetitive. And the story, although it isn’t front and center, has the problems I mentioned above.

Despite those flaws, it’s well worth the seven virtual dollars and six real hours I spent on it. Just don’t look to it for serious advice on overcoming your mental obstacles, and you’ll find a fun, challenging throwback to the days of yore.

End of all hope

I went to the optometrist yesterday. Yes, I’m aware that this makes for a very incongruous opening statement, given the title of this post, but there’s a point. I just have to get to it.

The last time I had a professional eye exam was…many years ago. I didn’t like the experience. Not only because I felt it left my vision worse than when I began (long story), but for the simple reason of vanity. This was the first time in a long time that someone in a position of knowledge told me just how imperfect I was. The first time my imperfection could be quantified. In truth, my back had been a problem for years by this point, my knees over a decade, yet there was something different this time. Those injuries and conditions weren’t a barrier to my future in the same way that vision problems are.

Thus, I never felt bad after a visit to the specialist regarding the three bulging discs in my lower back, but the same cannot be said of that eye test and what followed. It affected my mental state. The appointment was on a Friday, as I recall; I cried for most of the weekend.

This time, I was older, more mature, but those weren’t the big changes. Let me put it plainly: now, I have no vanity. Nor pride, nor self-esteem. The only reason I can stand to hear a doctor talk about “20/70” and “moderate astigmatism” and “amblyopia” is because…those words can’t hurt me any more than I’ve already hurt myself. I went in with no expectations other than to be humiliated. Anything else, then, was a small victory.

Maybe it’s the wrong way to look at things. I know I’ve been told so before. But…that’s the nature of the beast. Time and time again, my hopes have been dashed, so at some point I just stopped bothering with hope. I’ll assume I’m going to fail, if for no other reason than the simple fact that I haven’t truly tasted success in so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like.

That’s not to say that I have no hope at all, despite the title. On the contrary, I have high hopes for everyone else. I wholeheartedly believe that good will triumph over evil (though my ideas of good and evil are far from the norm), and I hold the utmost faith in humanity, progress, and the future.

It’s only when I come into the picture that this innate pessimism rears its head. Tests in school, job interviews as an adult—I go in expecting to lose, not to win. Because it hurts too much the other way.

When the woman I love doesn’t talk to me for a couple of days, I figure I’ve done something wrong, and maybe she’s finally had enough of me. Why wouldn’t I? I screw up everything else I touch (outside of a computer, and even that’s not a given). At least I can feel elated when I get a simple text saying “Hi.” With my family, it’s a little different: I assume every conversation is going to become an argument or them ignoring me. And my health has become one of the worst cases. For a time, I truly believed I wouldn’t even be alive in 2020. Illness, depression, and the trauma of watching so many loved ones suffer made me feel my own end was approaching.

That last kind of thinking, fortunately, is a thing of the past. I still can’t believe I’ll have a long, happy, healthy life, though. At best, I count on getting two of those. And even that will be a struggle. Nothing good comes easy, not to me. All my bets are long shots, it sometimes seems. As someone who knows the odds, I can’t help but realize I’m not going to win it all.

But I don’t have to have it all. I don’t ask for much. Nothing more than what an average man has, anyway. Let me have stability in life, let me be loved, give me a place where I can be heard and heeded. I don’t need a billion dollars, a supermodel wife, and a TV deal.

Just something to hope for, that’s all.

Darkest of days

Thirteen is, of course, the unluckiest number. It’s the number to which we have assigned our fears of imperfection, of evil, and even of death. Because of that, I can only write this post today. Forgive me my catharsis.

The day was January 13, 2019. The thirteenth day of the month, of the year, and exactly thirteen months before today. And, it must be said, this particular Sunday was very nearly the last day of my life.

But let me back up before I dive right in. I have made no secret of my depression. Like any, it waxes and wanes, following mental and emotional tides I do not fully understand. This condition is never crippling, to the point where I, for instance, spend days in bed, not eating or even moving unless I have no choice. Rather, it’s more like…a cloud that hangs over me at all times. A cloud that sometimes lifts a little, that the sun may shine upon me, but more often descends upon me, blocking and coloring my vision like a fog.

The beginning of last year was one of the latter occurrences, and the factors that contributed to this are many. The first serious relationship of my life had just failed, following an aborted attempt at restarting it around Christmas. My uncle had begun the slow decline that would lead to his passing (more on this later), and my mother had wholly given herself over to caring for him, at the cost of her sanity and that of her sons. My brother, fresh off a visit to the ER, was coughing and miserable in the next room. I had no money, no car, no real prospects, in my opinion. Nothing in my life, I felt, was going right at all.

Depression, I have learned, is entirely irrational. It defies logic, which places it beyond my comprehension. In this case, the tipping point was comparatively trivial. Water. That’s what it came down to.

I know that sounds silly, but hear me out. I live with my mom and stepdad, and we’re in a very rural area. So rural, in fact, that there was no municipal water system when the house was built, a mere 25 years ago. Thus, we have a well, complete with a set of pumps, pipes, filters, and the like. All wonderful and natural and organic…when it works. But those filters have to be changed. The pump sometimes quits working. These are regular events, except that they had become too regular due to a miscalculation when the well was expanded in 2013.

In short, we came home from the hospital (I’d gone with my mom and my brother) to a house without running water, a problem that couldn’t be fixed until the next day, at the earliest, and something about that just sent me over the edge. I’ll be the first to admit that the top half of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been absent for most of my life, but the bottom layer rarely gets disturbed. In this case, it did, and…that just seemed to sum up everything that was wrong. It was the icing on the cake, the straw that broke my back. If I can’t even control this, if I can’t fix this, what hope do I have for anything else in life?

Like my depression, I’ve been very open about the way music affects me. Emotionally, mentally, psychologically, music has a profound effect on me. It moves me in a way that few other things in life can. When I’m at my lowest, listening to music is one of the few ways I can feel. When I’m feeling better, I want to enjoy the beats, the melodies, the lyrics that speak to my soul.

For a long time, I’ve been attracted to concept albums, because I love stories. I always have. And a concept album tells a story in a way that the more popular jumble of songs just can’t match. That longing for storytelling has taken me into many different genres and subgenres, and I’ve become especially fond of rock and metal operas. But the musical creation that impacts today’s tale was simpler, though no less profound, concept album.

The band is Borealis, a Canadian progressive/power metal act with heavy symphonic elements. In other words, exactly the kind of music that catches my ear. In fact, the Wikipedia page for the band used to have a quote from the frontman, who named as his inspirations Century Child by Nightwish and The Inner Circle by Evergrey. As those are two of my favorite metal albums of all time, I was predisposed to liking these guys from the start. And then I listened to their album Purgatory. Really listened to it.

It’s a concept album, and the concept is as dark as it is powerful. (I don’t know if I’m getting it completely right, so consider this my interpretation.) After the death of his mother, a child chooses to take his own life rather than live with the abusive father who blames him for the event. He justifies this by thinking that, well, at least he’ll be reunited with his mother in the end. But after the attempt, he finds himself in purgatory, a “place of darkness” where he is lost and beset by nightmares. His father, realizing what has happened, begs, even prays, for him to return, apologizing for the way he has treated him. The child, meanwhile, meets an apparition—his mother—who promises to guide him back to life, to always watch over him. With that newfound hope, he’s able to find his way, to return to the land of the living.

I can’t say that I’ve been through the same sort of trauma, but this is a story that strikes straight to my heart. It did the first time I listened to it, and I’ve probably given it about 30 replays since then. Every one still leaves me thinking, because it’s just so beautifully executed.

Thirteen months ago, as darkness gathered in both the sky and my heart, I listened to Purgatory and focused on the words. And I felt them speaking to me in a way I hadn’t before. I could sympathize with the boy, because I’ve been blamed by my father for things I couldn’t control. Although my mother remains alive, thankfully, I had lost her to the obsessive care she gave first to her own parents, then to her brother. On this day, I felt I was alone. Nobody was there for me. Nobody would be.

I have joked about suicide in the past. I have contemplated it. But that night was the first time I ever planned it. I knew where my brother had a gun. It wouldn’t take much to go in there, get it, and do what had to be done. It wasn’t about ending suffering or anything like that; no, my only justification was that I wasn’t helping anyone by being here, and thus (here is where the irrationality of depression came in) I was only hurting them, so why even bother?

“My Peace” was where I decided I would do it. The sixth track is the moment the protagonist makes his fatal choice, and the lyrics of the bridge section were an apt summary of my life at that moment:

Robbed of ambition,
I’m drowning in my life;
No stars tonight,
Broken destiny

An instrumental section follows that declaration, including a fairly good solo, but next is a spoken-word interlude, something I truly love in music like this. For this particular song, it’s a young boy giving a voice-over. (Nightwish’s “Dead Boy’s Poem” has something similar, and I can’t help but think “My Peace” is an homage.) The child is giving his reasons for taking his drastic final step, and they became, in my mind, the perfect last words.

“I can no longer see a reason to continue on this broken path,” he says. “I have taken from, day after day; it has left me with nothing left to give. I do not hate you. I feel sorry at what you have become, and what you have turned me into. I hope for you this place I go is forgiving, and we can be as we once were. This world has lost its light. I’m sorry.”

Everything I wanted to say, everything I felt needed to be said, summed up in twenty seconds by a boy less than half my age.

That track marks the halfway point of the album, and I spent the next five songs mindlessly playing a game on my phone while my rational side warred with the emotional part, fighting a vain struggle to remind me that this was the wrong way to go about it, that I still had something to live for. I know, and I knew, that there was. But in my depression, I just couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find a purpose, a path, a reason to keep on going.

Until the end.

Purgatory closes out with “Revelation” and a glimmer of hope. It’s far more upbeat than most of the tracks preceding it, and you can hear from the start that it strikes a more positive tone. All is not lost, it says to both its young victim and the listener, and…that was precisely what I needed to hear. The refrain, like so many other parts of the album, spoke to me:

Take my hand, hold it forever,
Guide my soul to freedom
Give me hope, change my life
I’ve found my way home

Never in my 36 years have I heard more fitting words. Never have I known a time where I felt something so strongly. I’m not ashamed to say that I burst into tears as my rational side, with this timely aid, finally won out over depression. My mom found me like that a few minutes later. She listened, something she had done very rarely in the preceding months. As we were talking, the power went out—we soon learned that this was because of my stepdad’s attempts at fixing the well pump. But now thoughts of ending it all were gone. Though darkness had come to the whole house, it was receding from my mind, and I felt like living again.

My uncle officially passed away on the 13th of January this year, marking exactly one year since the day I almost did. I think I’m through the worst of the grieving from that, though my mom still refuses to let go as of this writing.

The darkness did come back around a few times. I know it’s not gone for good. Bad things happen, and they really do seem to outnumber the good in my life most of the time. I write to cope, as I’ve said before. I escape to the worlds I create because I get tired of the one I live in.

But some things have changed in the months since my darkest day. I’ve made a few friends, or at least I like to think that they consider me such. I’m a member of an online community where people are, by and large, willing to share and listen. And even some members of my family are beginning to accept that this is who I am, although too many of them still ask, “What do you have to be depressed about?”

Most importantly, I know now that I’m not alone, because I have someone who, as that song says, gave me hope and changed my life. Someone whose very existence proves that this world has not lost its light. I just hadn’t found it yet, that’s all.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, a time for lovers to be together. It tears me up inside to know that circumstances prevent me from being with my light, my Muse, on such a special day. But this is the first February where I have the chance to even worry about that. This is the first year where I love and am loved, in the romantic way the holiday intends.

It’s a little thing, maybe, but those little things are what make life worth living.

Through the eyes of a child

My novel Innocence Reborn is coming to Amazon in paperback and ebook form on June 9! You can check out the prologue absolutely free over on my Patreon starting February 9. In the intervening months, I’ll use this space to talk about the setting, the characters, and the writing process for what has become one of my favorite stories.

I’ve said before that I enjoy writing child characters. There’s something to be said for the simple pleasure of seeing the world from the point of view of a boy or girl. Immature by our standards, innocent, sometimes bewildered by the world around them, they can yet see a wonder that we adults have lost. When written well, a child’s perspective can be beautiful, if for no other reason than it takes us, the readers, back to childhood ourselves.

In the past, I have written numerous stories revolving around children, and quite a few had teens or even preteens as the protagonists. Lair of the Wizards, for example, revolves around a group of teenagers (and, for one of them, his 8-year-old sister) finding a secret base full of advanced technology. Two of the short stories of The Linear Cycle are told from such a perspective, as well. “Either Side of Night” tells of 11-year-old Dusk’s journey from a scared boy in a world gone mad to a veteran soldier of a zombie apocalypse, while “The Final Sacrifice” is the heartbreaking story of Tod, the bullied teen who discovers the deadly secret of the power within his blood.

Those are all great stories. Even “Miracles” isn’t too bad, and it’ll be better once I finally edit it; that short, which I used to use as my introduction, concerns twins, Thomas and Mira, on their way across the Atlantic in the 1730s, and it was my first completed work centered on children.

It hooked me. When I finished “Miracles” back in 2015, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time I explored the perspective of youth. Lair came not longer after—well, it started around then, at least.

Let me admit right now that I am not a fan of anime. I don’t know what it is, but something about the Japanese style of animated entertainment, in all its various guises, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe it’s from growing up on a steady diet of Hanna-Barbara and MGM cartoons. Maybe it comes from never really going in for JRPGs until I was in my 20s. Whatever the case, I just don’t “get” anime. Sometimes the animation itself bugs me. If not that, then the overwrought drama in the voice acting. And if I can get past both of those, the beats of an Asian story don’t align with the Western sort I know and write. No matter what, my mind will find some reason for rejection.

That’s not to say I haven’t tried. And the premise sometimes catches my attention, even if I’m turned off by the presentation. That was the case for Sword Art Online, for instance. Watching the first two episodes of that (because my brother had it on while I was playing on his gaming PC) helped inspire my novel Before I Wake.

Inspiration struck again a few years ago. The circumstances were the same: I was playing, if I recall correctly, Civilization IV. Something that really doesn’t trigger my storyteller instincts, for sure. But my brother’s TV habits caused me to see the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans. Once again, I wasn’t hooked, but I was intrigued.

Many of my stories come about because I see a concept or topic and think, “What if I wrote that?” That’s how it was with The Linear Cycle: what if I wrote something like The Walking Dead? Heirs of Divinity (I will release that book one of these days, I promise!) was my attempt at crossing Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle with Harry Potter. And the Otherworld series, as I’ve stated in the past, came as a direct response to Stargate Universe‘s cancellation.

So here I am, watching a reasonably hard sci-fi story about a group of kids who have to grow up fast on a spaceship. Could I write that? What if I did? At the same time, I had started getting very heavily into The Expanse by James S. A. Corey, a somewhat different envisioning of a future involving interplanetary colonization.

Those two, then, were the ingredients for my special concoction. But I knew I would have to give it my own flavor.

The premise

I titled my series Orphans of the Stars. That’s a nod to the anime that provided the seed, obviously, but I feel it’s one of my best titles nonetheless. As a hook, it just sounds so right. The first book I named Innocence Reborn, a phrase derived from a line in the Nightwish song “Bless The Child”. And those two names were portentous in a way I didn’t expect at the start.

If you’ve read my articles on here, you know I’m a worldbuilding nut. And a space nut. This was my first attempt at space-based science fiction, and I wanted to do it right. So I set out to create a story, a universe, I would want to experience.

First off, I wanted something not too Star Trek. Not because I don’t like it, but it’s been done to death, and there are aspects of that universe I think are out of place. So this isn’t a utopian future, nor is it the capitalist dystopia of The Expanse. And I didn’t go for the ultra-hard style of sci-fi that the purists prefer, because the idea I had requires some bending of physics.

In the end, I made three main breaks with our world. First, in the Orphans setting, FTL travel is possible through something broadly similar to hyperspace or warp drives. Travel between star systems does take time, but not the ages we would need. This allows for colonization of terrestrial planets, which are common enough to make that worth the effort. (This isn’t so outlandish that it’s unbelievable. Current estimates place the number of potentially habitable worlds as high as 1.6 per star.)

Second, my setting has viable reactionless propulsion. This is technically a violation of Newton’s Third Law, yes, but 2016 brought out a number of possible loopholes in that law. Emdrives, the Mach Effect, and Q thrusters were all being talked about as the next big thing, and it still seems to me that something like the Unruh Effect can allow for a much more efficient conversion of energy to acceleration…if we can make it scale. The Orphans-verse can, though no one in it knows precisely how it works.

Finally, the humans in this story have developed a form of cryogenic stasis that can be used in a pinch. Best of all, it’s even reversible! This one was absolutely pivotal to the plot, so I don’t even care how unbelievable or unrealistic it is. Stasis, suspended animation, or whatever you call it, it’s in.

Other than those, the setting for Orphans is…humanity. Give us about 400 more years of development, a few superscience techs, and off we go. Maybe I’ve been conservative in my projections. I hope so, but time will tell.

So, the book has spaceships, including some specifically intended for defense. Humanity (I always use that term rather than “mankind” in the story itself) has expanded from our cradle of Earth into the stars. Colonies on the Moon and Mars, the former being more an Antarctic-style base than a place where people live, came first. Then, a planet in the Alpha Centauri system, which may or may not be Proxima b. And we went on from there. By the time of the prologue, our most distant reach is about 70 light-years away, around a small star named Kiosa—the name was the result of an algorithm I developed.

Kiosa hosts an Earthlike planet, so of course people would try to live there. Now, a peculiarity of the setting is that essentially all off-world colonies are isolated, whether underground or in domes. Marshall Colony, sitting near a bay on Kiosa’s habitable world, is one of them, comprising three domed cities and an outlying resort. Outland Resort, rather, the place to go when you really, really want to get away from Earth.

Now, you’ll notice that there’s one thing missing from this setting that’s present in just about every other sci-fi story not intended to be excruciating in its realism. “Where are the aliens?” you might be asking. Well, that’s to come, but first, back to the children.

The crew

Levi Maclin is fifteen years old, and he’s essentially me at 15: enamored with space. As luck would have it, his family has saved up enough money to go to the greatest resort in the galaxy for their summer vacation. It’s through his eyes we look in the prologue, and that establishes what I feel is the series’ most important aspect: the wonder.

Space is wonderful. I’ve thought that for decades. As a child, I eagerly read and watched anything to do with space, from accounts of the Apollo missions to planetary tours on PBS to that awful Space Camp movie. Which, come to think of it, might have been another inspiration.

With Orphans of the Stars, I wanted to recapture that feeling I had when I first imagined floating in zero gravity. I wanted to envision what an impressionable youth would feel upon leaving the entire solar system behind for the first time. In the prologue, a lot of that comes through. Levi floats. His sister Holly, a mere six years old, swims through the cabin of the shuttle transporting them to the cruise liner. The middle child, Justin, gets sick, because that’s a thing that happens, too. My books are real. My characters face real problems.

Those three are the most important characters for the prologue, but the rest of the book adds in quite a few more, none of them what we would consider adults. Gabriel Cross, a teenaged genius from Texas, meets Levi along the way, and they start to become friends. His siblings and Levi’s hang out together in the resort, and all of them recognize that they’re not the upper crust of its clientele.

Some of the others are. Lucas is the son of an important executive, Reza the younger brother of a State Department official. Derry’s father has money, but he’s there to do work for the colony, not to relax in a bungalow. Ed’s father pulled the old trick of getting a vacation in the form of a grant.

A few of the children, by contrast, grew up on the colony world. Hanna actually has a summer job at the resort as a kind of kid wrangler. Aron and Mika both have mothers employed by Outland. Rachel might not have been born there, but she lives with her grandparents and barely remembers the planet that was her first home.

The rest all find ways to get mixed up in all this, too, because the events at the prologue’s end bring them together, whether they realize it then or not. Once the meat of the story starts, all sixteen come onto the stage, and they find themselves in an untenable position: adrift and alone, lost in the void of space.

I’ve written disasters through a child’s eyes. That was “Either Side of Night”. With Innocence Reborn, I wanted something more. The children who become the ship’s crew have already survived the disaster. Now, they have to work out where to go from there. They’re not heroes, even if some of them wish they were. No, they’re just…kids.

As this is an ongoing series of full-length novels, I get to explore that dynamic. Everyone has to grow. Some are growing in a different way than others, and that makes this very much a coming-of-age series. But they all have to learn how to act mature, how to perform tasks intended for someone much older. And sometimes they fail, because they’re not perfect. They’re not larger than life.

But they’re still awed by the wonder of it all. That’s what I was going for, and I really think I got it.