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.
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.
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.
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.