Celeste: Climbing the Mountain

There is, perhaps, nothing worse than the feeling that something is just barely impossible. The sense that something in your life could be better, if only you had a stronger grasp of it, can be disheartening. Whether it’s as large as being unable to pursue a career goal or as small as a video game that feels unbeatable, we have all felt things that we wish we could get past, or simply push aside and not have to deal with. These aspects, both physical and mental, build themselves up like a mountain, looming over us and forcing us to begin a grueling ascent if we want to progress, to grow, to live right. It is never easy, and some people may just live their lives without getting to that summit.

But it’s always worth the climb.

Celeste is a game about trying to climb a mountain.

Celeste is a 2D platformer and a “rage game” produced by Matt Makes Games Inc., and the player controls Madeline while she tries to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain. The base gameplay is simple: Madeline can jump, cling and climb on walls, and use a short dash in 8 directions. The gameplay and story progress in chapters, and each chapter is made of an assortment of separate “screens” that work as individual challenges to the player. Simple, yes?

It, naturally, gets harder and more complex as new chapters introduce tighter platforming and more unique elements. Chapter 1 demonstrates the basics of climbing and dashing, such as a recurring object known informally as a “recharge crystal” that acts as a midair restore for Madeline’s dash and stamina if either one is depleted. Chapter 2 focuses more on Madeline’s dash, with “dream blocks” that are solid unless Madeline dashes into them, and will continue her linear dash until she exits at the other end of the block. The blocks both allow Madeline to reach farther than usual with a single dash and can kill her instantly if she’s sent out into a bad spot.

Each chapter has an introduction of new mechanics, which can both benefit and obstruct the player, and each chapter culminates in longer sequences where these mechanics are combined to provide a unique challenge. By the end, even though the individual devices are unlikely to appear in the next chapter, these mechanics build up the core skills that the player is constantly using, such as timing a dash into an object to continue a long leap, or conserving the limited amount of time that Madeline can cling and climb on walls. More importantly in all this, Celeste is constantly giving the player the opportunity to learn these mechanics before it seriously applies them. The tools to climb the mountain are made clear before you need to truly begin the climb.

But we need to focus on that part I dropped in rather casually at the start. A “rage game” is one meant to repeatedly and rapidly test the player in continually more precise challenges. Many of these games, like I Wanna Be The Guy and Getting Over It, are built to be not just difficult, but also frustrating and even unfair. The gameplay ranges from a harsh challenge to a gauntlet of tricks to memorize, and they may even reset the player back to the beginning of the entire game if they fail enough. They test skill as much as patience, but that ultimately means they’re frustrating to play for many, and what should be satisfaction from completion in other games often ends up as relief from stress in these games.

Celeste is a rage game in concept only. A death sends Madeline back to the beginning of the current screen, and dying gives only seconds of downtime before the player is thrust right back in to try again. You’re given as many attempts as you need to clear a screen, with the only reminder of failure being the death total at the end of a chapter — and the game tells you to be proud of that counter as a mark of your growth. Even minor details that could prove to bring frustration, like screens that stretch far beyond the view of the normal… well, screen, often include a pair of binoculars, such that the player can peer ahead and process everything they’ll have to deal with before their next respawn point. No random elements, no awkward controls or unnatural physics to how Madeline moves, and nothing that feels like it was done specifically to hassle an unsuspecting player. The mountain is challenging, it may even be harsh, but it isn’t unfair.

Everything in Celeste is within your control. The only barrier is putting in the time and effort to overcome the mountain.

This balance between low-pressure environments and high-pressure split-second platforming encourages the player to try anything and everything in the interest of learning, and that process naturally leads to the player understanding the game’s mechanics better than if those mechanics had just been explained in a tutorial. This is combined with collectible strawberries, which offer both optional challenges and an achievement number to boast, and an Assist Mode that can make the game easier if need be. The difficulty can be as much or as little as the player needs, but Celeste will always encourage an eager player to try for more.

It can be said, then, that the theme of Celeste is trying to climb your mountain. You can make mistakes, and you don’t have to feel bad about struggling, but you have to push through on your own strength. Unlike a typical rage game, which may gleefully embrace the struggle and the taunting of a player, Celeste is focused on a fair yet unyielding challenge. Every success is built of little failures that breed the end result, but demeaning someone for those little failures will eventually wear them down. Likewise, a game that makes failure punishing and demeaning will become artificially harder to complete by making the summit simply not worth the climb. Celeste does eventually offer unrelenting difficulty, but only to a player that feels they want that challenge — outside of that, everything Celeste does is in the interest of respecting the player’s attempts to succeed.

The moral of Celeste’s expertly crafted game design is that climbing the mountain is all the more manageable if people help you up where you’ve fallen down. But only you can bring yourself to reach the summit.

While I won’t get fully into the story, if only because it’s an experience worth not spoiling, it’s another part of how Celeste inverts the traditional rage game. Madeline’s goal is to climb Celeste Mountain, despite having no experience as a mountain climber and seemingly no reason to do so. Her ascent has her growing a bond with another climber named Theo, who gives Madeline some respite from the harshness of the climb and helps her manage her anxiety. At the same time, the magic of Celeste Mountain also manifests a part of Madeline’s psyche, known in outside material as “Badeline”, who derides her for trying to climb the mountain at all, and begins inventing more difficulties for Madeline during her journey. Madeline’s struggle is not only a physical climb up a harrowing mountain, but a test of her capability to grow as a person and get past the “part of herself” that’s keeping her from her goal.

Like with the player, Madeline’s obstacles become only harsher and more unforgiving with time, but she is able to persevere throughout, so long as she doesn’t let things like her anxiety take control from her. This narrative, one of my favorite stories in any video game, also serves to contrast with how rage games typically handle a story; most are light on their narrative, generally just giving an “excuse plot” to build unique levels with deadly obstacles. Celeste never lets its story take a hit for the sake of being more difficult or more cheeky, and instead uses it as fuel for the drive to complete its adventure.

Beyond the main story, there is a wealth of optional challenges for players that want to continue being tested. Each of the main chapters has a hidden Crystal Heart, which can be used to unlock Chapter 8, and each of these chapters has a “B-Side” variant with harder challenges. Even after completing the last B-Side challenge, Golden Strawberries are unlocked, which can only be collected if the player beats a chapter from start to finish without dying, and the recently released Chapter 9 (available as a free download) acts as the ultimate challenge, and the bookend to Celeste’s touching story. Up to the last moment, Celeste is always trying new combinations of its mechanics and teaching the player how to handle them. There is no shortage of content for a player that seeks it.

Celeste is arguably the pinnacle of rage games, and it’s that way because of how defiant it is against its own genre. Where most rage games delight in the grind of unrelenting challenges for little more payoff than being done with it, Celeste cherishes the concept of being in control of your challenges, and seeks to reassure players in their attempts to succeed. Moreover, Celeste stands as a metaphor of climbing your own mountains, and a beautiful story about how much you can accomplish, if only you begin the climb.

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