Celeste Embraces Both Competitive and Casual Players
However you like to enjoy your games, Celeste has you covered
If you asked me to summarize Celeste — the 2018 game by then-studio Matt Makes Games — in just one scene, I’d choose the end of chapter four. After the Madeline, the protagonist, scales a portion of the titular mountain, she finds herself trapped on a ski lift, stuck hovering above her death.
Following a series of self-doubting thoughts, Madeline begins a series of deep breathing exercises to calm down. Players are tasked with using the controller buttons to simulate the act, raising and lowering an on screen feather until her heart rate settles.
This moment captures what Celeste is all about: overcoming (or at times accepting) one’s demons by exerting control over oneself. It serves as the game’s midpoint, when Madeline begins to find some of her confidence to overcome the trials ahead. As a narrative moment in a platformer, it’s effective storytelling and engaging gameplay all in one.
But you won’t see it if you’re speed running the game.
Instead, speedrunners will pause the game and flick through the menu to skip the scene and save some frames. With the push of the button this, and all of Celeste’s powerful narrative moments are pushed by the wayside.
Sad as it may be for casual players, it’s quite a feat that Maddy Thorson and company managed to craft a game for casual and competitive players alike. Finding a speed game usually requires one of the following — tight controls, tailormade, if not downright exploitable physics, and competent level design. That’s not to say games that don’t fit this mold can’t be speed run, but these traits speak to why Sonic, 2D Metroid, and Dark Souls are staples within the speed running community.
Meanwhile, narratively driven games may take an alternative approach, locking many of the most moving moments behind unplayable cutscenes. Developers, often find ways around the cutscene-gameplay divide, through quick time events and other sequences, but crafting a game that appeals to the emotional nature of the audience often means hitting pause on true gameplay action.
Celeste navigates this chasm deftly, its success owed to its minimalist design. The game originated as a game for the PICO-8 virtual machine, a platformer that shared the boost mechanic and screen based design of Celeste without all of the final product’s polish. Though the final game would add text-driven cutscenes and a host of unlockable levels and challenges, it’s core remains concentrated in effective delivery of story and gameplay.
Despite speed runners making use of a variety of techniques — spike jumps, corner boosts and ultras to name a few — the game rarely requires these techniques in the average play through. Instead, Celeste hits its marks by pacing the story and gameplay such that competitive players can flex their skill sets while casual ones can marvel at Madeline’s personal progression while steadily improving their technical ability.
Celeste’s levels grow increasingly more challenging, but are paced such that starting a new chapter feels like natural progression from the last. The skill curve is steeped in realism. As you grow more comfortable with Madeline’s momentum and interactions with obstacles, formerly challenging areas become playgrounds for creative traversal. Likewise, Madeline comes to terms with herself, accepting her shortcomings as part of what makes her unique.
Three years after its release and I haven’t yet invested time in learning to speed run Celeste. I’m sure it would give me new appreciation for the game, but a mountain of backlogged titles pushes Celeste runs down the priority list. That doesn’t stop me from toggling the in-game timer and trying to beat my personal bests now and again. Nor does it keep me from going out of my way to meet fellow mountain climber Theo in chapter one.
Ultimately, Celeste is therapeutic in either of its play styles. Casual completionists and competitive climbers alike can find solace in mastering Celeste’s challenge, which, like the in-game mountain, presents itself differently depending on the player’s approach. Do you perfect your platforming or bask in the story? Thankfully, playing Celeste means you don’t have to choose.