I have no love for the platforming genre. While I have been known to enjoy the occasional 3D platformer (primarily the Mario series), 2D platformers rarely appeal to me at all. They challenge me in exactly the way I hate to be challenged. Take classic Mega Man, for instance. The levels require a great degree of technical precision, demanding exact inputs on the controller to carefully navigate through tricky movement challenges while also avoiding enemy attacks. Most of these challenges you are not going to solve the first time you encounter them. The typical loop is that you discover a challenge, die, reach the challenge again, figure out how to solve it having learned from your death, and then promptly die again on the next hurdle. The core loop of such platformers is meticulous memorization. And if you run out of lives, you lose the benefit of any checkpoints that may have been established and have to start over from the beginning of the level (or maybe the whole game, Super Mario Bros).
I’ve never found this gameplay loop to be satisfying. I enjoy being challenged in games but I don’t enjoy when the challenge is repeating content. It feels tedious to slowly grind your way through a level, learning how to platform your way through one more obstacle and then having to repeat everything that got you to that obstacle when you die against the next one. I understand that for older platformers the developers were limited by the technology of the time, and that the design choices made then helped to create games which gave players something to strive for and made the game last awhile. But perhaps because I was born at a time when I could cut my teeth on 3D platformers, where exploration was a greater focus and death was less of a threat, the appeal of 2D platformers was lost on me.
It is this very bias against the genre that kept me from picking up Celeste for a long time. I knew the game was legendary. Many of my blogger friends praised it. YouTubers I regularly listened to talked about how much the game impacted them. Seeing the full team at the Game Awards talking about how much it meant to them that people were inspired by Celeste piqued my interest. But every time I heard someone sing its praises and thought about picking it up, I reminded myself: “it’s a platformer. You won’t like it. The story and characters won’t make a difference when you don’t care about the core gameplay.” And that thought process kept me away from the game for over a year.
If you asked me what finally encouraged me to try out Celeste, I would have a hard time answering. To a degree it was convenience more than anything. I had another game I was picking up on sale with a gift card and had ten dollars left over, which turned out to be just enough to by Celeste as it was also on sale. With my plan to cover two large RPGs on the blog (one western and one JRPG), it seemed appropriate to balance them out with a simpler title, something indie that I could cover quickly that also would give me something very different to talk about. And as someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, the way in which others who deal with mental health difficulties have praised this game sealed the deal. I picked up Celeste and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at the same time, and lacking an SD card to store the latter I jumped into the former first.
Celeste’s quirky charm was evident right away. The little bits of text reveal Madeline to be a character who is both funny and relatable. I loved the goofy sounds that serve as the “voice acting” for the game, and they brought to mind past favorites like Banjo Kazooie and Okami. Sitting up close and personal with a widescreen television probably wasn’t the best way to experience the game’s graphics, as I imagine that the spritework shines better on a more compact screen, but I could see the charm in the designs and the game does a good job of using Madeline’s sprite to communicate her status in order to avoid the need for an invasive UI.
Mechanically, Celeste demands of the player only a few key skills. You move with the control stick or the directional buttons. You jump with B or X, and you dash with Y or A. Holding down L or ZL allows you to grab onto a vertical surface from the side and climb up or down. Each of these moves have their limitations. There’s no double jump (although you can wall jump) and you can only jump so far without the help of tools in the environment. The dash is a short burst that can send you in any direction, but it’s possible to overshoot a target and after a dash, Madeline’s hair turns blue to indicate that you cannot dash again until you land. When she climbs, Madeline will begin to sweat and then flash red to indicate that her climbing stamina has worn out. Move, jump, dash, and climb – these are the four tools in your arsenal in Celeste, and you’ll quickly learn both the possibilities and the limitations of each as you explore the game world.
Your mission in Celeste is to climb Mt. Celeste, though exactly why Madeline wishes to do so is not revealed at the beginning of the game. She herself even questions her motivation as she climbs and encounters difficulties. The climb is broken up into levels, with each level having a distinct theme and therefore its own challenges and unique set pieces to work with. For this first impressions article, I played only the first level, though I played both its normal form and the B-side. In each level, your goal is to progress from the beginning of the level to the end, and you can essentially play through the game doing just that. Start the level, make your way to the end as quickly and carefully as possible, and repeat, doing this one level at a time until the game is over. However, playing in this way will only earn you one of three different markers of success in Celeste.
Each level has essentially three challenges: finish the level, collect all of the strawberries, and discover the B-side. Completing the B-side is then its own challenge if you choose to take that on. Strawberries are small collectibles strewn throughout each level, some cleverly hidden while others taunt you in easy to see but hard to reach places. Strawberries are hidden behind the trickier platforming challenges in a level, asking you to push the skills you’ve developed in order to overcome more treacherous terrain or less forgiving hazard patterns. Finding all of the strawberries earns you a second medal (so to speak) for the level. Just like strawberries, the B-side tape for a given level is hidden behind harder to find and harder to overcome challenges and grants a medal for discovering it. Levels also track your time and count your deaths, seemingly encouraging you to finish a level as quickly as possible and dying as few times as possible.
It didn’t take long for me to find the death tracker frustrating. In the prologue before the first level technically begins, one of the first challenges you deal with is a heavy block of ice that breaks off above you and hurtles towards you to crush your body beneath it. The hazard is clearly telegraphed and pretty easy to avoid as long as you keep moving. But like a dunce, I stood underneath it for a moment and watched with curiosity as it reacted to me landing beneath it. That gave the ice just enough time to pulverize Madeline into a pulp, giving me my first death less than two minutes after starting the game as part of the tutorial prologue. When I finished the first level and before I knew what the different medals were, I assumed there was one for a deathless run of a level. Imagine my surprise when I returned to a level to collect strawberries I missed and then left again to find my original death counter not reset but instead climbing even higher than before! With deaths being cumulative, every trip back into the first level was another opportunity for my counter to reach greater heights, which I certainly didn’t like to see.
Then I got to the B-side. The B-side of a level is essentially its remix tape, a more challenging version that literally features a remixed song but also takes the core concepts you learn in the basic form of the level and implements them in ways that require incredible precision and memorization to navigate. One challenge, for example, required me to start a moving platform, bounce off of the edge of it into the air (avoiding spikes to the left of it), dash perfectly over a row of spikes but not into another wall of spikes on the right so I could drop down onto the moving platform just before it returned to its original position, using the bouncing platform to launch me up and over the wall of spikes to the right in order to progress to the next screen. I died in a myriad of ways: hitting the jumping platform too early, dashing too far to the right after a bounce, dropping down too slowly and missing the moving platform on its return path, failing to bounce up enough and having the floor move out from under me. Pressing the dash button a half-second too early or starting a bounce just slightly to the left of the correct position is absolutely the sort of thing that ends in death. The degree of precision these levels require is thoroughly unforgiving.
What is forgiving is the way that Celeste handles dying. When you die, there’s no game over screen. The game doesn’t stop and take a few seconds to load you back in. You’re not sent back to the beginning of the level or to a checkpoint you passed four rooms ago. Madeline simply respawns at the beginning of the room, and you can immediately try again. There’s no life system either, so you get as many of these no-fault respawns as you need throughout the level. Death shows you that you made a mistake and asks you to start over, but it’s no more punishing than that. You drop back into the game so quickly that you can easily begin the challenge again, hopefully getting one more step each time until you finally push through the entire room. Like learning to walk as a child, you fall and then get back up again, and you take one more step each time until you’re finally putting enough steps together that you’ve made meaningful progress.
When I played through the B-side of the first level, it was the most physically demanding session of gaming I’ve had in as long as I can remember. My fingers were working the buttons so quickly that they were sore after a couple of hours of play. I was leaned forward in my chair, totally focused on the screen. Each death was met with an exasperated sigh or grunt of frustration but I was immediately back in it, adjusting my positioning slightly to the left or waiting another beat to initiate a dash. I’d spend ten or fifteen minutes on a single room, dying repeatedly but slowly making incremental bits of progress and learning how to overcome each challenge within the room. When I finally cleared a single room and made it into the next one, I’d smile with relief and satisfaction before taking a moment to calm down and prepare for what would probably be an even harder challenge than the previous room.
When I completed the B-side of the first level, I watched my death counter anxiously. I knew I’d died what seemed like constantly – what ridiculous number would show on the counter now that I had finally finished? I watched in horror as the number rocketed upward, reaching well into the hundreds to finally land on 685 deaths. But in that moment, my perspective on the death counter changed. I thought it was there to challenge you to finish a level in as few deaths as possible. But looking at the display say 685, it hit me: I still finished the level. I made almost 700 mistakes and pushed through every one of them to finally be able to say that I completed the B-side. It would have been easy to give up at 100 deaths. I’ve certainly taken a break from other games for far, far less. But Celeste’s mechanics make it so that when you fall off the mountain, you’re encouraged to keep going. Start the climb again – each time you’ll make enough incremental progress that it matters.
As someone who suffers from depression, I know how easy it is to fixate on mistakes. I have personally experienced what it is like to spend months working away at this problem of my mental health only to come out the other side feeling like nothing was accomplished. “I’m not better,” I think, “even after all this. What was the point of it?” My brain feels like I started a climb and then tumbled back down the mountain, with nothing to show for it but more deaths on my counter. But just like in Celeste, each one of those defeats is one more time that I at least tried. And while the experience may not have led to measurable progress, each time was one more lesson learned. “A little more to the right next time.” “Oh okay, I get how this platform works now.” “Wait a second, what if I’m supposed to climb the opposite side of the block?” Eventually, all the little lessons add up together to one unit of significant progress, a room being completed. The process then starts again and after awhile all of those rooms chain together into a full level. Eventually, all of those levels will be an entire mountain climbed.
When I finished the B-side and saw my 685 deaths, I got it. What’s special about Celeste hit me like a ton of bricks. I know from seeing other people talk about the game that at some point the story is going to dive into Madeline’s mental health and deliver a hopeful message, even teach some skills for dealing with overwhelming emotions. But what’s brilliant about this game is that just by engaging the mechanics, I’ve already been told that story without a single line of dialogue. By daring to engage with Celeste at all, you are learning the lessons the game has to teach. They are baked into its core, a philosophy that influences each design choice to create an experience that can be fully didactic without saying a single word. In a game where finishing a single level feels like doing so much, I’m excited to see the payoff when I finally climb the mountain at long last.