A few years ago if you were to approach me and ask me what an indie game was, my answer to you would have been “garbage.” The word indie to me meant a title that was thrown together with minimal time and resources to make a quick buck on a cell phone or e-shop. These titles are often referred to in the gaming media zeitgeist as shovelware, and that is precisely what I assumed every indie game to be for a long time. Then I played a little title you may have heard of called Undertale, and that redefined my expectations and opened my mind to exactly what less resourced designers can be capable of.
I still don’t play indie titles as much as I would like, but my opinion on them has most certainly flipped. I think some of the most innovative concepts in gaming these days arise out of the indie scene. Undertale showed how typical RPG mechanisms could be turned on their head both for humor and for a powerful message. Into the Breach demonstrated how giving players more information rather than keeping secrets from them and removing randomness from the typical tactical RPG structure could revolutionize how the genre worked. For a long time, Celeste was a game that I heard mentioned in conversations about game-changing indies, and now that I’ve been able to play the game for myself, I am in total agreement with that assessment.
I’ve shared my thoughts on Celeste based only on my impressions from the game’s first level, as well as sharing how Celeste is an effective demonstration of games as teaching tools. In this article, I’ll be examining the full Celeste experience – story, characters, and mechanisms – and the way they work together powerfully to share a message of hope that many players in our modern world sorely need.
Let’s start with the basic premise. Celeste tells the story of a woman named Madeline who has set out to climb a mountain. Each of the game’s levels is one stretch of the climb, with the goal being for Madeline to finally reach the summit of Mt. Celeste. Along the way, Madeline meets a few different characters who live on the mountain or are also making an effort to climb it. And her biggest obstacle outside of the mountain itself is her own mind, a part of her that threatens to end her journey through fear and darkness. This darker Madeline is a metaphor for depression and anxiety, and throughout the game that metaphor becomes clearer as we see the impact on Madeline’s thoughts and actions.
To say that Madeline is the only character who struggles with her mental health would be to dismiss the multiple interesting characters in Celeste. In fact, it is in her interactions with other people that we see both hope and harm in the way which people who struggle with their mental health speak with one another. Mutual anxiety can lead to unhealthy behaviors that result in harm to both parties – but it can also lead to sharing healthy coping mechanisms and having another human being who understands better than anybody what you are going through. These lessons, while stated plainly here, are demonstrated with subtlety during the game itself. Celeste doesn’t preach at you – it simply shares its message through the actions of the characters and allows you to discover the truth for yourself.
The dialogue present in this game is quirky and fun in the bright moments while also being intensely personal in the dark ones. Madeline deals with common struggles tied in with depression and anxiety such as social discomfort, panic attacks, self loathing, and feeling hopeless about her circumstances. As someone who deals with mild depression and anxiety myself, I connected immediately with all the demonstrations of Madeline’s struggles. I found her to be one of the most relatable video game characters I have ever seen, and that feeling of a personal connection makes her story even more powerful when it comes to fruition.
Mechanically, Celeste is simple but powerful. You can move, jump, climb, and dash, and these few skills are your tools for navigating all of the different challenges in the game. Climb too long and you’ll fall down. Dash once and you cannot dash again until you touch the ground. There is no double jump. Altogether, these limitations work together to create a surprising variety of platforming challenges that the game riffs on in an impressive number of ways. Of course, these limitations can also be changed depending on your comfort level. Celeste has a number of accessibility options for players who want to focus more on the story than the punishing platforming, and the game doesn’t judge anyone for using them either out of necessity or out of desire. It also makes clear that the tougher challenges – like collecting strawberries or completing B-sides – are totally optional and should only be done if they sound fun to you.
What are strawberries and B-sides, you may ask? First let’s talk about the level structure of Celeste. Each level of the game is tied together by a core theme, using two or three key mechanisms to drive all of the puzzles and platforming challenges within the level. In the hotel level, for example, small tendrils cover certain surfaces. Coming in contact with these tendrils causes them to turn into a harmful black and red substance when you move away, making it unsafe to traverse any territory you have already touched. In the golden ridge level, clouds provide a heightened jump capability if timed correctly, and small orbs can launch you a short distance in a direction that you indicate. Just one new mechanism in a level can nevertheless offer a ton of options for platforming challenges to overcome. Some of these challenges are optional ones that don’t impact the story of the game.
Now to talk about strawberries. All over Mt. Celeste, there are strawberries strewn about that are located off the beaten path. Strawberries are placed behind more challenging sections of the level, or perhaps hidden in secret locations where you need to experiment in order to discover them. Attaining strawberries increases your final score in the game, but ultimately that’s nothing more than bragging rights. You can absolutely skip them, but learning to navigate an area in a different way has a small reward attached to it. B-side tapes are hidden similarly to strawberries, but collecting them has a different effect: you unlock a whole additional version of the level. The B-side levels are much more difficult and push your platforming prowess to its absolute limit. They’re optional, but it is in these optional sections that some of Celeste’s best design decisions shine through.
First off, the B-sides show off some of the most heinous and clever traps that the designers were able to fashion together using the mechanics of a given level. Some of them even introduce mechanisms that the main level didn’t incorporate at all. For example, the game’s second level features shimmering zones of a mysterious substance which you can dash through to get a small leap along with an additional dash. The B-side for that level reveals for the first time that by pressing the jump button right as the substance launches you, you’ll fly significantly farther, and it builds multiple challenges around that revelation. Seeing each level’s core concept pushed further was mind-blowing for me each time.
I’ve already spoken at length in my other articles about the way the B-sides highlight the brilliant progression structure of Celeste as well as the way that the game handles death. The brutal difficulty of the levels is offset by the fact that dying is not punishing at all – you’re simply plopped right back at the beginning of the room and given the chance to try again. Each time you die you learn what not to do, and you’re eventually able to string together the lessons learned from your mistakes into a room successfully completed. The game teaches you to see even the most minor accomplishments as meaningful successes, and that makes the experience more rewarding when you chain together those successes into a truly massive success like finishing a level. When I pushed through particularly challenging sections, I would sometimes record a video and just watch myself get through the platforms successfully. It blew me away the things I was capable of – had you shown me a video of someone else doing the same movements, I would have thought those feats to be impossible for myself.
Any of Celeste’s accomplishments – the moving story, the challenging mechanisms – would be impressive when taken alone. What’s most impressive about the game is the way in which these elements reinforce one another. The story of Celeste is that of a woman slowly making her way up a mountain, pushing through her doubts and her mistakes in order to reach the summit. Each level tells this story in its own way, putting you as the player through your paces and challenging you to overcome your doubts and your mistakes to complete the level. Every level you complete is beating a miniature version of Celeste. You are accomplishing mechanically what Madeline is accomplishing emotionally. And as you see her emotional journey, it gives context and value to the things you’ve been accomplishing in each level and making the message more obvious and powerful. It’s clear that every design choice in the game was held together powerfully by the themes the developers wished to focus on, and the whole experience is stronger for it.
So who would enjoy Celeste? As a 2D platformer, it will naturally appeal to fans of that genre, but I think there’s value in Celeste even for those who are not fans. After all, the 2D platformer is one of my least favorite genres, yet I found myself engrossed in Celeste in a way that defied expectations. It may be helpful to reference the styles of fun for this one: if you’re a person who enjoys being challenged by a video game, then Celeste absolutely will accomplish that purpose. And because of the assist mode, “challenge” can be relative to your level of physical capability. The game also has really satisfying tactile feedback so if you’re someone who likes to press buttons, move sticks with precision, and feel a satisfying rumble to galvanize you into action when you fail, Celeste delivers on that in spades. Fun through submission (e.g. repetitive platforming through an area to memorize the patterns) is a big part of Celeste’s style as well.
If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety and depression yourself, you may find Celeste to be a different way to explore that subject. The game does incorporate some themes intended to help address mental health struggles, and while I wouldn’t recommend it in place of a long term solution like therapy it can certainly have value as a tool for you to relate to as well as conveying some simple tips for specific situations. That being said, if you’re playing the game from that perspective you may want to pace yourself. Because the game displays the impact of anxiety – including a very powerful panic attack scene that left me pretty shaken after it was over – you want to be sure to come in prepared and to take breaks when you need to.
Celeste is a fantastic game and another demonstration of the amazing things happening in the indie scene. If you think you’d be interested in Celeste but have been putting it off for a long time (as I was), I would encourage you to pick it up and give it a try. At its full price of $20 it is most certainly a worthwhile endeavor. From a value perspective, I played Celeste for a solid 24 hours and I didn’t even finish all of the content (once I beat the main story I didn’t collect all the strawberries or do the B-side for the final level, and there’s also post game content). That’s a ton of mileage for an indie game and also a ton of mileage for $20. If you have any questions about the game that weren’t answered in this review, feel free to leave them in a comment below and I will be sure to respond if I know the answer.