Dave Played a Game
posted 16 March 2019 in Dave Played a Game
2018, developed and published by Matt Makes Games
I'm not gonna beat around the strawberry bush here: I fucking love this video game. Celeste is the first game since 2004's Metroid: Zero Mission to earn a place on my personal top-five list. During my first 100% run, I died over six thousand times and never once got frustrated. There's something really special about a game that can beat you down so savagely but never quell your drive to succeed.
But I guess that's the whole point, isn't it?
This review contains spoilers. If you don't want to read any spoilers for this game, stop reading.
Celeste is an indie 2D platformer game with a retro aesthetic about a young girl named Madeline climbing Mount Celeste, which is apparently a colloquial name for an actual mountain on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, where the game takes place. It evolved out of an Game Jame game developed in just four days by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry. You can even play the original version in your browser here!
Let's Just Get This Shit Out of the Way Right Now
Madeline suffers from depression and anxiety. Mount Celeste itself is a metaphor for that seemingly insurmountable mental state. The act of climbing Mount Celeste is a metaphor for overcoming trials through perseverance. The game's brutal difficulty is a metaphor for how failure is okay and the only way to improve is to learn from your mistakes. Along the way, you'll meet several other characters:
- The old lady who lives on the mountain, the detractor who tells us we're foolish for trying to pursue ambitious goals
- Theo, another mountain-climber, the calming presence we all need during times of great inner turmoil
- "Badeline," the physical manifestation of Madeline's (and our) doubts and fears
- Mr. Oshiro, the ghost of the concierge of a hotel that closed down long ago, our refusal to let go of the past, and the people we hurt when our own "Badeline" wrests control from us
- The crow, who tells us what buttons to press to do stuff in the game
Madeline and Badeline.
I've read numerous stories about how this game has helped people come to terms with their own mental health issues, and that's fantastic. It's just one more awesome point on top of the mountain (get it because the game is about climbing a mountain and I said mountain which the game is about climbing one of) of awesome points this game has earned.
But I've also read numerous takes on how insanely deep the symbolism in this game is, and every time I do, I ask myself, "Did you pay any attention to the game at all?" While the themes are wonderfully executed, the game's not exactly subtle about it. The story is less an exploration of a subtle metaphor than it is getting clubbed over the head with a metaphor-bat. Oh, holy shit, that's it! The constant beatdown the game's increasingly challenging levels deliver is actually a metaphor for the metaphor-bat beatings! Wow, that is deep. I take back this entire paragraph.
If there's any actually well-hidden symbolism in the game, it's that the game's anti-frustration systems are meant to be a metaphor for the importance of self-care (detailed a bit in this Kotaku article).
Okay, Now I Can Jerk Off the Gameplay and Soundtrack for the Rest of the Review
The climb up Mount Celeste is divided into seven core story chapters and a bonus eighth chapter. Each of those eight chapters contains a hidden collectible cassette tape that unlocks the "B-side" for that chapter -- basically an entirely-new-but-substantially-more-difficult chapter in the same area. After completing all of the B-sides, you unlock each chapter's non-Euclidean (as far as cassette tape geometry is concerned) "C-side"; C-sides are short, but feature the most difficult individual challenges in the game.
In addition to the cassette tapes, each story chapter (except the sixth) contains several collectible strawberries. The game tells you up front that there is no purpose to collecting strawberries, but what it doesn't tell you is that each strawberry gives you 1,000 points, which also serves no purpose, because the game does not have a points system. In reality, strawberries do serve one incredibly minor purpose: during the epilogue, Madeline bakes a strawberry pie for everyone you've met along the way, and the pie looks more and more elaborate (and everyone reacts more favorably to it) based on how many strawberries you've collected. I guess that's technically a spoiler, so, like, if you haven't played the game yet, go ahead and un-read that last sentence.
In addition to the strawberries, each story chapter, B-side, and C-side contains one golden strawberry that unlocks at the beginning of each level after you've completed all of the C-sides one time. You can opt to pick up a golden strawberry right at the start, but you won't collect it: it follows you around through the entire level, and at the very end you can finally collect it, but if you die at any point, you return to the start of the chapter. Unlike regular strawberries, collecting golden strawberries truly serves absolutely zero purpose past exercising your God-given right to masochism. There's also a special golden strawberry for completing the first story mode chapter without using the dash button, a devious but fun challenge that forces you to make use of various "undocumented" movement techniques.
Finally, a hidden collectible heart resides in each story chapter; those hearts must be collected to unlock the bonus chapter and its C-side version. Collecting them usually involves solving a short puzzle of some sort, one of which is a fantastic love letter to Celeste's ancestor, Super Mario Bros. 3.
Yeah, I did some goldens. Yeah, I hate myself, why do you ask?
Every chapter is divided into several "rooms," for lack of a better term, each of which offers a bite-sized challenge. In these rooms you'll have to make use of the only three things Madeline can do -- jumping, dashing, and wall-climbing -- to traverse a wide variety of obstacles and impediments, from little sludge monsters to gale-force winds to harrowing, narrow passageways completely covered in spikes. There is no health system in Celeste: if you touch a thing you're not supposed to touch, you die.
You'd think that, after your two-hundredth death in a room (or, in the case of my first time through the final room of the chapter seven C-side, the four-hundred-sixty-seventh death), you'd start to get frustrated. But the window between losing control and regaining it for your next attempt is so tiny that there's simply no time for frustration, because the desire to try it "just one more time" never fades. The game feels very much like Super Meat Boy (another excellent precision platformer, though one that lacks Celeste's tightness of control) in that regard.
This anti-frustration design is at the core of Celeste's brilliance: it pushes you as the player to channel the perseverance the story assigns to Madeline, giving you a real emotional connection with the little fire-haired mountain-climber, whether you want it or not. It sits in stark contrast to games with intentionally frustrating mechanics, like Hollow Knight, a game that seems to revel less in its brutal difficulty and more in how much it punishes you for succumbing to it. Every death in Hollow Knight results in a low-health respawn at the last save point you used, which forces you to carefully make your way back to the spot at which you died so that you can kill your ghost; if you fail to do that, you lose all (or almost all) of your money. Obviously a lot of people really loved it, but there was a reason that eventually the loop of "ten seconds dying to a boss, ninety seconds getting back to it" elicited a hard "fuck it" response from me, while my three-hundred-fourteenth death in a single room in Celeste never elicited more than a "well gosh darn it, I'll bet I can get it next time."
Yes, that is six thousand, two hundred and one deaths.
In my defense, my second 100% run was only around 1,900, so...yay for improving?
Trial by Error a Mass Grave of Redheads
Celeste only explicitly teaches you four things throughout the course of the entire game: during a prologue sequence, it teaches you how to dash; in the chapter two B-side, it teaches you how to get extra distance when exiting a certain type of terrain; in the penultimate B-side (which many players never even see), it teaches you the "dash wall jump," a technique that allows you to leverage walls to gain a lot more height than vertical dashes normally allow; and in the very final C-side -- the last bit of content in the game (at the time of this writing) -- it teaches you the "hyper dash," which is essentially the horizontal analogue to the dash wall jump.
And...that's it. You have to master the stoplight platforms, the celestial...blobby...blobs, the...tendrily...floor...things, the blue blooples, the red blooplers, the tentacle monster bros, the golden fly-y McTicklers, the pinball ping-pongers, the "awrarararararar" blocks, and the thermostats all on your own. Pretty sure those are the official names. Anyway, generally, you figure these things out by dying and progressing incrementally:
- "Oh, hey, a red bloopler! I wonder if it's like those blue blooples from the previous chapt--" dead.
- "Well, can I make it go in a different direct--" dead.
- "Nice! So, can I bail out early? I can! That means--" dead.
- "Ahem. That means I can clear this jump and--shit, I need to preserve my dash there? Well how in the fuck--" dead.
You get the idea.
Like...you're not getting through this room on your very first try.
Not pictured: the other 90% of the room.
This kind of repetitive, trial-by-error gameplay is Celeste. Playing Celeste feels remarkably similar to practicing the piano, which is probably why I'm a.) so drawn to it, and b.) pretty okay at it. Some might wave off the latter B-sides and all of the C-sides as not worth the effort. I understand that. But for me, that gradual refinement of a series of precise inputs is like a warm blanket I can wrap around myself and then immediately remove because I'm not a huge fan of being toasty.
I really only have a single complaint with the game, and that's the "tentacle monster bros," who appear in chapter five. They introduce a very small amount of randomness into the game, and I don't think any degree of randomness meshes well with the philosophy of the precision platformer. As a consequence, chapter five is my least favorite of the game's eight chapters, but that's kind of like saying Beethoven's fourth symphony is my least favorite of his symphonies: it's still a masterwork.
The Music Is Great
It's kind of hard to review a game when a tweet-length "yo if u like platformers ud be an idiot not to play Celeste" really seems like it would suffice, but it's hard not to mention the truly top-notch soundtrack composed by Lena Raine (who also wrote music for Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, among other things), a largely synth-based score that has the increasingly rare distinction of being eminently memorable. You can listen to it (and buy it, which you should do) here.
The "boss fight" against Badeline has one of my favorite tracks in the game.
Also, taking this screenshot very obviously appears to have cost me a life.
yo if u like platformers ud be an idiot not to play
And remember, everyone...