First and foremost, I want to thank one of my readers who contacted me, Ryan, for recommending Celeste. I would not have played it without your suggestion because it wasn’t even on my radar before that. I enjoy platformers, but I’m not very good at staying up-to-date on video game news. Trying to follow everything that’s happening is super stressful. Normally, I rely on my friends for that kind of information, but none of them are really into platformers, so thank you so much for recommending a game I have immensely enjoyed.
Like most indie platformers, the game is fairly simple in concept. The game follows a young woman, Madeline, as she attempts to climb Celeste mountain. The controls are basic, based around jumping, an air-dash, and climbing. The levels are often only as big as your screen and the simple move set means it is fairly easy to figure out how to move through them, but the game is still very challenging because the maneuvers require precise timing and execution. Timing your jumps, dashes, and climbs so you wind up being able to combine them all in a quick string that lets you finish by dashing to the final platform at the right moment, to avoid the floating spikes that are moving back and forth, becomes a real challenge. Dying only set you back to the start of the screen or the last mini checkpoint, but it can become the right kind of frustrating when you’ve died a couple dozen times on the one screen.
In addition to the air-dash, there are a number of level-unique gimmicks and a few game-wide ones that get introduced to add variety and further complication to your play. Platforms that fall or crumble a second after you land on them, bouncy clouds, little bubbles that throw you a certain distance in whatever direction you’re pushing, and even little feathers that turn you into a little orb of light dashing through the sky. Moving spikes, weird black round shapes with eyes, and moving platforms that catapult you in the direction they’re moving if you time your jumps well. All of it comes together to create a wonderful and challenging platformer that offers you a ton of variety.
To up the ante, there are various collectibles spread throughout the levels. Strawberries scattered throughout the level, little mini-game screens with “B-side” tapes on them, and crystal hearts in hidden rooms that will encourage you to leave no room or direction unexplored. The strawberries are just collectibles to incentivize exploration, but the B-sides and the crystal hearts add things to your game. Each level has a second, harder version you can unlock by finding the tapes while the last level, Level 8, is stuck behind a wall you can only unlock with four crystal hearts. Like most good collectibles in these kinds of games, you can enjoy the game without needing to gather them, but they add to the game if you take the time to find them all.
Thematically, this game is far more complex. Madeline is climbing the mountain because she feels like she needs to make a change in her life. As you learn throughout the game, Madeline suffers from some pretty bad depression and anxiety, resulting from something bad that happened to her (it is never specified, but the game hints that it may have to do with a past relationship). She has to learn how to deal with the problems that come up as a result of her mental health issues all while trying to cope with the mountain itself, which seems to be doing everything it can to make her journey more difficult. You can even see her slow growth throughout the game in the ways she interacts with and talks about the other people she encounters.
My favorite part, which hit super close to home, is an exchange between Madeline and Theo, a hiker she encounters throughout her climb who she just rescued from the materialization of her inner demons. They’re sitting around a campfire, talking about what happened and why it is happening. Eventually, Theo asks her a question (I’ve trimmed out non-relevant or spoiler-y bits of dialogue):
T: Why not take a vacation instead?
M: I guess I feel like I need to accomplish something.
T: It sounds like you have enough on your plate already.
M: I guess it is kind of extreme. But that’s how I am. I need something to challenge me. And I can’t just do something a little bit. It’s all of me, or nothing.
As someone whose main coping mechanism is “find projects to do” and who has often said that I find it much easier to commit 100% that hold back, I felt a little called-out by the game. Madeline even uses similar language to describe her depression.
I’m currently climbing my own mountain. Trying to update this blog every day for what’ll wind up being at least thirteen months, trying to work enough to pay of my loans quickly, trying to work out regularly, trying to work on my novel five days a week, and trying to maintain my relationships (romantic and platonic) by staying socially active. So far, I rarely ever accomplish all of those things, but I try every day and don’t give myself a hard time if I can only do one or two of those on any given day. I remember learning the lessons that Madeline learns in this game and this was an excellent reminder that I need to be careful or I’m only going to wind up making my life more difficult for myself.
I have to say, this game came at exactly the right time for me. I suggest you pick it up for its super fun platforming and then appreciate it for the wonderful story it tells in a form that doesn’t typically lend itself well to storytelling.