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.
5 thoughts on “Climbing the Mountain of my Heart”
[…] you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most […]
[…] of my go-to unwinding games has been Celeste. I really enjoyed playing through it the first time and, while I can’t recapture the catharsis I felt as I watched Madeline work through her […]
Hey, I finally got around to checking for your review of Celeste (and your two follow-up posts). I’m glad you enjoyed it! It’s one of my favorite games of all time. I remember that when I first bought it, I started playing around 9 PM on a weeknight, and it grabbed me so hard that I just couldn’t put it down until I had reached the summit 8 hours later, at 5 AM the next morning!
One of the things that I loved about Celeste, which you allude to a bit in your last paragraph, is how it uses the gameplay itself as a storytelling medium. It’s sad that this quality is so rare in video games, because it’s literally the only thing that distinguishes games from linear media as a storytelling medium. For instance, in the Golden Ridge chapter, the only actual dialogue happens at the very beginning and end of the chapter. Everything in between is just gameplay, and that gameplay, through the game mechanics like the wind that actively impedes your progress and pushes you back, tells the entire narrative and emotional arc of the chapter without putting so much as a single word on screen. And the player’s mounting frustration as each screen gets longer and more difficult mirrors Madeline’s own deteriorating emotional state. (I’m being intentionally a bit vague to avoid spoiling other readers, obviously.) The constant use of gameplay and level design to put the player in the same frame of mind as the main character is part of what made the story so heartfelt and cathartic for me.
Another thing that contributed immensely to my enjoyment of Celeste is the wonderful dynamic soundtrack, which, just like the gameplay, always serves to help tell the story rather then just acting as a backdrop for it. Even now, over 6 months after playing the game, when I’m idly whistling a tune, it’s usually a tune from Celeste’s soundtrack. The composer for Celeste is Lena Raine, which I mention first because she deserves recognition for such amazing works, and second because it brings me to another recommendation I have for you based on your passion for RPGs and storytelling: Lena’s recently released interactive fiction experience, titled ESC (which you can find here: https://radicaldreamland.itch.io/esc).
Lastly, one thing that only struck me after I had finished playing is that this game has no violence in it (at least not on the player’s part). There isn’t even an attack button. The closest you ever come to attacking anyone is in the Reflection chapter, but even then the goal is just to get through to them, both literally and metaphorically.
Anyway, I’ll close with an encouragement for you to keep playing, because based on what you’ve talked about in your latest post on Celeste (from May 3rd), there is yet more for you to discover.
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I can’t thank you enough for the recommendation! I’ve gotten so much out of the game already and, as you guessed, there’s still more for me to find! I’ve got a busy weekend coming up, but I’ve favorited that link and I’m looking forward to checking it out! I got one of my friends into the game and now I hear Celeste music come up in a lot of his playlists when we’re hanging out at his place. The music is so amazing. There’s just so much that’s amazing about this game but it’s a bit difficult to really talk about it without risking spoilers!
[…] inside that you won’t even admit you’re hiding to yourself (we’ll leave that to Celeste), but you’ll have a good time as long as you don’t mind a bit of a bratty protagonist […]