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We take movement for granted in games. We know that the game will often forgive missteps and poorly timed jumps because to die like that is embarrassing especially when you’re playing as someone like Duke Nukem or B.J. Blaskowicz. Platformers have no such quibbles and will happily sit their forever as you smash a controller off a wall or kick a hole in your TV. Celeste is one such platformer but instead of offering a shit eating grin like Crash Bandicoot or, Lord save us, Bubsy it waits patiently all smiles and encouragement. Death is fleeting and frustrating in most platformers but never has it felt so rewarding in Celeste.
Madeline is a young woman with deep rooted fears and anxieties. Determined and stubborn she heads to Celeste Mountain, presumably in the Canadian Rockies, to conquer the mountain and her fears. As she climbs she meets Granny, a jolly old woman; Theo, an Instagram obsessed hipster and Mr Oshiro, the ghostly concierge of an abandoned hotel. On the mystical slopes a Part of Madeline manifests herself. A combination of many of Madeline’s fears and anxieties she seeks to hinder Madeline’s progress up the mountain. She is a constant voice of doubt and negativity throughout Madeline’s trek to the summit.
“The mountain can’t bring anything out that isn’t there already,” says Granny at the beginning of the game. She’s right too, the physical dangers of Celeste Mountain might be very real but they are emboldened and also eliminated by Madeline’s fears and abilities. Angry red crystal spikes objectify Madeline’s rage and frustration at herself. Ugly black ooze hints at her impatience with Mr Oshiro’s pitiful attempts at making her stay. Airborne bubbles send her flying through the air and recharge her vital dash boost power. Mechanical locks and switches open as Madeline dashes between them.
The aim of Celeste is simple: climb the mountain. The story can be completely ignored if you’re that impatient but why would you be? The brief cut-scenes interspersed between Celeste’s nerve-shredding, sweat-soaked levels are moments to breathe, to relax, to remember why you and Madeline are doing this. We are always personally, if not emotionally, invested in the games we play. Even if it means a Victory Royale or coming first in Mario Kart winning often means everything in games. Celeste is different. Much like Mass Effect or Skyrim or, yes, Journey it’s the journey that matters most not the destination. The work we put in to games like Celeste reap huge emotional dividends.
Reaching the summit in Celeste is a victory in every sense of the word but without the journey it means nothing. It’s like the ladder they bolted to the side of Mount Everest so tourists could scale the world’s tallest peak without worrying about dying. Where’s the adventure? Where’s the fun? Dodging spikes and ooze and sharp drops in Celeste is likely to leave you a nervous wreck by the time you’re done but only physically. In Celeste every step forward is a victory and every step backwards is a lesson learned. Emotionally Celeste gives you exactly what you need when you need it. Madeline’s adventure is our adventure and so we feel the same emotional release she does as we conquer our fears, reconcile with our nightmarish doppelganger and reach the summit.
We control Madeline every step of the way. One wrong move often means instant death under a granite block or on a sharp icicle. We must have total control of Madeline in order to win and so we must have total control of ourselves. Clearing a pit of spikes and rebounding off a booster platform into a purple bubble that launches Madeline towards the next stage of the summit level in one fell swoop is immensely satisfying in a way that Crash Bandicoot or, Satan take him, Bubsy never was. Celeste encourages you onwards with a pat on the shoulder and a warm smile; anything Crash Bandicoot or, call the exterminator, Bubsy did felt like a kick in the balls at best.
Madeline only makes it to the top with the help of her friends. Though she has grit and determination in spades it’s not enough to haul her out of the pit she falls into, literally and metaphorically, towards the end of the game. Madeline proves herself time and again in a crumbling city, an abandoned hotel and an enchanted forest. She saves Theo from a haunted mirror in an ancient temple and Theo along with Granny help Madeline realise that despite her best efforts she couldn’t have done anything for Mr Oshiro. The only person Madeline can truly save on Celeste Mountain is herself.
Depression and anxiety never go away. They can often or occasionally fade into the background. They can be treated but never cured. I don’t think climbing the mountain made Madeline’s anxieties and depressive episodes go away. The mountain is only so magical. But I do think her conquest of that almost unreachable peak helped her in ways only she could fathom. I don’t think guiding Madeline to that conquest cured my anxiety or helped me conquer my own depression but I know it helped me in ways only I can fathom. For everything Celeste does in terms of its tight-as-a-screw gameplay it’s story is the real reward. It’s a tale as old as time one in which we play as both Beauty and the Beast.