With in its gameplay design and emotional impact, Celeste is a triumph worth celebrating.
Games, if you haven’t heard, are extremely hard to develop. Take whatever you know about life and add soul-crushing deadlines, periods of crunch, financial trouble, rescheduling and a vocal minority that seemingly wants you dead. It’s not easy being a game developer and yet, development is an art form. There is something to being an artist in this medium, crafting an experience that you want people to not just see and hear but partake in and relate to. When you think about managing everything else and still conveying a video game’s vision to your audience, it’s a miracle that a game can still be fun. However, it’s another thing to present that vision so purely even as everything falls so perfectly into place. I believe Matt Makes Games Inc., a relatively small studio, has accomplished that with Celeste.
"Excellent writing endears one to these characters but more so to Madeline. She’s grumpy but also hopeful; stubborn but ultimately kind-hearted, even if things don’t always go her way."
You’ve probably heard about the pixel-based platformer and how it’s drawing rave reviews from critics. The developer is previously known for TowerFall: Ascension, a multiplayer title that also played around with wall-jumping and well executed platforming. Celeste is different because it only has a single-player campaign. There are over 700 screens to explore, divided up into chapters that focus on Madeline and her quest to scale Celeste Mountain. Along the way she’ll run into oddities like the old woman at the mountain’s base and Theo, an amateur photographer trying to gather social media followers. Excellent writing endears one to these characters but more so to Madeline. She’s grumpy but also hopeful; stubborn but ultimately kind-hearted, even if things don’t always go her way.
When you look at Celeste, it seems very Super Meat Boy-esque especially with the quick respawns and abundance of deadly scenarios. For that matter, many people compare the brilliance of its platforming to the principles of Super Mario Odyssey and how so much is accomplished with such basic controls. True as that may be, that’s not the core essence of Celeste.
In essence, Celeste is about a person. “People” play a part as an entity to support Madeline but the person as a concept is a focal point of the game. Madeline has her own story but certain details, like what she does, her specific traumas and where she’s going are kept vague. We know that she suffers from depression and panic attacks; drinking and meaningless rage against anonymous strangers online are her only outlets of release. She wants to climb the mountain to spite her weakness and perhaps prove that she can do something with her life.
"The tougher a specific screen is to beat, the more easy it is to decipher from a visual standpoint."
Of course, when Madeline’s “negative” half manifests, it seems that she’ll have to overcome this part of her to climb the mountain. This isn’t a “what came first” situation though – there’s an undertone of moving on and appreciating one’s self that permeates the experience. Yes, there is a strong component that focuses on mental health, as presented through Madeline’s phases of panic and sadness. It’s presented in such a way that anyone can relate, especially with the added baggage of facing an overwhelming goal, a mountain that’s as much metaphorical as literal.
This is aided by some of the best designed platforming I’ve seen yet, both in 2D and 3D games. Don’t let the aesthetic fool you – Celeste is very much a contemporary platformer that relies on skill and timing as opposed to unfair BS and bugs to challenge you. Control-wise, the game lets you jump, air-dash and cling on walls for a short period of time. Wall-jumping is possible and can help conserve stamina for clinging. But much of your progress from understanding the obstacles in each level comes from actually trying to overcome them. There are specific instances where you’ll know you should have wall-jumped rather than waste a dash or dashed at a specific point before hitting some spikes. Though the approach is fraught with death after death, the instant respawns enable you to get back into the action quickly.
Celeste also has a lot going for it in terms of level design. One amazing aspect of the game, which came to light following a Reddit AMA with director and designer Matt Thorson, is how a level’s difficulty influences the visual design. The tougher a specific screen is to beat, the more easy it is to decipher from a visual standpoint. The environmental effects and overall busyness may be heavy in some places but the solution isn’t too difficult to figure out and vice versa. Celeste plays with this concept in such an amazing way, balancing its pacing with exploration, characterization, new mechanics and new challenges. It also doesn’t hurt that so many interesting aspects are presented in a variety of fun, intriguing ways.
"Failure is just a routine and even if it demoralizes both you and Madeline, it’s not the end."
One chapter could introduce platforms that add forward momentum to your jumps, challenging you to utilize that for extra speed. At one point, the game introduces little gems that can recharge your dash in mid-air, thus challenging you to chain dashes while maneuvering through mazes of deadly spikes. There could be an enormous ice block to cling to so it falls before hopping back on that controllable moving platform. The pacing and how each obstacle ties back into the theme of each chapter is masterfully handled. The end stretch is particularly amazing, as you feel the drive to reach the summit grow stronger and stronger.
You’ll face your share of difficulties, for sure, but Celeste isn’t mocking you for them. It wants you to learn because understanding and never giving up are the keys to success. Failure is just a routine and even if it demoralizes both you and Madeline, it’s not the end. This is best reflected in the game’s death counter – it reflects the effort you put in, scratching and clawing, rather than laughing at your mistakes. Another area this manifests in is the collectible strawberries, as you travel off the beaten path to earn them. You don’t need them to complete the game but they’re an extra bit of challenge for those who want it. If the Power Moons in Super Mario Odyssey diminished the concept of challenging collectibles in platformers, then Celeste goes the opposite direction. In some ways, collecting strawberries can be a confidence booster while also teaching you some of the more complex ways to chain jumps and dashes. Special mention must be made of the game’s controls – Celeste would have fallen apart without their natural responsiveness.
Those who collect all the strawberries can tackle the game’s epilogue chapter (which involves hunting down some other illusive shinies) and the B-Side Chapters. The latter can be unlocked by collecting cassettes throughout the regular chapters and allow access to tougher versions of all the game’s stages. Crazy as it may sound but there are even more challenges beyond this to tackle. Even if you go about playing at an even pace, collecting a strawberry here and there, you’ll still average a good 8 hours on your first play-through. That’s just the beginning of your journey through Celeste‘s wonders, which includes unlocking the original PICO-8 version.
"As an experience, Celeste wants you to remember all the flaws that humans inherently possess and that sometimes, it’s important to just trust yourself, no matter how ugly things get."
And if you think it couldn’t get more appealing, Celeste’s pixel art-style is simply gorgeous. The addition of animated character portraits complete with gibberish voice work lends an appealing, retro-lite charm to conversations. The environments with their detailed sprites are simple but very rich. It’s hard not to appreciate the ethereal stars and floating pebbles during one sequence or the lush vegetation and clear waterfalls in another chapter. The atmospherics can range from bright and overwhelming to dark and creepy thanks to the detailed background art.
The soundtrack further augments the mood with its synth tunes mingling wonderfully with instrumental arrangements. One extended “boss fight” (for lack of a better word) mixes haunting vocals with a dramatic synth beat that becomes more warped overtime. The fact that this brilliance extends to the audio design, including my personal favourite of “Every sound is muffled when Madeline is underwater”, is just another brilliant touch in a game full of them.
Celeste isn’t a game that wants to punish you with some sadomasochistic sense of challenge. It wants to test you, present seemingly insurmountable odds and then celebrate your victories. It wants to remind you that those aren’t just victories for the world’s lovable characters but an extension of the effort we all put in to succeed. The sense of pride and accomplishment isn’t reflected in the records you set or the baubles collected but in the fact you did it and probably learned something along the way. As a platformer, Celeste invites you to achieve the impossible, a quest that only sheer grit can accomplish; triumphant in its level design, sharp writing and excellent mechanics. As an experience, Celeste wants you to remember all the flaws that some humans inherently possess – that sometimes, it’s important to trust yourself, no matter how ugly things can get.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Splendid level design and responsive controls. Excellent variety from one screen to the next, paced with challenging collectibles and a narrative worth relating to. Pixel art style reflects amazingly well in the environments and music is a great combination of deep synth and instrumental pieces. Platforming feels perfect in its tempo and level of challenge. B-Side Cassettes provide even more challenges.
At times, the level of difficulty might not appeal to everyone (which isn't a negative per say).
In an industry with so many passionate titles, Celeste stands tall as one of the best. Its vision is flawlessly executed with excellent gameplay and presentation from top to bottom.