Like Getting Over It with Bennet Foddy, Celetse is a game about a mountain that is very hard to climb. And like Getting Over It, Celeste is attentive and thoughtful about what it means to climb that mountain anyway—even though it’s a ridiculous and demanding thing to do, and even though other people might not get why you’re climbing it, and even though you yourself might not understand quite why you feel the need to climb it in the first place.
The similarities don’t quite stop there, but where Getting Over It is metatextual to the point of having the developer of the game talk to you about developing the game while you play the game he developed, Celeste is a bit less postmodern (though no less ambitious) in its use of metaphor, allegory, and analogy. The protagonist isn’t simply you, transmogrified into a weird videogamey shape; no, she’s Madeline. She’s a character with her own strengths and weaknesses, her own past, and her own relationships. If Getting Over It speaks in the second person, then Celeste speaks in more of a novelistic close third person.
Celeste is what I’ve called a zen masocore platformer, in the vein of Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV or N, but it’s also a character study, and a story about a person making peace with herself. As such, it has a lighter touch than you’d usually expect from a game this challenging. There’s not a trace of git gud bravado in the thing. Celeste encourages you to “be proud of your death count,” and to skip the collectable strawberries if they’re frustrating you—and the game offers an Assist Mode wherein you can selectively make things easier on yourself by reducing game speed, making yourself invincible or hypermobile, or skipping levels.
And of course, it mostly respects Edmund McMillen’s de facto manifesto on difficulty without frustration: the challenges are short, the resets are rapid, and the really demented stuff is hidden in an alternate “B-Side” version of each chapter. (And madder stuff still is hidden behind the game’s collectable Hearts, which are a bit like the stars in Braid, though only about 10% as absurd).
But what sets Celeste apart, apart from being perhaps the zennest zen masocore game yet made, is Madeline’s arc. It’s a slow burn about depression, and about the daunting prospect of living with depression, and the perhaps equally daunting prospect of helping someone you care about deal with it.
Celeste Mountain itself isn’t the only obstacle, you see. Madeline also has to contend with a sneering, vindictive doppelgänger who initially seems to be her depression. She’s not, though. She’s Madeline’s fear, her arrogance, her mistrust of others. Useful parts of her, in other words, if ones that are at odds with the open-hearted and adventuresome side that she prefers to show the world. Madeline’s depression, the game says, is the failure to unify these opposites.
Fear and mistrust are impulses that become dangerous if they go unchecked, but that become equally dangerous if they go unacknowledged. However unseemly we find these parts of ourselves, we can’t banish them, or outrun them, or vanquish them in open combat. We have to make peace with them. Unthinkably, we have to use the scariest parts of ourselves.
I’m reorting to therapy-speak to get Celeste’s themes across, but the game itself is more elegant than that, relying on the slow unfolding of its central metaphors, and on mood and character—especially in one indelibly neat dialogue tree where you control both sides of an intimate, momentous fireside conversation—and of course, relying on wall jumps and air-dashes and stamina management as well: the game language of growing comfortable with your body and mind both.
Thematically and mechanically, Celeste asks you to try apparently impossible things, and insists on the value of seeing those things as possible after all. It’s a game about inviting, as opposed to goading. It’s a game about overcoming, as opposed to conquering.
It’s zen as fuck, in that way.