In Celeste, a girl named Madeline climbs a mountain, and for reasons unknown. If it’s not readily apparent from the moment she peers into a mirror and spars with an evil materialization of her psyche, the mountain is a metaphor. Each new section of her climb forces Madeline and those she encounters along the way to confront the things that hold them back: poor familial relations, an inability to let go of the past, or the all-encompassing fatigue of a dogged depression that follows quite literally in one’s footsteps. In that struggle, though, hope is made manifest: that if we throw ourselves into an activity long enough, honing our skills, we can eventually rise above our problems. Those tantalizing strawberries that dot the game’s landscapes, making an already difficult obstacle course even more challenging, are the fittingly sweet reward that comes from exerting a little extra effort.
Building from the most difficult portions of Guacamelee! but operating with the graceful minimalism of Super Meat Boy, Celeste builds a complex world around three basic skills: a jump, a stamina-based wall cling/climb, and an aerial dash. The environments modify how these skills operate: twilight passages accelerate your movement through one end to the other; twinkling gems refresh your ability to dash (normally you must first touch the ground); prickly cilia extend from walls and floors that you’ve touched before, forcing you to plan new routes; and various orbs and feathers grant you temporary flight. With the exception of one poorly conceived area that trades in the precision platforming for a dimly lit maze of corridors that lean too heavily on trial and error, Celeste amps up in difficulty by forcing players to execute those basic skills on increasingly complex combinations of objects.
What separates Celeste, even at its hardest, from masochistic games like The End Is Nigh is that it’s not bleak or unyielding. For one, its characters are comic and encouraging, suggesting that they want you to succeed. And the game is often surprisingly colorful, especially after dawn breaks and the music is more hopeful than ominous. There’s even an optional assist mode that allows you to rejigger the timing or stamina loss from screen to screen. Celeste is supposed to feel challenging but not impossible, and developer Matt Thorson—taking obvious cues from Super Mario World—intentionally sets apart the most brutal components (remixed levels and a bonus world set within the mountain’s molten core) so that everyone can experience the story.
In the end, the mountain at the center of Celeste isn’t just a metaphor for Madeline’s struggles, but for our own. Each in-game death is both frustrating in of itself and a representation of that frustration. Throughout, your failures are opportunities for improvement: to overcome a digitized representation of the things life puts in your way. What distinguishes Celeste from other games is the way in which those struggles pervade every element of the gameplay experience, from the muffling of the soundtrack as Madeline plunges underwater to the way in which frustrations inventively spring to life in the environment. Clutter and disarray rise up against you within a haunted cliffside hotel in which contact with the black-and-red demonic trashbag-looking blobs that drip from the floors and walls must be avoided at all costs. The pink crystal mazes of the forested crags match the color of Madeline’s hair, which is as tangled as her psyche. A beautiful sunrise is marred by harsh headwinds that quite literally hold Madeline back, and only the stubborn determination of her air-dash is powerful enough to overcome it.
For those who remain unconvinced of how much Celeste’s connective tissue of a plot adds to the campaign, compare the game to its PICO-8 original version, which can be unlocked in-game. In the original, the girl has no name, no purpose, and certainly no one to help her, and throughout, the mountain remains only a technical obstacle. Climbing it feels like work, even though some of the basic platforming is the same as in this new and greatly expanded version of the game. It’s the reflection within the 2018 Celeste that gives each leg of the climb context and weight, through which this game ascends to be more than just another incredibly precise platformer. As it turns out, motivation is the fine line that crosses between stubbornness and determination, and leads to a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment.