“Celeste” and Learning to Live with My Demons
How a game held up a mirror to my life.
By Julian Detris
I’m not depressed, but the state of my life over the last several years has filled me with what often feels like unbearable sadness.
I dropped out of high school midway through my senior year and I didn’t do anything to get my life back on track until four years later. Nearly a decade after leaving high school, I’m still stuck. Friendships have fallen apart and relationships have failed. Every aspect of my life feels defined by apathy, an inability to connect with people, and a floundering sense of aimlessness. I don’t know what I want to do or where I want to go, but for now I just need to get away.
Today, I’m going to climb a mountain.
Celeste is a hardcore 2-D platformer developed by indie studio Matt Makes Games. Celeste operates in the same vein as popular hardcore platformer Super Meat Boy: It demands a mastery of its systems and careful observation of its environments. More than Meat Boy, however, Celeste has a story to tell.
The main character, Madeline, is going through something of a crisis of conscience. She compulsively decides that she needs to get away from everything in her life that’s troubling her. Instead of taking a vacation and relaxing on a beach, she decides that she’s going to climb to the summit of the mythical Celeste Mountain. Shortly after her climb begins, filled with doubt and uncertainty the whole way, Madeline encounters her reflection, a perceived embodiment of her worst traits.
This part of her is cruel and temperamental. In their interactions, she fills Madeline with even more doubt, reminds her of her failures, and does her best to convince Madeline that she simply isn’t capable of accomplishing what she set out to do. Best to give up now because she’s just going to fail anyways.
Madeline is doing what she can to rid herself of her worst habits. She wants to become a better person and the only way to do so, that she sees, is to climb this mountain. But try as she might to divorce herself from her demons, Madeline continues to struggle.
Celeste doesn’t just tell Madeline’s story, however. Through the climb, Celeste crafts unique stories for you, as a player. The impetus for the climb might be Madeline’s internal struggle, but the story of the climb is unique to you. These stories are told through Celeste’s levels. This is not an easy game. Death is common, but each death is a reward, an opportunity to try again, to overcome the challenge and, eventually, help Madeline to the summit. Each screen represents a momentous challenge that is almost certainly going end in initial failure.
Each death is cathartic because each death represents not only the player’s struggle, but Madeline’s as well. You will fail. Madeline will fail. You’ll want to give up. Madeline wants to give up. Madeline’s and the player’s stories run parallel to each other. They help inform each other.
You will fail. Madeline will fail. You’ll want to give up. Madeline wants to give up.
Spoilers ahead. In the penultimate area, after she has fallen from the mountain and into a system of caves that run below, as she is at her (literal) lowest point, while she has been running from and fighting with herself throughout the entire game, while she has tried to disown and abandon the darkness within herself, she’s helped to a realization. No matter how dark, no matter how much she thinks this part of her is holding her back, she realizes she needs it just as much as it needs her. All this time, the sole antagonistic force has been herself.
Death in a video game never feels good, but designers can help mitigate that feeling of disappointment or frustration by crafting an experience where player’s can look at their failure, realize where they made a mistake and identify how to fix it. No death in Celeste ever felt like the game’s fault. There are many points in our lives where we can point and blame outside forces for our failures. It’s easy to run and hide from the things that haunt us. I have a million reasons why I’ve never been able to commit to a long term, healthy relationship. I’ve decided not to question the fact that many of the very few people on this planet I would call genuine friends all live over 500 miles away. I don’t blame myself for not sticking to my studies or abandoning situations when the going gets tough.
There are many points in our lives where we can point and blame outside forces for our failures. It’s easy to run and hide from the things that haunt us.
Celeste is a game that casts a giant light on how we are able to justify our shortcomings to ourselves and how we deal with the problems directly in front of us. It’s not mean, though. It doesn’t judge. On one of the loading screens, the game says, “Be proud of your Death Count. The more you die, the more you learn. Keep going!” Be proud. Every mistake that we make is an opportunity for self-reflection and growth. Our failures can be our most valuable teachers.
Celeste is an experience. It held up a mirror to my life and highlighted my deepest insecurities and weaknesses, to then told me that it’s going to be fine. Do whatever it is you need to do to feel complete. Go wherever it is you need to go. Find yourself. Keep going. Climb a mountain. And when you get to the top, stop and just enjoy it for a bit.