A year ago, in the midst of final exams and papers, I gave myself a few hours off to watch The Game Awards, the Oscars of the video game world (but with less gowns and more t-shirts). I remember that night, huddled on my bed in my dorm room, seeing Celeste win the Best Independent Game and Games for Impact awards. I was intrigued, because the Games for Impact Award generally goes to games focused on emotional storytelling and/or social issues. Not only that, but the developer, Maddy Thorson, spoke about mental illness in her acceptance speech. I kept the game in the back of my mind.
Later that month, I was visiting family, and saw that my cousin was playing Celeste. I learned then that Celeste is a platforming game that relies on quick reflexes and precision to make it from one “room” to the next. I really wanted to give it a try, because the music was catchy and the retro graphics were cute, but I’m horrible at platformers. Even Super Mario games with all of their fail-safes are a challenge for me. I had a feeling that Celeste would be a frustrating waste of money for me, so I shelved the idea of ever playing it.
That is, until the Epic Games Store gave it away for free this year. Knowing it was considered one of the best games of 2018, I “bought” it and decided to give it a whirl when I was itching for a new game to play.
As I suspected, I sucked at it. In the first chapter (or “level”) alone, I died hundreds of times. I would die hundreds more in the chapters to come. But what really drew me in to Celeste was its story and main character, Madeline. I found myself identifying with Madeline a lot, and in a way, her quest to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain became my quest too.
At the beginning of Celeste, we meet Madeline, a young woman who is determined to reach the summit of Celeste Mountain on her own. Her reasons for taking on this quest are vague, even to herself, but she repeatedly emphasizes that she needs to accomplish this:
“I know it sounds crazy, but I need to climb this Mountain.” (Prologue)
“Yeah, I told myself I would. I’m done breaking promises to myself.” (Chapter 2)
And my personal favorite:
“I guess I feel like I need to accomplish something… I guess it is kind of extreme. But that’s how I am. I need something to challenge me. And I can’t just do something a little bit. It’s all of me, or nothing.” (Chapter 6)
In other words, Madeline wants to climb Celeste Mountain in order to prove to herself that she can. Of course, she has setbacks and frustrations. In particular, there is Madeline’s alter ego, which she refers to as “Part of Me.” She is the embodiment of Madeline’s negative thoughts and fears, often telling Madeline things like, “You can’t handle this.”
In a lot of ways, I find myself as a player identifying with Madeline. She is on a quest to climb a mountain, something that she didn’t feel entirely equipped to do. Similarly, completing Celeste became my quest to do something I didn’t feel like I was good at. Just as Madeline wants to prove to herself she could reach the summit, I want to prove to myself that I could finish the game.
And just as Madeline has had some setbacks, so have I. Celeste is simultaneously forgiving and unforgiving. Like I said before, I die several hundred times in each chapter. Even though the only consequence of dying is being returned to the beginning of the room, repeating the same thing over and over can be maddening. Sometimes, I have to take a break.
But other times, failure encourages me to keep going. I’m a problem-solver at heart, and so even though Celeste isn’t a puzzle game, I tend to view it that way. I need to get from one end of the room to the other using the tools available to me. Each time I fail, I pick out what went wrong and try to adjust for it until I find the solution.
At a time of the year when life is particularly overwhelming and I struggle to stay positive, Celeste is showing me that I can accomplish things despite feeling inadequate. I can get past this room, this chapter; I can wash the dishes and write my papers. I’m learning to recognize the “little things,” because any victory is worthy of celebration.
I still haven’t reached the end of the game, and Madeline still hasn’t reached the summit. But we’re almost there. I know there will still be some setbacks and frustrations, but I’m looking forward to completing this quest with her.