Celeste - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Created by Matt Makes Games, the studio behind well-received multiplayer shooter TowerFall, Celeste is another game from Matt Thorson’s small indie team. Released in January 2018, the game is a platformer where your mission is to climb to the top of the eponymous Celeste — a mountain of spectacular proportions.
It starts as any mountain-climbing platformer would, talking to an enigmatic old woman who lives on the slopes of Celeste. She’s crazy, and isn’t the most supportive of your endeavour. C’est la vie. It is, however, telling that story comes before any true platforming, and it’s clear that the developers have something to say with this title.
The controls are simple: jump, dash, climb (almost!). From platform to wall to platform, it might seem like a simple game, but you quickly learn that there is much more to this game than its platforming — there are themes of life, struggle, depression, anxiety, self-deprecation. This game oozes metaphor.
On the Slopes
You soon realise that the mountain — Celeste — is meant to be an analogy for life. This becomes starkly apparent when you finish chapter one and encounter a memorial that reads: “This memorial dedicated to those who perished on the climb.”
Throughout the game, your character, Madeline, is wracked with self-doubt. She has little self-esteem, and believes that she isn’t worthy of taking on a task such as climbing Celeste. As you progress, you encounter an evil-looking reflection of yourself in a mirror. It gets smashed and the evil-you is released into the world, providing you with an enemy other than the mountain itself.
It is also at this point that you realise that not only does Celeste have a soundtrack that’s just right, but it also has a gorgeous and varied art style. As you leap through the snowy slopes, this all comes together to provide a very compelling package indeed.
A Mountain Refuge
Around this time you meet Mr. Oshiro, a hotel owner who has set up shop on the slopes of Celeste itself. His hotel is dilapidated and you vow to help him clean it up. This, of course, progresses the story and provides some more interesting interactions with new characters.
Even though Celeste has, for the most part, an uncomplicated control scheme, the feel and design is second to none. Every time you fall and fail, you are aware that it is distinctly your fault. There’s no blaming the controls here. And there’s a speedrunning mode, ensuring replayability long after you’ve finished the touching story.
Dotted around the levels are strawberries, collectables which the game explicitly tells you are optional. In fact, the game goes to great lengths to ensure that your experience is as stress-free as possible: loading screens tell you not to worry about how many times you die because it shows you are embracing and learning from your failures, and a save is created upon reaching each new level, so you don’t have to worry about trying new things or dropping the game and picking it back up whenever you choose.
Reaching the Summit
As the game progresses, the platforming slowly builds on the fundamentals, and introduces new mechanics, such as weather elements. For example, it starts with high winds blowing you one way in the level, then the wind rushes, stops, and then rushes again, affecting how and when you can jump. Madeline also gains enhanced abilities, such as the double jump, and nasty new enemies and obstacles.
By the time you reach the end of Celeste, you’ve mastered its mechanics. This is one difficult platformer, make no mistake, but it’s also one with a lot for the player to take away. If you just want a fun platformer, it ticks that box with its well-crafted world and controls. If speedrunning is your thing, it also ticks that box with its dedicated speedrun mode. If you’re a sucker for a good story, there’s plenty of subtext to dive into.
Taking Meaning From Metaphor
Almost everything in Celeste is a metaphor: you can save and quit whenever you like, an allusion to the chipping away at your life goals. At times it’s extremely frustrating, but this is an intentional commentary about perseverance in the face of adversity. Madeline’s journey is one about self-acceptance, and dealing with the setbacks and obstacles that we all suffer from.
Celeste is a thoughtful experience wrapped in the guise of a fantastic platformer. But most importantly, it’s a treatise on being kinder to yourself, and not listening to your inner demons. Solid in every respect, this is a game from which everyone can take something of meaning, however small.
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