It would’ve been impossible for me to avoid Celeste due to a pileup of cosmic coincidence. It’s an old school platforming game built with a focus on maneuverability and navigation rather than combat; that’s probably my overall favorite genre. The game is about a girl named Madeline climbing to the top of Celeste mountain, mostly in an attempt to deal with the stress of her home life and the general anxiety of everyday life; I happen to have a couple of sisters named Celeste and Madeline, and after playing through I was surprised at how much the main character had in common with both of them. That’s a remarkable amount of coincidence, so there was no way I wasn’t going to grab this one. So how is it?
First thing’s first: go buy Celeste. The game perfectly channels the game medium to create an enriching experience. Despite not being especially nuanced and paired with a story that doesn’t seem completely original, it manages excellence through a fusion of elements that create a wholly unique experience. Celeste is beautiful, deeply enriching, mechanically challenging, narratively enthralling, and so far the best game I’ve played this year. So before we climb this mountain, this where we make base camp: go buy Celeste.
Still with me? Alright, let’s ascend.
As mentioned earlier, the story is about a girl named Madeline who decides to climb to the summit of Celeste Mountain. It’s definitely not within her comfort zone, but she goes forth both to make distance from her stressful home life and troubling past. It’s later revealed that she has a bad history with panic attacks. Her reason for climbing the mountain is to “accomplish something meaningful” in her life. Along the way she encounters a small cast of characters, including an unnamed older lady that lives at the base of the mountain, and a photographer with an adventurous spirit and chill demeanor named, Theo. More dreadfully, she also encounters a dark side of herself made manifest by the mysterious nature of the mountain. The challenge that besets Madeline is both internal and external—the obstacle of climbing a treacherous (and possibly haunted) mountain paired with the emotional burden of anxiety and depression. In a perfectly poetic fashion, these negative emotions are given a literal physical form before Madeline, and the design and nature of the levels become an amorphous reflection of her inner demons. The execution of it all is far more than ideas simply working in parallel. Celeste is a mosaic of joint reification, and that coalescence allows Celeste to transcend from a simple game into a visceral experience.
The gameplay itself is remarkably accessible. You can jump, dash in the air (in any direction), and hang/climb up walls for a limited duration. The concepts here are simple, leaving the more complex systems to the levels themselves, proficiently escaping mechanical overload. You’ll encounter such craziness as star-filled blocks that you can phase through via dashing, dangerous spirits that you need to avoid, wind that makes for difficult maneuvering, blocks that slide right after you dash, feathers that let you fly for a brief period, and so much more. All these obstacles fundamentally change the nature and difficulty of the game with every locale. It can definitely seem overwhelming at times, but that’s part of the beauty. Part of why this particular game is so impressive is because it manages to make everything look harder than it actually is. Celeste is an absolute gauntlet of challenging levels (I’ve run into plenty of seemingly impossible obstacles), but once you make an attempt, the solution becomes obvious (though still difficult). Celeste masterfully fuses intimidation with invitation, and beckons the fearless and the relentless. It’s all so keeping in theme with climbing the mountain: the goal looks unreachable, but every step brings you closer to the top.
The whole experience is incredibly fulfilling on the narrative front as well. Celeste is a game told through dialogue but really sold through action. It has some really insightful commentary on the daily challenges of living in the modern world, and regarding the accumulation of stress and anxiety. There was some meaty content revolving around ideas of self-acceptance, and understanding how to live with constant fear and doubt. A cursory glance of the game’s retro aesthetic and cutesy speech bubble noises hides a truly provocative monster, and it’s one we’re all at least a little familiar with.
Final bits worth mention are the soundtrack and assist mode. There’s already so much to appreciate and love with Celeste, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack is absolutely perfect from start to finish, presenting an excellent fusion of chiptune and orchestra to create a wonderfully haunting arrangement. The assist mode options also make Celeste one of the most accessible platforming games ever made. The game’s intended difficulty is absolutely crushing, but there are a multitude of options that allow you to craft whatever experience feels just challenging enough to you. Whether it involves slowing the game down by about 20% or having total invincibility and infinite dashes, these options combined with the game’s overall encouragement (“Be proud of deaths. It means you’re learning!”) craft a title I can easily recommend to everyone.
In all its form and execution, Celeste is the most impressive title to come out of 2018 so far, and definitely one of the best games this decade. I haven’t seen a platformer take its simple ideas to such intense mechanical and thematic lengths since Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008), or possibly Cuphead from last year. I can see myself climbing this mountain again and again, playing it till my fingers are swollen, and that pain will always be worth it because Celeste is a perfect expression of the games medium and everything it can accomplish.