How Celeste Pulled Me Out of the Mud

When I first downloaded Celeste to my Nintendo Switch, I was in one of the scariest times of my life. I was a recent grad working at GameStop studying for the GRE, unsure of the next few years of my life. Would I still be struggling to break in to the games industry? Would I be accepted to the Entertainment Technology Center? It was an anxiety-plagued time in my life filled with sleepless nights, unnecessary nights out drinking, and difficult conversations about my future with my parents. I felt like I was sitting in a pile of mud that made it difficult to stand up straight. My anxiety was piled on when I began feeling ill. I rarely get sick, so when it happens, it feels like death. I laid in bed anxious, dazed, and worried about my future. In an attempt to make myself feel better, I put on the weekly episode of the Kinda Funny Gamescast. One of the members of the podcast said, “Get off your ass and start playing Celeste,” and it spoke to me in a deeper way than he intended. I stood up straight for the first time in a month, pushed through the body aches and walked over to my Switch, and played the purest, most emotional platformer of my life. In short, Celeste and its mystical mountain are a metaphor for overcoming anxiety and depression. This game could not have impacted me at a more perfect time. By the end of Celeste’s emotional experience, I was in tears, ready to take on the rest of my life.

The bulk of Celeste was made by the six people at “Matt Makes Games”, an indie studio known for its fast-paced platformers and gorgeous art. Celeste was marketed simply as a platformer, with the metaphors of anxiety and depression it speaks about hidden from the consumer. Even podcasters were keeping the secret, urging folks to experience the storytelling for themselves. I downloaded the game with no prior knowledge of its release. Even working at GameStop, no one I knew was talking about it. I had no idea why this game was speaking to me, but I was allowing my gut feelings to take over.

Upon booting up Celeste, a few screens with text pierced right through me.

“This is it, Madeline. Just breathe. Why are you so nervous?”

 I was immediately placed into the shoes of the red-haired pixel character on screen, because I too was hitting a point where breathing and reassuring myself was the best way to ease my nerves. I was taught how to jump across a pit and climb walls, by a mystical crow, then traversed over to an old lady that warned me of Celeste Mountain’s spectacular power.

“You might see things. Things you ain’t ready to see,” she said. Her words would begin foreshadowing the metaphor for the mountain: It will reveal Madeline’s anxiety to her, regardless of if she is ready to cope with it or not. She calls the old woman crazy and moves up the mountain. As she crosses a stone bridge, it begins to break behind her. A gap in the bridge forces her to jump, and as she prepares her landing, the bridge collapses under her. She plummets to her death.

Time freezes.

Just before hitting rock-bottom in her life, Madeline is taught by the magical crow that she can “Dash”. In doing so, Madeline saves herself and begins the long journey up the mountain, determined to complete the climb.

“You can do this,” the screen says. By now, Madeline and I were connected. We were both on the same journey of learning how to cope with our anxiety.

Now that I knew how to dash, no platform or cliff felt too high up. Madeline and her new dash ability felt fluid and engaging. By deciding against a User Interface, the team at Matt Makes Games was able to use the pixel art as both form and function. When Madeline can dash, her hair blows red in the wind. When Madeline has used her dash, her hair turns blue. Her red hair and dash ability will not return until she has safely grounded herself. From screen to screen in the first level alone, Celeste’s difficulty ramps up in a way that makes the player feel powerful. The platforming goes from simple linear traversal to angled traversal requiring a mix of wall jumping and dashing in the first few screens. As soon as the player feels powerful and confident with the mechanics, Celeste Mountain throws in a new way of thinking about traversal. For example, a new way of thinking is introduced in the form of a green crystal, that, when collected, recharges Madeline’s dash mechanic in midair.

After completing the first phase of her climb, Madeline has a dream. The player is treated to a dreamy soundtrack, and takes control of Madeline while in said dream. She finds a mirror, and out pops a purple, oozing version of Madeline. It introduces itself as a part of her personality (I now believe it to be a representation of the negative energy in her life), and becomes the first “Boss” the player encounters. Because the only mechanics in the game are jump, dash, and climb, the harder boss levels are essentially speed run levels. They require the player to platform away from the boss, who chases them at an increasing speed. The speedy platforming requires plenty of tries. In my first play through of the first boss level, I was introduced to yet another metaphor planted in by the developers: Assist Mode.

Assist mode is accessible from the very beginning of the game. Before giving you the ability to turn the mode on, the developers say through text that difficulty is a crucial part of Celeste’s experience. It hints at the fact that Madeline’s journey to the summit of the mountain will not be easy. The developers go on to explain that they highly recommend playing the game in full without Assist Mode turned on, but that they realize every player is in different stages of their life. I believe that the developers mostly just want everyone to enjoy Celeste in its entirety, so they included Assist Mode as an alternative to anyone that felt too stressed at any point in the game. 

Upon escaping the purple metaphor for her negative traits, Madeline hears a pay phone ring. She gets a call from “someone she hasn’t heard from in ages” and subsequently gets eaten by the phone, waking her from the dream. Madeline retraces the steps she took in her dream, but this time conscience and without the purple figure chasing after her. She sees the same payphone in her dream, and calls her mother for the first time in weeks.

As hard as it was for me to admit, I personally felt like I hadn’t spoken to my own mother in weeks as well. When we did speak, it was either me raising my tone with her about my uncertainties in life, or her desperately trying to help me wade out of the funk I had found myself in. When Madeline called her mother in the middle of a dangerous climb, I too felt the urge to reach out. I called out for my mom to help me feel better, and she responded by holding me and keeping me on track with my cold medicine. Her presence was a wake-up call for me, much like Madeline’s dream.

The next few levels do an astounding job at reminding you that you’re powerful. Elements introduced previously are now being combined in an effort to make the player feel powerful. Though the team at “Matt Makes Games” never explicitly says it, this way of teaching and melding mechanics is a way of saying, “Take baby steps, and you’ll reach the summit.” Baby steps can be in the literal sense of platforming, but I also took it as a metaphor for learning to cope with your surroundings. 

As Madeline continues her climb, her red-eyed, purple-skinned persona keeps returning. It disrupts her conversations, it discourages her from continuing the climb, and it haunts her through her journey. She meets characters along the way that are on the mountain for different reasons. Theo, a millennial in between jobs, is trying to figure out if photography is a career-worthy passion or not. Mr. Oshiro, a phantom that haunts an abandoned hotel, represents someone that has let their guilt and fear take over their life. As Madeline learns new ways of coming to terms with her purple persona, she learns how to cope with her negativity from the people around her.

The most effective technique she learns later becomes a mechanic near the top of the mountain. At the plot’s climax, Madeline and Theo are riding a gondola to the summit. The purple figure returns and begins to shake the gondola in an effort to stop Madeline from progressing forward. Madeline begins to scream and prepares for the plummet to her death. Theo teaches her a meditative technique where she imagines that her breath is holding a feather afloat in her chest, and they survive the gondola ride. That night, in another dream, Madeline confronts the part of her that has been trying to stop her from climbing. The purple fiend retaliates by throwing her off the edge of the mountain, and the player is introduced to a “Feather” power up that gives Madeline the ability of flight.

After utilizing her new technique, Madeline once again confronts her fears. She now understands that this part of her is a manifestation of all of the negative traits of her personality, and Madeline struggles to calm down the red-eyed expression. In a final effort, she admits that she loves that part of herself, and the two finally come together as one. Madeline allows the manifestation to join her again, and she gains the ability to Dash a second time in the air. Madeline is the same person, but now the part of her is encouraging and helpful in the final climb to the summit. On the way back down the mountain, Celeste proves that the accomplishment to the summit was just the beginning, and that feeling like a new person on the way down is just as challenging and powerful as the climb up.

Upon completing the climb, I took the game’s advice and began to meditate. It helped me realize that in reality, my negativities were just me confused with my future. I began to love my life again, excited about the future that may be. I received an acceptance letter from Carnegie Mellon University weeks later, and I realized that it was merely the summit. The trek back down the mountain would be my time at the ETC, and a better understanding of myself as a person was crucial to my success in the program.

Celeste is filled to the brim with metaphors of meditation and learning to love one’s self. It is a transformational game as much as it is a humbling platformer. At a time when I felt like standing up straight was a challenge in and of itself, it taught me how to climb a mountain of fear and anxiety by taking baby steps, understanding what I had learned about myself in the past, and learning to accept my prior negativities. But then, it taught me that the summit was just the beginning. As a new person with a better understanding of myself, I am able to come down the mountain with a new set of eyes on the constantly changing world around me. Celeste is the perfect balance between intricate platformer and accessible transformational game, and it’s one I will always describe as an epitome of game design.