Celeste is a game that knows what it aims for, and just crushes it at every turn. When I say that, I mean specifically that it took any expectation I could have and exceeded them in spades. Celeste is a title that takes a genre, sometimes called “masocore,” characterized by seemingly impossible games that require you to die and die and die again just to finish a level (think Dark Souls or Super Meat Boy), and adds a very human element to it. The story is that of a girl named Madeline who is tasking herself with an introspective journey to overcome her inner insecurities and demons. She isn’t out to save the world, defeat a mega corporation, or anything like that. She wants to climb a mountain. Madeline feels that if she takes a leave of absence from her day job and climbs this mountain that she will have a new understanding of herself.
Initially, Madeline’s motivations are not clearly stated. She wants to climb the mountain, and it’s left at that. Wow, another side scrolling platformer with minimal motivation other than “beat the level because the game said so.” Very quickly, however, we get to see a conversation between her and her mother, who is very concerned about her because of prior meltdowns and depressive episodes. This is where the game begins to feel very human. Not everyone is going to climb a mountain to defeat their anxiety or depression, but at times, for many, that’s exactly what it feels like to battle those afflictions. That is exactly why this game took my breath away first.
Madeline is just like us, she’s written like a real human. She isn’t just one personality trope personified. She has depth, growth, and very real, very relatable traits. She can be moody, she can be stubborn, and most importantly, she can be strong. The love you will have for this protagonist will only grow throughout the course of this 10 to 20 hour game, depending on how many times you die (for me, a LOT) and how many of the extras you want to challenge yourself to collect.
The growing love for the game brings me to the presentation as a whole. It’s is a work of art. Every single aspect meshes together so organically that it seems, at a cursory glance, to be without any rough edges at all. Visually the game is highly pixelated, with sprite animations that still convey quite a bit of personality. This is in stark contrast to the beautifully hand drawn portraits of each character when they enter a dialogue sequence. The animations are all smooth as silk, arguably frame perfect which is all can be hoped for in a game as frustratingly punishing as this. The sound design is stunning, as well. The characters voices are all reminiscent of the days on the Nintendo 64 with Banjo Kazooie. The voices are a garbled mess of sounds that somehow do not detract at all from the text on the screen. In fact, the highly tonal nature of this design really does aid in the understanding of the characters motivations and intentions in the context.
It’s so well done, and with a game that is this visually simplistic, I would argue that if the developers had wanted to go for full voice acting, that it would likely detract from the games overall charming appeal. My final impression of the games design, and why it is so top notch, is that harnesses the old style of game design, utilizing minimal tutorials. Rather, the game places you in a scenario, and tasks you with using the small amount of commands at your disposal to put the puzzle pieces in order. This is something that is used many, many times throughout the game to always make you feel, in this order, stumped, enlightened, frustrated, empowered, and then relieved. Every new chapter a new mechanic is introduced to add a new challenge, compounded with what you’ve already learned. This is the kind of feeling in a video game I live for. I want to feel stumped, at times. I want to feel like I am the best player alive because I made some seemingly impossible jump. I want to feel.
Celeste does just that. Celeste made me feel. Not just through gameplay or storytelling, but through every aspect and feature of the games humble design. Though our paths are different, I felt an innate connection to Madeline and from that instant I was engrossed in this small adventure until my thumbs felt like falling off.
Celeste blends old gameplay ideas with progressive story telling and the results are nothing short of amazing.
- Available On: PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- Published By: Matt Makes Games
- Developed By: Matt Makes Games
- Genre: Platformer
- US Release Date: January 25th, 2018
- Reviewed On: Nintendo Switch
- Quote: "Celeste blends old gameplay ideas with progressive story telling and the results are nothing short of amazing."