This review contains minor plot details from Celeste.
Celeste hails from a very specific lineage of difficult games. It’s an evolutionary line that forked off from the running and jumping of Super Mario Bros. and twisted into the most gnarled, rotten branch of the bunch. Its most famous predecessor is likely Super Meat Boy, a gauntlet of bite-sized obstacle courses meticulously tuned to put every bit of your timing, dexterity, and, most of all, patience to the test. Yet even Meat Boy is far more forgiving than most of it and Celeste’s closest relatives, which often pile grating edginess or straight-up malice on top of their already demoralizing challenges.
But Celeste breaks from any of the games that its spike-covered walls and triple-digit death counts conjure comparisons to in one wholly transformative way: its attitude. Rather than letting the provocative nature of its jumping challenges become the center of its personality, Celeste works hard to embrace players and nudge them ever forward. Its loading screens offer the comforting words of an encouraging friend, reminding you that a high death count, and the knowledge that comes along with it, is something to be proud of or that you really shouldn’t drive yourself crazy trying to grab every pesky, out-of-the-way collectible. Lena Raine’s wonderful score isn’t pounding and tense, but light, shimmering, and victorious, reserving its single escalation into pulse-raising intensity for just the right moment. Your stress-inducing ascent up the game’s mysterious mountain is broken up by a series of meetings with its weird inhabitants and a fellow climber named Theo, whose fireside chats offer invaluable moments of levity and gentle character building. And if those peripheral comforts aren’t enough to keep you going, the developers have gone the extra step and included an innovative “assist mode” full of options that let you tweak the game into a state that’s just right for you—slowing all the action down by 10 percent increments, extending your mid-air dash, or even making you invincible.
It’s clear the game’s designers, led by TowerFall’s Matt Thorson and prolific freeware developer Noel Berry, spent a lot of time thinking about difficulty: how to reward players for forging forward with level-ending sequences of thrilling safety and speed; how collectibles and arcane secrets can add an extra layer of challenge for adventurous experts; how best to use sound and sincerity to alleviate the frustration that comes with a game as quick to kill you as this one. That obsession fed into the game’s story as well, which sees your rock climber, Madeline, battling anxiety, self-doubt, and depression (not unlike the kind many players will feel as the game kicks their ass) as she makes her way up Mt. Celeste. It’s heavy material, and the game uses Madeline’s struggle as the symbolic launching pad for a mythic journey, but thankfully, it also finds time to discuss mental illness in a more respectful, frank way during her and Theo’s heart-to-hearts.
That narrative of determination, self-actualization, and acceptance is at the forefront, but intentionally or not, there’s also an intriguing synergy here about what it must have been like to make a game like Celeste, one that frustrates and refuses to back down but also doesn’t want to drive players away by being a dick about it. Madeline is the personification of the designers’ ethos: upbeat and eager to help anyone she meets but also stubborn and playfully witty. The darker side of her personality—the part that’s as cruel, bitter, and snide as Celeste’s more hostile contemporaries—haunts her throughout the game; the two even have arguments that could easily be read as conversations about the relationship between players and a game that refuses to explain itself or let its players skate by unchallenged.
Ultimately, Madeline has to come to terms with the fact that she and her negative self are one in the same, inseparable parts of the same spirit that can’t succeed without one another. While it might be a predictable moral to her story, what’s less clichéd is the lesson Celeste holds if you apply the same idea to hyper-difficult games. They can be allowed to be themselves and give players meaningful benchmarks that are always just out of reach while still welcoming and nurturing each and every person who steps up to its challenge. Even without embracing that duality, Celeste would be an exceptionally well-made platformer worthy of sitting alongside its titanic peers, but by caring to find the right amount of warmth to balance its barbs, it ends up standing up and taking a step ahead.