If this is all in my head, why is it so hostile? – Madeline
Spoiler warning: this article discusses an early plot point in Celeste.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that nearly one in five adults in the US live with a mental illness – an estimated 46.6 million people as of 2017. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, there’s some comfort to know you are not alone. And we have become more open in talking about mental health.
But depression remains isolating and hard to articulate. Which is what makes Celeste such an uplifting gaming experience. We are all Madeline, the game’s heroine, as she faces her mental health problems.
At the Mountains of Mental Wellness
I’ll do this alone. – Madeline
Celeste, then: a platform-’em-up and retro-styled indie game, backed by an excellent synth-and-strings soundtrack. Madeline is a young woman set on reaching the summit of Celeste Mountain. The mechanics are simple enough: Madeline can run, jump, dash (giving her a boost on the ground or mid-air), climb (so long as her stamina holds), and wall kick (thanks Super Mario!). You’ll need to master all of these moves to clear chasms, spikes, traps, and assorted baddies.
To call Celeste “punishing” would be, I think, fair. This game revels in killing you – every jump and handhold requires pixel-perfect precision and computer-like reactions (by the end, I had tallied over 1,600 deaths).
But Celeste is also generous with its checkpoints, for the most part, and developer Matt Makes Games offers you relief through options for unlimited stamina, dashes, or full invulnerability to clear the toughest levels. Every game should allow players to customize the difficulty like this!
Know Thy Enemy
You’re unravelling and you know it – Part of Me
Early in Celeste you pass a mirror that cracks and releases what Madeline calls “Part of Me”, a red-eyed doppelganger that harries you throughout. “Part of Me”, or “Badeline”, is that little voice in your head that says “I can’t” come to life. It’s the ugly, negative, small-minded part that sneers at Madeline, “You are many things, darling, but you are not a mountain climber.”
On the journey to the summit you will also encounter Theo, a laid-back fellow climber; a spooky hotel manager; and an old woman who understands what Madeline is wrestling with (“I’ve never met someone so angry at themself.”) Each character brings a different perspective to the game’s themes of tackling depression, anxiety and panic disorders.
All the challenges in Celeste appear impossible at first. On the twentieth or thirtieth attempt, you’ll clear a room with a chain of superbly timed jumps and dashes – just to be handed another level of unforgiving platforming that will have you berating the developers and yelling, “How are you meant to do this?!”
And that’s kind of the point. Developer Matt Makes Games also made the gameplay a metaphor for Madeline’s internal battle. Art and game design complement each other so that you and your playable character are both confronting that negativity, that “Part of You”.
Onwards and Upwards
I just had to get out of my head. – Madeline
There’s no glib commentary in Celeste about “conquering your inner demons”. Matt Makes Games has the maturity to avoid cliches or easy answers. Depression and anxiety disorders can’t be “beaten” like an end-of-level boss. Good mental health and self-care requires maintenance, and some days that can feel incremental – small steps that add up to personal triumphs, even if that is just winning the struggle to get out of bed. Celeste gets this. To start, the menu screen states simply: “Climb”.