More than 100 new levels were added to Celeste this week, alongside a small bit of story, a poignant goodbye to Madeline and their attempt to scale a magic mountain. It also features a small but important tweak to the text introducing the game’s “Assist mode,” a way to alter Celeste’s finely tuned rules and mechanics, up to and including death. Among other changes, it now says Celeste was “intended” to be difficult. Before, it was “essential.” It’s an alteration that came because of a collaboration between Celeste’s developers and its fans, a way to bridge the gap between well-meaning creatives and players impacted by their choices.
Celeste is hard. The platformer—and my favorite game from 2018—is meant to be punishing for both the mind and fingers. But from day one, Celeste also included what the game called Assist mode, which essentially allows the player to totally break the game at any time and for any reason. The point, Celeste designer Matt Thorson told me then, was “to accept that every player is different, and that people come into the game at many different skill levels.”
“The response to Assist mode was overwhelmingly positive,” Thorson said recently, more than a year after Celeste's release. “It was a relatively late addition for us, but we're so glad we did it.”
It worked. Time and time again, I saw players mention how Assist mode gave them a window into a game they’d otherwise written off as “not for them.” This was especially true for players with a disability; Assist mode, the kind of thing modders often hack into a game after release, allowed them to tailor Celeste in a way that made it an accessible video game.
Conversations around accessibility and games hit a fever pitch early in 2018 and it had nothing to do with Celeste. Instead, it was, predictably, the latest game FromSoftware game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Sekiro is probably the hardest FromSoftware game yet, one that demands (even more) unforgiving precision and timing from players to advance past even the most basic of enemies. With each FromSoftware release, there is often a variation of the “easy mode” discourse, questioning whether the infamous difficulty and challenge are intrinsic to the identity of the action games FromSoftware has become known for in the past decade, or if there are ways, ala Celeste’s Assist mode, to allow a wider audience a chance.
In the midst of all this, Thorson imagined their own take on an Assist mode for Sekiro:
Part of what made Thorson’s take on the question potent was because Thorson wasn’t just some rambling game critic like yours truly, but the designer of a game that was hard as hell.
One of the people who responded to Thorson’s suggestion was Clint “Halfcoordinated” Lexa, a speederrunner who plays games with one hand due to a physical condition called hemiparesis, which causes weakness and decreased feeling in one half of the body. Lexa acknowledged Celeste handled its Assist Mode “well,” but said it “felt othering for many individuals when it mentioned ‘intended’ gameplay, leaving folks feeling insulted for needing the assists at all.” Some people decided not to play Celeste because of this, Lexa noted.
In full, here’s how Celeste introduces its Assist Mode:
“Assist Mode allows you to modify the game’s rules to reduce its difficulty. This includes options such as slowing the game speed, granting yourself invincibility or infinite stamina, and skipping chapters entirely. Celeste was designed to be a challenging but accessible game. We believe that its difficulty is essential to the experience. We recommend playing without Assist Mode your first time. However, we understand that every player is different. If Celeste is inaccessible to you due to its difficulty, we hope that Assist Mode will allow you to still enjoy it.”
“The fact is that many people will still have just as much if not more of a challenge using assists when compared to many players on the default difficulty,” Lexa told me. “Accessibility is about presenting additional options to remove barriers of access and empower disabled people to actually get that intended experience, it isn't about taking that experience away. A wheelchair ramp doesn't ruin stairs, braille doesn't ruin a book, and assist mode doesn't ruin a game.”
Importantly, while Lexa had not personally used Celeste’s Assist mode to play through it—the game offered enough options to make the game playable on a single controller—a huge part of their advocacy involves fighting for options that would benefit others in different situations.
Called out in public, it wouldn’t have been shocking or surprising for Thorson to, at least, take the conversation private. Instead, Thorson responded to Lexa in the same tweet thread, agreeing with some of the criticisms. Lexa later shared an alternative description for Assist mode, written in collaboration with narrative designer Kathy Jones. Their version of the description included this key line: “If the default game does not prove to be challenging yet rewarding due to inaccessibility, we hope that Assist mode will still give you that experience.”
Thorson thanked Lexa for the feedback and Lexa thanked Thorson for listening. That was April, back when Celeste’s update was still well in development, but Lexa and Jones had made a quick impact on Thorson.
“I read over what they wrote, and it made a lot of sense to me,” said Thorson. “Our goal with Assist mode was to include even more people who couldn't usually play hardcore platformers, and they pointed out a few ways that our original text was unintentionally undermining that purpose. Assist mode was uncharted territory for us, so we were bound to make some implementation mistakes, and their input was illuminating.”
This wasn't the first tweak the team had made to the mode. When Celeste shipped, if players turned on Assist mode for any reason, your save file was "branded" with an icon. This was quickly removed because, Thorson said, "the reasoning that got us to that design feels like the same exclusionary reasoning that affected the preamble text."
After speaking with the Celeste team, Thorson reached out to Lexa and Jones over Twitter and asked if they could include the updated text and thank them in the credits. The text went through a few minor revisions, but by and large, what they proposed soon became official.
“Believe it or not, sometimes good things can happen on that website,” Lexa told me.
Here’s how the text shows up in the updated version of Celeste:
“Assist Mode allows you to modify the game’s rules to fit your specific needs. This includes options such as slowing the game speed, granting yourself invincibility or infinite stamina, and skipping chapters entirely. Celeste is intended to be a challenging and rewarding experience. If the default game proves inaccessible to you, we hope that you can still find that experience with Assist Mode.”
When Lexa shared news of the change on Twitter recently, the response was overjoyous.
“My best friend has cerebral palsy,” wrote one person, “and wanted to use assist mode to see the story and I made damn sure to let him know he wasn't any less of a person for wanting to use assist mode for that despite the text. Thanks for looking out for my best friend.”
Moments like that speak to Lexa, and what prompts them to act and advocate publicly.
“Realizing that a customized experience can often be closer to their original intent when played by someone with different needs than your own is a big step that more developers need to understand and take,” added Lexa. “And even if someone uses it otherwise, it harms no one and folks have fun. I see this from both extremes of the spectrum as a speedrunner and accessibility consultant, and in both cases, it's just a matter of letting your creation breathe.”