“Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!”
That’s one of the loading screen lines from Celeste, the new platformer from TowerFall designer Matt Thorsen. Any game with a death counter is one where you’re going to be dying a lot, but I can’t remember the last time a game was so nice and pleasant about it. Even as you plummet into oblivion—or run smack dab into a pile of spikes—for the millionth time, Celeste never feels like it’s judging you. Instead, the game wants to give you a hug. It’s strange to feel warmth from a game about dying, but here we are.
Though death comes fast and easy in Celeste, the tonal is unique. Every time you die in Super Meat Boy, it feels like a punch in the stomach. (For some, that punch feels like a dare. I’m one of those people, but it’s not for everyone.) You die a violent death, and in moments, are asked to try again. It often feels like the game is laughing. In Celeste, every death results in a cute, Mega Man-style poof of energy, and you’re warped back to the start of the screen. Everything about Celeste—the music, the visuals, the loading screens—presents a game rooting for you to succeed, if you’re patient enough to pull it all together. Even if it takes a few tries, the game is happy to wait.
Your goal in Celeste is to help Madeline scale Celeste Mountain, or as it's more commonly called, the Mountain. The capitalization isn’t part of a larger metaphor: there’s a literal big-ass mountain to climb. The M merely underscores the task’s importance. For whatever reason, Madeline needs to make it to the top of the Mountain. Early on, it becomes clear Madeline’s quest is personal, and lays the foundation for one of the game’s most interesting bullet points: a story to tell.
Perhaps more than any other genre, platforming has largely resisted narrative’s siren call. Every few years, a game that pulls it off— Braid, Inside, Conker's Bad Fur Day—but in general, the genre has remained focused on mechanics. Celeste bucks the trend, quickly seeding that Madeline is dealing with much more than a random trek to the Mountain.
She struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and mental breaks that aren’t explained away by magic or prophecies. Despite whisking through the air, she’s relatable. When a panic attack strikes, Madeline needs to stop, breathe, and collect herself. The game even tries to convey how she grapples with such moments through a mini-game. It’s fascinating.
I don’t know if Celeste’s story will pay off, but it’s surprising that I even care to find out.
While some genres might use a good story to gloss over shoddy mechanics, I’m not sure that’d sell in a platformer. Celeste is not that game. TowerFall had sublimely tight controls that made the mere act of moving around a joy, but it was a multiplayer game. Celeste feels just as good as TowerFall, but now, the enemies are the jumps around you.
On paper, Madeline’s bag of tricks is limited. She can jump, duck, hang onto walls, and dash in eight directions. Within moments, the player knows what Madeline can do.
That’s not to suggest Celeste is simple or lacking mechanical variety—quite the contrary. What changes is the environment. At the start, you’re doing little more than connecting simple jumps, dashes, and ledge grabs. In short order, however, the game gets very weird. In one stage, pieces of the environment are transformed into warps, and the moment you dash in one direction, the game locks you into place, spitting you out on the other side. In another, you’re able to leap into circular blobs and control which direction it spits you out. Elsewhere, air dashing causes certain platforms to change position, adding more wrinkles. It eventually begins combining all of them.
Every step of the way, you’re still using the same basic skill set. It’s a comforting.
The game reminds me of Super Mario Odyssey in how feverishly it pivots from one idea to the next. Most games would use one of Celeste’s building blocks over and over, but Celeste is fine introducing a clever mechanic for a hot minute, then moving on long before wearing out its welcome. That you’re left wanting more is precisely the point.
Most screens in Celeste suggest an obvious way forward, but if you’re curious, there are other paths. Most lead to one of the game’s few collectibles: strawberries. Why strawberries? So far, half a dozen hours into the game, I have no idea. My running theory is the developers knew strawberries were my favorite fruit. (They should be yours, too, honestly.) Decades of playing games has made me wary of collectibles. Why are you there? Are you there to waste my time? Will it unlock a secret?
Then, I came across another loading screen:
“Strawberries will impress your friends, but that’s about it. Only collect them if you really want to!”
Okay, then! That's a very nice and useful thing to say, game. In practice, the strawberries function as a difficulty slider. If you want the most challenging platforming bits, they’re gated behind a strawberry. It’s also where the most puzzley aspects come into play. Often, the strawberry is dangling in a hilariously obvious place, but successfully making your way to it requires creative use of the limited options available to Madeline. Maybe you need to use the momentum of a moving platform to provide the extra inches for a lengthy jump. Maybe you need to be really careful about how long you spend grabbing walls, managing the game’s hidden stamina meter.
The highest respect you can pay a collectible is wanting to collect it for reasons other than completionism. Celeste makes the mechanical payoff worth the player’s effort.
But don’t mistake strawberries as an indication that Celeste is easy. After a few chapters, Celeste takes the kids gloves waaaay off, and puts players on their heels. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you reach a stage with the damn clouds.
My only problem is how, far too often, it gates you from moving backwards. It’s not always clear when you’re going to be locked into the next screen, which means you can sometimes be poking and prodding for secrets, only to be rushed forward by accident. You can replay any chapter, complete with indicators on the pause screen about what rooms have hidden items, but that means playing the level again.
It’s a minor quibble for a game that’s otherwise a masterclass in platforming. You’re going to die a bunch playing Celeste, but it’ll feel like the game is cheering you. It’s a game with heart, filled with an optimism that’s desperately needed as we start 2018.
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