It dawned on me recently that a lot of the games I played this year didn’t actually come out in 2018. I mean, you can look back through the blog and get a good account of what I played through; not a lot of new releases. Hell, I spent the first month of the year playing the early Elder Scrolls games. Yeesh. So, with the clock ticking, I went through my wishlist and picked up a few games I was interested in.
Not full priced releases, goodness no, do you know how broke I am?
So Celeste came up near the top of the list, because it was released to glowing reviews and I’m told that it’s a mountain climbing game that’s not really about climbing a mountain. Okay, that sounds like my jam.
Celeste stars a red headed woman named Madeline, which I had to look up, because being the narcissist I am, I immediately renamed her to Adzuken. The story sees her attempt to climb Celeste Mountain for reasons that seem unclear to even her. It seems to be the old story of, “because it’s there.”
Anyway, the narrative follows her struggles with self-doubt, which physically manifests itself into an evil doppleganger that attempts to sabotage her every step of the climb. Along the way, she encounters a sassy grandma, a card carrying millennial, and a self-conscious ghost. On top of self-doubt, the story touches on issues with depression, anxiety, and panic attacks; all things I am all too familiar with. Haha! Ugh…
Really, though, I’m at a time in my life where the plot should make a significant impact. Right now, I’m in the midst of climbing my own mountain (or mountains, as might be more accurate), and problems like self-doubt and anxiety are things I grapple with every day. I’ve dealt with panic attacks, and yeah, I’ve even had to face myself, so I understand Madeline’s problems.
Yet, at the same time, I don’t like her. I can’t put my finger on why. It might be simple resentfulness for how easily solutions fall into her lap. Yeah, I wish breathing exercises were enough to pull me out of a panic attack; usually it requires a sedative. She doesn’t have to make any sacrifices to address her problems, even when she’s at her lowest, which seems a little unrealistic when dealing with any sort of mental illness. It just seems easy for her, and that’s hard to relate to.
So, I understand that my distaste for the protagonist is more of a reflection on me than it is on the game, but that’s how it hit me. It’s nice to see that these problems are being depicted in the video game medium, but the way they’re depicted almost feels like it’s minimizing the effort that it actually takes to get over these problems. For most people, it takes more than a feather and an argument with your shadow self to get things straightened out in their head.
A MOUNTAIN OF EXPLETIVES
Celeste belongs to a subgenre commonly referred to as “die-and-retry.” It’s named as such, because there is no expectation of you to overcome any specific challenge without you dying first and dying repeatedly. As a compromise, retrying is almost instantaneous. Think Super Meat Boy, I Wanna Be the Guy, or Hotline Miami. There’s often no way of really knowing what’s going to happen in a given area without trying and failing first. In exchange, there are no lives, and after death, you’re instantly dropped back in the action. Progress comes a bit at a time as you memorize and perfect each segment
I’m not a fan of the play style, to be honest. Of the games I mentioned, only Hotline Miami appeals to me, and that’s probably because there’s a lot of space for creativity. For the other games and Celeste, it’s all about mastering controls and playing until you perfect the various obstacles.
My issue with it actually stems from the repetitiveness of each of the challenges. Each stage in the game offers you one major mechanic that affects how you approach the obstacles. That could be sufficient, but the levels are stretched out, then stretched out again. The total runtime of Celeste’s main plot is about 6-8 hours, which is pretty damned significant for a game with only 7 chapters.
A TALL CLIMB
This may just come down to my gaming habits, but I’m kind of tired of indie platformers that stretch their gameplay out. There are a lot of perfectly valid reasons to try and cram as much content into your game as possible, but the gameplay needs to support it. Even Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man knew to call it a day before the afternoon was over. There’s just not enough variety in Celeste to sustain it.
It’s not that difficult to fumble through just about every challenge in Celeste, even if you’re dropping a few hundred lives each level. Every obstacle boils down to memorization and reaction speed, and not once did I stop to appreciate how clever a particular challenge was. The fact that every variation is segregated to a single stage just makes everything seem longer. When all you can do is air dash and grapple, things begin to feel monotonous. By the end of the game, I just wanted to see it end, and that’s never a good sign.
What it comes down to is that Celeste just isn’t a game for me. If I had any interest in speedrunning, had any sort of affection for collecting totally arbitrary collectible objects, or had a deep affection for the die-and-retry genre, I might have found more to enjoy, but I don’t and I didn’t. Even the story, which seems like it’s targeted at someone with my emotional difficulties, didn’t really impact as hard as it could.
On the other hand, a lot of people I respect have talked up this game like it’s the second coming of Colonel Sanders, which always makes me feel like I’m playing the game wrong. So maybe take my opinion into account, but remember that I’m basically just screaming at the ocean. And really, Celeste is competently designed, and in the time it has before things become repetitive, it’s a decent amount of fun. I guess maybe don’t be surprised if your climb to the top leaves you cold.
This review was conducted using the Windows version from the Steam Store. It was paid for by the author.