Matt Makes Games’ 2D platformer Celeste stars Madeline, a girl who arrives at Celeste Mountain and plans to climb all the way to the summit. The only thing getting in the way isn’t the harsh weather or required stamina, but herself. Madeline doesn’t just want to climb Celeste; she needs to. She uses the experience to confront her own mental health struggles, and I did the same alongside her every step of the way.
You see, Celeste is an incredibly challenging game. I suffer from some pretty harsh anxiety (along with depression, lack of self-worth, etc.) so overly challenging games quickly turn me away. Gaming is my favorite form of escapism because I can use it to relax and get my brain thinking about more pleasant things, rather than irrelevant stuff that occurred many, many years ago. While I may have started gaming because I enjoyed the challenge of things like Mega Man, Castlevania, and Ninja Gaiden, I’ve since fallen off that train quite heavily. I tend to frustrate easily and when games start to feel hard for the pure sake of being hard, rather than providing a learning experience, I give up. Even when they’re well designed, I just don’t play video games nowadays to push my skills to the limit and hoist an invisible trophy above my head whenever I overcome said challenge.
In short, super tough games do nothing for me in a positive way. I understand their appeal, but they typically trigger my anxiety and end up buried underneath the rest of the games I’ve given up on.
It’s all in my head, though. I just get so down on myself, knowing that I’ve been playing video games for 30 years of my life and I’m not “good enough” to beat Spelunky, struggle with a Dark Souls boss, or fail to grasp The Binding of Isaac. It’s… stupid to write down and actually read it back to myself, but it’s true. Anxiety sucks. Depression sucks.
Celeste is challenging, but it encourages others like myself to learn from their mistakes, to “just breathe” and take pride in their death counter. Anyone with anxiety will tell you that taking these deep breaths and struggling to take control back is par for the course, and Matt Makes Games did a wonderful job of putting me in Madeline’s climbing boots by reminding me — “just breathe.”
It offers “assists” that can toggle an extra air dash, or even invincibility, so even those not interested in overcoming Celeste Mountain’s increasingly challenging stages can at least experience Madeline’s tale of overcoming her mental health struggles and those she meets along the way. I always knew that if I reached a point in the game where the going got a little too tough, where I was just on the verge of quitting, that I could trigger these assists and progress… but I never did. I was determined to see it through, both for Madeline and for myself.
It’s not every day that I feel like I can overcome this bullshit Anxiety and Depression Cocktail that has plagued me for 20 years of my life, but Celeste is designed in such a way that made that possible. It was like learning to ride a bike with training wheels and then finally taking them off. You know they’re still in the garage and you can have them put right back on if you want, but you clearly don’t need them. Dying in Celeste was always a learning experience and each bite-sized room served as its own checkpoint, so even when I’d die 20 or 30 times it never felt exhausting to just give it another go. And if I started to feel too comfortable, I could push myself to go for collectibles or even more challenging “b-sides,” that acted as mini trophies I could hoist atop Madeline’s strawberry-colored head. I finally “got it,” I guess.
I’m rarely charmed by the narrative in a 2D platformer, but that all changed with Celeste. Madeline was relatable, she met others who shared my own shortcomings, and her final drive to confront her own demons was just so fucking encouraging. Not only is Celeste a masterclass in 2D platforming, nor does it simply provide a magical, pixelated world accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack, but it piles these tried-and-true mechanics atop a beautifully endearing story of overcoming self-struggles.
I really can’t recommend the game enough. I don’t score anything here, but Celeste would certainly be a rare 10/10, A+, five-star game. On paper, I should have raged, uninstalled it, and regretted my $20 purchase, because that’s what happened with other similar games in the past. This was quite the opposite. It may, in fact, be the finest game I play all year and it’s only February. Thankfully, although the credits have rolled, there’s still so much to see.
“Just breathe,” indeed.