Movie Sleuth Gaming: A Mountain of Anxiety: Celeste (2018) - Reviewed

Celeste is the newest brainchild of Matt Thorson (known for his game TowerFall) and Noel Berry. It started out as a small project for a "game jam" and was later expanded into the final project we see today. In the vein of Super Meat Boy (2010) and I Wanna Be the Guy (2007), Celeste is a extremely hard twitch platformer with deceptively simplistic controls. Madeline, the protagonist, can jump, cling to walls for a limited amount of time, and do one air dash which is replenished by touching the ground. This limited move set is tested to the max by the fiendishly clever room designs as well as environmental factors.

What sets Celeste apart from other games in the genre, is the excellent and moving narrative. Madeline's goal is to climb Mount Celeste, which is divided into several stages, each with its own unique look and theme. She is motivated to do so because of her internal issues which revolve around her depression and anxiety. The mountain represents the challenges she faces in life and each time she traverses a level successfully she is closer to her goal of achieving self-actualization. The metaphor doesn't end there as Madeline is also being chased by a physical representation of her inner demons, a shadow reflection of her fears and uncertainty. Shadow Madeline is constantly getting in her way taunting her with insults and admonitions. 

This game is a perfect example of ludonarrative and how it can enrich a gamer's experience. Ludonarrative refers to the idea of game play elements intersecting with and enforcing the theme of a video game. In the case with Celeste, the difficulty of the game forces the player to emphasize with Madeline's struggle to overcome her failures. Just like Madeline, the player will encounter a fail state over and over again, yet each time they will improve their technique and eventually conquer the level. Even if you die twenty times trying to get past one section, it never feels frustrating because you can feel your progress. Celeste also offers a multitude of difficulty sliders that let the player tailor the experience they wish to have. The game never mocks the player for doing this--in fact, the amount of deaths is shown as an indicator of progress.

Rounding out the excellent story are the beautiful pixel art graphics and the expressive adaptive musical score. Pixel art has come a long way and though it may feel antiquated to some people, this is a golden age for this aesthetic. Each level sports its own look and atmosphere which keeps the game from getting monotonous. Lena Raine's electronic OST is one of the best I have heard in a long time and the way the music subtly changes while you play is incredibly immersive. Layers are added and removed depending on the area you are in, a low pass filter is added when you swim underwater making everything sound muffled, and the sound design is just outstanding. I recommend playing this game with headphones to get the full effect.

Celeste is one of the few video games that does everything it sets out to do and executes it with perfection. Not one element is lacking and though the initial play though is on the shorter side (5-8 hours depending on the player's skills) there is at least 20-30 hours of extra content that can be unlocked to include harder versions of the original levels. Any fans of platformers or indie games should give this game a try, they won't be disappointed.

--Michelle Kisner