Celeste Review — The Whiniest Platformer

by Jed Pressgrove

With heavy references to depression and anxiety, Celeste seeks to depict a psychological struggle that many teenagers and adults can identify with. So it’s particularly egregious that developer Matt Thorson decides to infantilize his audience within the first few minutes of the game. As characters talk to each other in the intro, you hear this childish and grating gibberish as a stand-in for actual voice acting, similar to the dialogue in the throwback 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee (another “difficult” game that nonetheless seems like it was made for toddlers). Thorson’s appeal to an unassuming kiddish perspective doesn’t end there: the pixel-art character models speak to blind nostalgia for childhoods spent with 1980s game consoles, as the sprites are ugly (and they only get uglier when the camera zooms in on them for cheesy dramatic effect). This presentation sets the stage for yet another extreme trial-and-error platformer, where it’s not unusual for players to die hundreds of times over the course of one or two levels. As a familiar gauntlet of player error, Celeste hardly resembles a fresh, mature take on tortured life.

In Celeste, you play as a young woman named Madeline who wishes to climb the intimidating Celeste Mountain. It soon becomes apparent that Madeline suffers from some type of mental illness, so her journey up the mountain involves her internal demons as much as it does external obstacles. At first, you only have to worry about jumping, climbing, and dashing around hazards like spikes, but soon a “bad” part of Madeline manifests as a ghost-like copy of herself, and if this apparition touches you, you die.

This mental-health dynamic amounts to a patronizing theme. While IGN’s Tom Marks insists that the game features “important conversations that games don’t often have,” Celeste is one of many recent games that involve depression and/or anxiety (Elude, Depression Quest, Actual Sunlight, The Cat Lady, to name a few). Viewed from a lens that acknowledges this clear trend, Celeste seems like an effort to be fashionably relevant given its lack of insightful handling of the subject matter.

This trendiness comes through in a conversation between Madeline and her friend Theo, an insufferable hipster who won’t shut up about taking selfies (like millennial caricatures, the duo is more interested in themselves than they are in the grandeur of nature). When Madeline has a panic attack at one point, Theo tells her to close her eyes and concentrate on a feather. The player then sees a feather and must manipulate it so that it fits into a box for a period of time. If the player succeeds with this task, Madeline’s panic attack stops. This seconds-long mechanical expression, however, doesn’t capture any recognizable complication of overcoming anxiety, and feathers show up again in the platforming sections of the game as a way to make Madeline fly, trivializing the idea of hard-fought recovery as a generic power-up.

Similarly, the aforementioned “bad” version of Madeline can be written off mechanically as an evil shadow obstacle, reminiscent of Cosmic Mario in Super Mario 3D Land. Other games have attempted and executed far more original and evocative concepts. Though only a text-based game, Depression Quest communicates the effects of depression through dialogue options that won’t work (when selected by the player) due to the protagonist’s state of mind. Even more illustrative is the case of Elude, a platformer that taps into the sinking-down feeling of depression through how the protagonist controls. Celeste, with its tedious emphasis on death and perfunctory item collection, lacks the focus of such efforts.

I could excuse Celeste’s failures and embrace it as a serviceable series of challenges if it weren’t for the whiny tone of its narrative, which can’t be skipped. In later parts of the game, Madeline speaks in an altered form of infantile gibberish when she gets very upset. She sounds like a tiny crying mouse in these segments, underlining Thorson’s pandering to exaggerated millennial fear. In trying to pass off this self-pitying nonsense as cute and edifying, Celeste is an insult.



  1. I also didn’t like Celeste, and one of the reasons was its narrative. I’m not sure if for the same reasons pointed out here, but what you say rings true to me, at least to an extent. I hated the protagonist and the idea of a second, ‘bad’ version of oneself.

    My main complain, though, is its design principle. The more you progress in the game, the less possibilities it offers. I really like tough platformers, but when I’m required to do the exact same combination of jumping combos, at the precise hundredth of a second and in the precise inch, screen after screen, I wonder why should I keep trying. There’s no world there, there are no possibilities. It all becomes a series of one-dimensional puzzles where the solution is clear after seconds and you just need to try again and again doing the same until you can continue. No other ways, no different approaches, no thinking. Just rinse and repeat.

    1. Your second paragraph touches on something that I felt as well. I felt empty throughout Celeste, even when I overcame the hardest challenges. The game favors tedium over creativity, and the item collecting just seems tacked on.

  2. Wow. What a cynical self absorbed bitch fest this article was. The only one here whining is you dude. I’ll be over here enjoying this incredible game leaving you to be a bitter tool. Jesus.

  3. There’s something fundamentally mean-spirited about all your negative reviews, especially the ones regarding critically acclaimed games like this one. Your framework appears to be that developers who’ve put elements in that you didn’t care for have done so as some sort of intentional insult, and that critics who disagree with your take and enjoyed those elements are all gibbering simpletons, even when you’re hugely in the minority as you are with this title. Surely a more generous assumption is that the developers tried to make the best game they could in all departments, and it seems frankly odd to suggest that a game as unique as this one chose the themes it did for what you apparently seem to think were cynical, commercial reasons.

    Further, the way you choose to convey your dissent is via insults far more childish than anything you’d find in this game, rather than actually setting out any positive case for your take, nor any framework by which the reader might actually be able to perceive where you’re coming from. The fact is though, when you’re the one in the minority, there’s actually more of an onus on you to make a proper case for your point of view, rather than shit out a hand-waving dismissal of the mental faculties of your peers.

    I’m all for divergent takes on popular games. Nothing has ever made me rethink a piece of art as much as Leigh Alexander’s brilliant deconstruction of BioShock Infinite. Many YouTube video essayists do fascinating long form critical discussions of games which have challenged and enlarged my ideas about game design. We definitely need reviews which are an antidote to a lot of mainstream outlets, which can over-favour certain game types and in my view have contributed to an industry with a bit too much homogeneity in game design (I was quite disappointed in what in my opinion is the latest example of this, God Of War 4. I think most individual parts of it are incredibly competently executed but that I have some fundamental philosophical issues with its design and have yearned for more writers to engage with it via this framework; the notion that a game can actually be less than its many well-executed constituent parts). But if it’s to come in the form of sub-Yahtzee, thoughtless invective like this, I’m not sure I want it.

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