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.