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.

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14 comments

  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.

      1. Again, platformer not emphasising creativity does not inherently mean it’s tedious. That’s a value judgement regarding a subgenre of platformer that’s already established and demonstrably enjoy. It can certainly not be your thing and even in the respects it does go for it’s own thing there are flaws, but I wouldn’t reduce it down ro linear execution = tedium, there’s other factors (see my other comment).

        I do think you have a valid point in that how they try to tie that aspect of the gameplay into the narrative feels a bit cheap. But that’s a matter of the context the gameplay is presented in, not of the intrinsic merit of different philosophies for difficulty in platformers. I think those should be separate discussions.

    2. There are plenty of platformers in this vein though? Super Meat Boy coming to mind, and the emphasis seems to be the feel of movement and execution and “getting into the groove” over it being an active or creative process. There’s a case to be made regarding mastery for mastery’s sake if the sequence of actions is satisfying in other respects (visuals, responsiveness, complexity, even rhythm).That said I can certainly understand that not being your preference as a lot of those metrics are highly subjective, but I wouldn’t call it a flaw, at least not in the core principle of that sort of design.

  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.

  4. I diagree with the idea that a recurring powerup representing dealing with anxiety necessarily devalues the concept. The idea that overcoming anxiety is a significant but regularly occuring thing I that you need to exercise even for everyday tasks – I think captures at least one aspect of the condition.

    Granted, this representation serves the gameplay more than it does the narrative. However I would say this is the case for most of Celeste, and that priority is what distinguishes it from most of those other depression-related games you compared it to. The narrative of mental illness in Celeste’s case is more of a loose theme to the platformer they wanted to make, rather some core message the game is built around. Which isn’t necessarily bad. What’s more in that context, severely boiled down mechanical depictions of anxiety/depression/self loathing/bipolarity are more valid, especially if they correspond to mechanical elements that evoke minute instances anxiety, triumph, etc. that you typically experience during a traditional platformer. Again, this idea serving more as a theme to established platformer gameplay than as some unique avenue to tell a message.

    That said, to do this sort of minimal gameplay-serving story properly, it’s imperative to not try to hamfistedly translate these hyper simplified representations into an overt, traditionally presented narrative. In fact a lot of such games will have no dialogue at all.

    If you DO try to tie it into an explicit story, it usually comes across as disengenuous or pretentious. And at the same time you also risk jeoperadizing the aforementioned experiential aspect; I’m much more likely to associate a feather powerup with a sense of relieved panic/anxiety if that’s conveyed primarily through gameplay, but the more you make a deal of explicitly telling me what the feather and its narrative significance is, the more lacking the metaphor will begin to feel all around.

    I’d liken it to breaking suspension of disbelief. If you’re going to verbally acknowledge a nonverbal means of conveying an emotional metaphor, that nonverbal metaphor needs to be interesting and substantial enough to stand under conscious scrutiny. And that’s arguably where Celeste fails.

    I wouldn’t say I was annoyed to the same degree as you, but I definitely rolled my eyes a few times at the way characters aggrandize something minimally represented in-game, and would then become overly aware of and mentally dissociated from those elements when returning to gameplay. Instead, the game’s narrative is much better served when I’m instead allowed to just play without thinking consciously about how I’m *supposed* to feel about given elements, get into a groove, enjoy their aesthetic and mechanical aspects along with the small but continuous emotional responses that accompany them. Then when the metaphorical aspect becomes apparent, it’s more of a “huh, neat” rather than “yeah, sure…”

    In short, if you’re going to try to accomplish a metaphor through gameplay elements that are reductive to the subject mattet, then you need to commit to the idea of a minimalist, gameplay emphasizing narrative. Otherwise it often comes across as obnoxious.

    1. Though for the record, even in the instances I think the story is relatively effective- it’s still far and away the weakest aspect if the game. You play Celeste for the gameplay, everything else is excess.

  5. Also, you really go for the “throw out every point I can think with no structure” approach to writing. You have weaker/subjective points (“sounds annoying”, “I don’t like that kind of pixel art”) mixed in with valid ones and those that are valid you don’t really organize into any sort of deeper insight. And I think someone else in the comments already broke down how your tone is really immature, in a way that further distracts from your arguments. i think folks in your comment section put more work into structuring cohesive and focused criticism of the game than you did.

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