I am a husband, a father, a writer, and a gamer. I love playing games and writing about them.
Video games, like all forms of media, are subject to a swarm of mediocre content. We see loads of shovelware on mobile phones, online stores like STEAM or Nintendo's eShop are just becoming flooded with lazy ports and unexciting releases, and even top-level AAA games seem so few and far between. It's no wonder that gamers hunger for something special. We long for games that will be with us forever, but how often do we get to play games like Super Mario World, Ocarina of Time, Portal, Half-Life, or Metroid Prime? Games that still light up our eyes years later, and games that transcend both time and relevance.
Those games all became instant classics, and in 2018, another game has arguably graced the same upper echelon as Super Mario World.
That game is Celeste, a brilliant 2D platformer currently available on PC, Switch, Xbox One, and Playstation 4.
What Is Celeste?
Celeste is a game that was initially created as a prototype during a game jam, a gathering of people for the purpose of creating games in a very short period of time. It was so popular and successful at this game jam that Matt Thorson and Noel Berry, the developers, decided to expand the game into a full release and launched in January 2018.
The name "Celeste" is not a character's name, but the name of the mountain where the game takes place. The creative team searched for mountain names in the British Columbia area, and they chose Mount Celeste as they liked the name, despite knowing nothing about that particular mountain.
Celeste and Mental Health
In Celeste, you play as Madeline, a young girl who is struggling with life and trying to overcome doubt, anxiety, and failure. It is in this simple narrative that Celeste transforms into one of the greatest video games in history.
Doubt is something that every human being on the planet has struggled with at some point in their life. Doubt creeps in when we lack direction, encouragement, or meaning. We begin to wonder why we exist, what's the point of living, and why do I even bother. These questions damper our hearts and minds and cause us to turn away from our hopes and dreams.
Anxiety is something that every human being on the planet has struggled with at some point in their life. Anxiety creeps in when we start feeding ourselves false narratives, and we begin to believe the world is against us. Trust becomes a lost cause, and fear begins to settle which causes us to panic, walk away from our loved ones, and even possibly cause hate or harm to ourselves.
Failure is something that every human being on this planet has struggled with at some point in their life. More than the action itself, failure is a mindset. It's one that ties strongly together with doubt and anxiety to create a whirlpool of negativity that can quite possibly bring us to our lowest points.
A Journey of Raw Emotion
Somehow, Celeste takes us on a journey through these exact raw emotions, and through the simple narrative of playing as a young girl who struggles with these very things, we are met with a marvel of social and psychological commentary in a video game setting.
Celeste is a story that absolutely cannot work as a book, a movie, or a TV series because it's the actual gameplay that makes the story that much more powerful.
Climbing the Mountain
Madeline decides to climb Mount Celeste, a mountain with quite the reputation and, according to the game, one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb.
Like most mountains, Mount Celeste starts off not so bad. We learn how to jump, climb, and dash. We make our way through some interesting obstacles. We learn what is safe and what can hurt us, and we learn how quickly our stamina depletes when we are hanging onto walls.
At some point in the game, though, we start to feel stressed and overwhelmed. We doubt our ability to complete a stage, we think the game is turning against us, and we begin to believe that our constant bout with failure is a sign to just give up.
At this point, you are no longer playing as Madeline. You are Madeline.
This is where Celeste's gameplay is a crucial part of the experience, because we learn through our own struggle how to empathize and better connect with the main character. Her struggles have become our struggles, her worries have become our worries, and her failures have become our failures. Playing Celeste does not really give you a chance to disconnect, because the story cannot end unless you can finish it.
And climbing the mountain is literally the goal of the game, both in the literal sense and the figurative sense.
Madeline's most difficult climb isn't even Mount Celeste, but the climb over all of her personal problems and learning how to balance her emotions, even channeling them for good.
The Climb Strengthens Us
Each stage of Mount Celeste challenges us in different ways, each of them with their own stresses and pains, but such is life. At first, we learned the basics, but each passing stage challenges us in new ways, testing our limits and expanding our horizons at the same time.
As we progress, we become more and more familiar with the world around us, and we apply the skills we learned in previous areas to help us get through newer and more severe ones.
This is true to life in so many ways, and that is the ultimate lesson that Celeste teaches us as we continue to progress and bull through the treacherous mountain.
As we learn more about doubt, anxiety, and failure, Celeste also provides a hopeful beacon of light in its brilliant level design. Each level is a series of short stages, so instead of getting tied up on the summit itself, we are able to focus on the short task at hand. Despite the task's difficulty, being able to see the end of the stage makes it less scary and more obtainable.
This is what strengthens the player and helps us to become better and better, because our doubts are slowly pushed away, we begin to trust the game more and more, and we powerfully learn to realize that failure makes us stronger.
Conquering the Mountain and Our Emotions
As we start to believe in ourselves more, we gain a better understanding of the mountain. Making it to the summit doesn't sound impossible anymore.
Quite the contrary. Reaching the summit feels not only possible, but we truly begin to believe in ourselves.
We will beat this stage.
We will beat this level.
We will reach the summit!
That is how Celeste makes us better players and better people. Together with Madeline, we are able to tackle two giant mountains; Mount Celeste and ourselves.
We will beat this doubt.
We will beat this anxiety.
We will not let failure define us!
Celeste provides us a window into how we can deal with depression, anxiety, worry, and dread. It shows us what it's like to live with the demon inside, and it gives us insight on how to take control and finding the positivity inside to overcome some of these crippling emotions.
We have all been there. It's a part of what it means to be human. We just need to learn how to channel these emotions for good and not allow them to paralyze us.
When it comes to mental health and care, it is so refreshing to see a game like Celeste make such a powerful and meaningful statement, giving hope that all who end up playing the game will walk away with a better understanding of what it means to confront our own personal mountains and even conquer them.
© 2019 Jason Reid Capp