With a near-perfectly pitched level of difficulty, Celeste is an enjoyable, simply-told parable of self-belief and perseverance. Its emotional insight has been overstated, but it is nonetheless a compelling package.
Players take control of Madeline, a young woman seeking to climb the mysterious Celeste Mountain. It doesn’t take long to realise that she’s seeking a break and relief from a daily life that has been wearing her out. Through simple interactions with a small roster of characters, this burnout is expanded upon and gently treated.
The straightforward metaphor at Celeste‘s heart is that Madeline is climbing both a real mountain and a metaphysical one of her own self-esteem and psyche. In time she encounters manifestations of her insecurities and bitterness, as well as discovering empowering abilities she didn’t know she had. This is the extent of Celeste‘s analogy, and the fact that the game doesn’t attempt any more intricate motifs has seen it garlanded with surprising quantities of praise.
The story treatment is restrained but traditional, and at times openly conventional, for all its progressive portrayal of mental health. In fairness, though, the narrative is something of a bonus layered atop the game’s core mechanics — tightrope-taut platforming. Madeline is climbing a mountain rendered in beautiful pixel graphics, and does so with a small roster of adaptable movement options.
Jumping is the first option, climbing up walls the next, and a short dash the final ingredient. These tools interact with a range of environmental factors to make for a variable range of challenging routes to tackle. In a given moment players might be fighting against raging winds, or being pushed forward by them; they might be using bubbles of energy to bounce around deadly spikes, or moving with gravity to avoid onrushing obstacles. Each room (for they are segmented as such) is its own puzzle to be tackled with practices timing.
They are navigated with controls that are incredibly responsive — sometimes so much so that the slightest thumb twitch is a player’s doom. Madeline can be controlled in mid-air as on the ground, and by the closing stages players will be micromanaging every inch of her path through air, sky and water. The controls are tuned quite perfectly.
Celeste also takes a kindhearted approach to player failure. Death leads to a near-instant respawn at the start of the current room and in its tutorials and menus the game reiterates that failure is an expected part of the journey. I finished my play-through with over 1,300 deaths to my name, and for all its well-meaning storytelling, Celeste‘s biggest success may well be that this felt like something to celebrate, not mope over.
Celeste‘s competent writing is of the level that videogames still too often fail to achieve, despite its relatively conventional nature. Its elegant, inventive design, however, is far more exceptional, and makes for a rewarding, satisfying climb.