Celeste — a hardcore pixel platformer with a touching story
Celeste answers the question ‘how can you make a plot really work in a video game?’. It’s a question we should all be asking more often, particularly when this is the answer.
Of course, a game must — first and foremost — be fun to play. Any emotional journey we may undertake whilst playing it can only really be considered a bonus. Thankfully, Celeste delivers in gameplay terms, too.
Celeste is a ‘masocore’ (a somewhat tautological portmanteau of “masochist” and “hardcore”) game — essentially, it’s designed to be very difficult and consists of individual levels that are played one-by-one, repeatedly, sometimes many times over. “You will die lots of times but you have infinite lives” is essentially the vibe here. Restarting each level — which typically consists of 1–3 screens — is instantaneous, though, and you can quit-and-continue at any time.
Madeline, the protagonist, has a pretty common set of abilities available to navigate each level: jumping, dashing, wall-clinging. Much of the main action takes place in midair, and certain strategically-placed items contribute to this; diamonds grant an extra dash, and bubbles propel Maddy in any chosen direction.
There’s also, of course, an assortment of different platforms, some of which decay, whilst others move when the player dashes, then return to their original position. One particularly memorable section involves the transport of another character: your task involves picking them up, and carrying them across a series of levels, throwing them about when necessary.
First impressions are very strong because, whilst the pixelated retro style has been done many times before, it is done very well indeed here — bright and colourful, interspersed with an illustrated, cartoon style for the all-important cut scenes. The controls feel responsive, early levels are straightforward, and the gameplay is compelling from the get-go.
Back to the plot, then. Celeste’s narrative is so effective because it is deployed exactly at those moments that the player is most receptive to it. It is an entirely different structure to a game like Hollow Knight whose plot, despite being deep and colourful, failed to really grip me. The biggest challenge any story-driven game faces is to tell the story at the right pace, to prevent the eager player from simply skipping dialogue in their rush to progress. Celeste introduces its plot points just when the player has reached the peak of each act in the greater play, which is usually the gap between each of the 8 chapters that contain the game’s several hundred levels.
It helps that things are linear. Early on, I wasn’t quite sure if that was going to be the case, and certain paths suggested there might be an amount of exploration thrown into the mix. However, it turns out that optional paths are really for bonus collectibles that, to be fair, add a huge amount of content to the main game. I was never really certain of this since there is no map, but Celeste isn’t the kind of game to hold your hand.
Although this might all sound like a straightforward setup, it still requires perfectly tuned difficulty to ensure each break in the gameplay is welcome, even required. It really does feel like pausing for breath, slowing the adrenaline right down and catching up with the story in the meantime.
The other distinction here is that this story is very emotional rather than event-driven. Of course, things happen, but the development of Madeleine’s character — and that of some of the bit-players — is at the forefront. It’s much easier to follow, especially since the plot mirrors the player’s own experience with the game.
Everyone will sympathise or empathise with each character’s plight to different extents. Something about Mr. Oshiro’s story moved me in a way I certainly wasn’t expecting, and the mental health issues touched on here, and in the main character’s tale, are dealt with a sensitivity rarely seen in video games. Although this is something that is — welcomingly — becoming more common.
Now, some people have told me that the plot isn’t that involved, and I take their point, but in a genre that’s often characterised by ‘goodie (usually male) tries to stop baddie (usually male) and, often, rescues victim of kidnapping (usually female)’, the bar is already pretty low. I don’t mind that much whether Celeste pushes it through the roof or gently nudges it up a few feet, it does raise it, undeniably.
Previously, I’ve struggled playing this type of game (Super Meat Boy, Slime-San). In particular, I reached a point in Super Meat Boy that I just could not get past. It’s frustrating because I really like that game, but cannot make any progress no matter how much I try. Celeste somehow manages to avoid this problem, despite having its tricky moments — to say the least. It rides the difficulty wave just perfectly enough to prevent deadlock. Maybe this is simply because it’s slightly less difficult (I genuinely cannot tell!), but I have a hunch it’s actually because the levels are perfectly sized.
That 1–3 screen estimate I gave earlier turns out to be very significant. Celeste will rarely ask too much of the player, at least, not more than they can reasonably learn with enough persistence. I think there is certainly a sweet-spot of ‘number of near-impossible moves’ that most players can reasonably learn to pull off, and whilst Super Meat Boy just tips over that limit, Celeste manages to approach it, and stop just short. Along with the plot development, it’s a key driver in keeping the player motivated.
There are few moving enemies in the game — spikes and falls are the main hazards — and this adds to the sense of isolation, but also the idea that the challenge here is a personal one. It means that many levels can be approached calmly and reflectively, without having to rush on at a breakneck speed. There are such moments — there were times I wasn’t even quite sure how I’d managed to complete a certain section, it had all happened so fast — but, thankfully, there were in the minority.
My single biggest issue is that something about the controls meant that I never fully mastered them. I often found myself jumping when I wanted to dash and vice versa. I also found myself holding down the ‘grip’ action to ensure I’d cling onto any wall I happened to meet, even if I couldn’t see it yet. Overall, this could feel fiddly, especially when playing with joycons in handheld mode. Ultimately, I find myself praying for a better revision of the pro-controller’s d-pad.
It must be said that all of this applies to the main game but, not, necessarily, the reportedly nightmarish b-sides and c-sides. I have yet to take these on, although the experience of finishing the main game is certainly driving me to want to. And the upcoming DLC will only be accessible once I’ve completed a few more challenges, so the incentive is certainly present!
Celeste is a challenging, gripping platform adventure, with a touching storyline and unforgettable characters. It really does deserve its reputation, and it’s a game very well suited to the Switch’s dual nature.
I’ve played Celeste for 15 hours; I was quite surprised it wasn’t longer. When you get on a run, you can really storm through a lot of levels in one sitting, though, so I guess that must’ve happened alongside the odd holdup. One level, in particular — one involving feathers — had me struggling for at least half an hour, if not longer. But it didn’t break me.
Most of my game time was docked, with the last couple of levels in handheld mode.
I paid £12.05 for Celeste; it’s currently priced at £17.99. Although my current game time is on the low side, I’ll definitely put more into it, and the DLC will only add further value.