They say that part of telling a good story is to start as close to the end as possible, and so as soon as I guided Madeline towards the top of the mountain I instinctively hit the Share button. Not so that I could secure bragging rights on YouTube, but so that people could understand the cause of the late nights, ignored game invites and missed Messenger updates. Death in Celeste is pretty much guaranteed on a blind playthrough, but to an outsider looking in, it’s easy to wonder why a player would persevere so much. I know this because I’ve been there; I delayed picking the game up for a while after reading the horror stories and assuming that it would be something I’d never see a credits sequence for, and I only persuaded myself to buy it because I’d made some spare credit from trades. So why would I sign up to such a punishing experience?
Death in Celeste is part of the challenge
Before we get to that, some context is needed. Celeste is a 2D platformer released on Steam and consoles, and the player’s goal is to guide the determined Madeline to the top of Celeste Mountain – a straightforward task, were it not for the numerous spikes, traps, pitfalls and other hazards – hazards that cause instant death and a return to the last checkpoint if Madeline comes into contact with them. Death in Celeste isn’t just something to be feared; death in Celeste is something to accept – it’s all part of the learning process. Madeline can run, jump, climb vertical surfaces for a limited time and perform an air-dash that recovers when her feet touch the ground… and for the most part this is all that the two of you can work with. Celeste actually typifies a breed of game I’ve always admired – the game that gives you a generous amount of control over a character or situation, but provides a challenge that forces you to make the most of that control. I see it in parts of games such as Mario 64 and Viewtiful Joe, but here, it’s the game’s M.O.
Death in Celeste is never unfair
In other words, death in Celeste is always on you. It helps that the experience is as charming as it is brutal – the presentation is gorgeous, the music is fantastic, the story is brief but also engaging and quite touching, and the small cast of characters is likeable. However, for some players charm won’t be enough, and it’s not long before the game reveals its real draw – the compact form of the challenges. You see, Celeste is harsh with its level design, but rather than giving the player a long slog through some mildly irritating sequences, it offers generous checkpointing and compact platforming action that’s highly demanding. Nothing feels unfair when you’re only teleported back to the start of the screen where you died, and this has the subconscious effect of preventing failure from ever feeling like a massive setback, even when you’ve been trying to master a particular sequence of jumps for half an hour. It’s a psychological trick that’s old-fashioned but always effective… however, it only works when you’re confident that the pacing of the challenges and checkpoints is judged perfectly – have your checkpoints placed too frequently and the sense of challenge is gone; spread them too far apart and the player will walk away from the game. Admittedly, death in Celeste is sometimes followed by what seems like a large setback – one sequence towards the end of chapter three almost felt like it was stretched out a bit too much, even though if you remove the deaths and retries there’s probably only a few minutes of gameplay there – but such experiences are few and far between.
Death in Celeste is one part of an engaging whole
It’s a big part of why I kept playing, but it would be unkind to ignore the accomplishments outside of the gameplay – the story is simple but affecting, touching on similar themes of self-doubt and denial that were so thoroughly explored in Atlus’ 2009 masterpiece Persona 4. It doesn’t run quite as deep with the themes as the JRPG did, but Madeline’s journey in Celeste is much more personal, and the climax of that journey is almost as memorable. Additionally, the presentation is excellent – striking pixel landscapes provide the backdrop whilst twee earworms deliver the soundtrack.
What this all means is that death in Celeste is a small price to pay for what ends up becoming a rewarding and rousing experience. To those people who watched the replay of my numerous deaths near the summit – this is why these games keep us coming back, and I can easily see it becoming a modern classic of 2018.
Celeste is available now for Switch, PS4 and PC.