Released January 25, 2018, to critical acclaim, “Celeste” quickly solidified its place as an elite indie game with beautiful, engrossing environments, an immersive soundtrack, and gameplay that is simultaneously difficult, highly enjoyable and rewarding. After receiving perfect scores from a slew of top industry sites, like IGN, it climbed its way up to bestseller lists across various platforms.
What’s more, the game features a story that seems innocuous and predictable from the get-go, but becomes more complex and emotionally charged as Madeline, the game’s protagonist, grapples her way to the summit in an attempt to overcome personal challenges in her life.
Months later, I find myself continually revisiting the summit of the titular Celeste Mountain.
On the surface, “Celeste” appears to be a well-crafted platformer who’s gameplay has been compared to 2010’s Super Meat Boy. At its heart though, the game sheds a light on a narrative about anxiety, the personal toll it takes and what it does to those closest to you.
It’s fair to say that if you haven’t played the game in its entirety, stop reading to avoid spoilers.
You begin your ascent at the very bottom, both literally and figuratively. As Madeline makes her way up the fictional Celeste Mountain, determined to overcome this challenge (and her yet-to-be-revealed struggles), you meet a cast of character dealing with their own inner turmoil. The game’s saturated environments lend an air of supernaturalism to the game, which is complimented nicely by the mountain’s ability to seemingly manifest each cast member’s internalized struggle in real world ways.
Whether it’s through her phone conversations with her mother, or ruminating over a previous relationship through pseudo-flashbacks, it’s clear early on that Madeline is struggling with something bigger than her goal of climbing the mountain to prove herself worthy.
This becomes more evident when Madeline comes face to face with her reflection in an old, cracked mirror and her inner struggle manifests itself into an evil, supernatural version of herself. Taunting her along the game, this evil twin serves as the inner voice many of us have heard when dealing with anxiety.
When I graduated high school, I began to have panic attacks. As I entered college and progressed toward my degree, I realized that my anxiety about not being the top of my class, the best at my internships and the favorite, most successful child (I am one of four) caused me to spiral into bouts of intense panic. I would shut my friends out for weeks at a time, giving them only perfunctory responses when needed to “keep up appearances.”
I never thought I was good enough, and a twisted version of myself told me that every day. The struggles I felt were reflected in Madeline’s own experience, which made playing the game feel very personal, and me feeling vulnerable as I tried to help her on her journey.
Hunky Theo, the Instagram-obsessed climber who teams up with Madeline partway through the game, has his own insecurities. Ensuring that his pictures show he’s having a great time, and dealing with a curated image that’s unattainable beyond social media, his stressors manifest in a glass prison; a prison his insecurities created.
Mr. Oshiro, the ghostly caretaker of Celestial Resort Hotel who you meet on your journey, was so overcome by the void of tourists after the resort fell into disrepair that he literally faded away until he became a ghost of himself. Enraged when Madeline ignores him in an attempt to continue the climb, he transforms into a petrifying poltergeist sure to be noticed.
As the game progresses in more challenging ways, you see Madeline begin to verbalize her insecurities and truly see the lack of control over her own life she has. There’s a touching moment when, stuck on a lift taking them to their next checkpoint, Theo helps Madeline work through a panic attack, and the player has to control a feather that symbolizes calming, deep breaths to overcome her despair. This is recycled later in the game, showing Madeline’s progression into slowly gaining control over her anxiety.
Toward the end of the game, Madeline is imbued with skills that help her overcome the game’s toughest challenges, empowering her to work with her anxiety and accomplish what she set out to do. As she pushed through literal and mental barriers, the dark haze surrounding her began to fade, and her confidence soared as she grappled from cliff to cliff.
“Celeste” resonates with me on so many levels because of my history with anxiety, a lack of purpose and a desire to fit in. It was a tough game to play, because it made me squarely face the feelings I pushed down in a “band-aids don’t fix bullet holes” way of trying to fix myself. When Madeline felt like she couldn’t win or push through to the next leg of the climb, I felt for her. When she succeeded at a particularly taxing feat, I cheered with her. This personal connection with the game made the ending that much more rewarding, and it has stuck with me since.