Sunday, January 13, 2019

GTMTM '18: Celeste, the Best Coach I've Ever Had


I played a lot of basketball in jr. high and high school, and I had a lot of different coaches. All of them tried in their different ways to push me to be my best, but I felt like most of them cared more about their own ego than the success of our team or the individual players on it. By my junior year of high school, I decided I'd had enough, and didn't even try out. 

Years later, I've finally found a coach that I feel like cares about me even while pushing me to my absolute limits. That coach is Celeste.

First things first, a huge part of this game is the soundtrack, which by some magic feels like it's cheering you on with all its heart, despite not having any words. For the full effect of this post, please click play on the video below and listen as you read.

Celeste is a punishingly hard game that only gets harder with every step. That's the main reason that even though this game came out right at the beginning of 2018, it's so late in the list. I was scared of Celeste. I didn't want to force myself through it. I was scared it would just be a frustration fest that made me yell and throw controllers and feel like I need to apologize to anyone that happened to be in the room while I played. But all year, I kept reading about how Celeste was different--how it was hard, but doable, and it cared about helping you do something hard.

After a whole year of articles singing Celeste's praises and seeing it break through to not just be on Indie Game of the Year lists, but actual overall Game of the Year nominations (the videogame equivalent of Toy Story 3 being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars), I finally pulled the trigger and bought Celeste on my Switch. I've never been so pleasantly surprised to be so wrong about how I would react to a videogame.

Celeste really does care about you as a player and a person. Celeste believes in you, and wants to see you conquer it. Celeste pushes you to your limits, but always takes time to take care of you along the way. Screens like these litter your path, gently nudging you to positive thoughts and behaviors that will help you succeed:

There are several encouraging postcards that appear throughout the experience, including one that reads: "Did you know? Most climbing mishaps occur due to exhaustion. Remember to take regular breaks!" (More on the postcards in a minute.) Even while Celeste is demanding some of the most precise platforming of the last several years, it's going out of it's way to help you do it. It turned what would normally be a terribly discouraging and frustrating experience into positive mental and emotional exercise, and I deeply appreciated every single message like this.

And all the while between the grueling platforming and positive feedback, Celeste is weaving a story with breath-taking ludonarrative harmony. You see, the player isn't the only one struggling on this mountain. At the same time that you're battling your own demons, trying to stay calm and focused and pass the level, Madeline, the game's re-nameable protagonist, is fighting battles of her own. In fact, this whole climb is a challenge to herself, to overcome depression and anxiety that has held her back and to prove to herself that she can do this.

This depression and anxiety take the form of a kind of shadow-Madeline, who at some of the most difficult parts of the game rears her head to make things even more difficult for Madeline--and for you.

As you realize the parallels between Madeline's story and your own experience playing the game, the two start to two play off each other to encourage you even more. You start to realize that it's up to you to help Madeline find the strength inside herself--and the only way that's going to happen is to find the strength in yourself. Just like God of War impressed me with its ludonarrative harmony, when Celeste pulled this off, I fell absolutely in love.

And the best part about it all, to me, is that none of this was an accident at all. All of this was very purposely done, with the explicit intent to help people struggling with self-doubt and even mental illness to find strength within themselves. There's just something wonderful about hearing Matt Thorson keep Celeste's spirit of care and encouragement alive even in his acceptance speech when Celeste won Indie Game of the Year at the Game Awards:

Hearing that speech really brings home how deeply the whole team felt their passion for this game and its mission. Its a rare and beautiful moment in videogames, and the kind of moment I can only hope we see more of.

But most of what I've said so far has been said before. Celeste is almost universally adored for all these reasons and more. However, there's one thing I'd like to say about Celeste that I haven't seen said before: in addition to its commentary on self-empowerment and mental illness, there is a smaller subtext about difficult games in general, and more specifically, the culture of difficult games.

Many of the postcards shown between levels seemed to not only be anticipating the player's frustration with the game, but also the pressures the player would feel from other gamers. Take a look at what I mean:

Celeste is intentionally aware of the context in which it exists. Since the days of the NES and SNES to which Celeste clearly hearkens, games of this style have been brutally difficult, and at times downright abusive of players' time. But because the videogame industry was so limited at the time, people who really loved videogames would end up figuring out these brutally tough games and the strategies to outsmart them. Ever since then, in all of gaming, but especially in platformers like Celeste, there's been a sort of cultural cult of difficulty. The message seems to be that you are only a "real gamer" once you've completed a canonical set of difficult games (and sometimes even specific challenges within those games). Anyone who gives up or takes too long to pass these challenges is seen as a lesser citizen of the Gamerwealth.

For awhile, it looked like this aspect of gaming was beginning to scale back--games were bigger budget and more about pure entertainment, so difficulty became less of a focus--but the cult of difficulty game roaring back in the 2010s, particularly from indie developers trying to capitalize on the nostalgia of the now-adult players of the original NES and SNES games in the tradition. Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Cloudberry Kingdom, VVVVVV, and more all appeared in rapid succession starting in 2009. The name given to this particular subgenre is "masocore" (the implication being that these games are "beyond" hardcore--they're masochistic), and the trend I'm outlining here is pretty obvious in this list of masocore games put together on Giant Bomb.

Celeste is actively aware of these other games and the culture they've created, and it takes specific measures to break down the walls of the masocore cult of difficulty and invite new people in. It even goes so far as to let people play the game without the difficulty, if they wish, and is, as always, very kind about it:

Coming into Celeste knowing this context is a big part of why the game worked so well for me personally. For the last several years, I've been seeing these games and telling myself I could never get through them, and feeling a little bit of that exclusion and "lesser gamer" status. I didn't grow up playing videogames like most of my peers, and only really got into them in college, so I'm also missing the advantage of the years of practice that most of them have. It may sound petty, but I remember quite clearly several occasions of my classmates at my master's program calling me out for not having played old classics, and for not having platformer skills--as if it made me less deserving to be called a "gamer." The harm was never intended as harsh as that now sounds, but it felt that way at the time. 

So for me, having Celeste stand by me and encourage me through a platformer of this difficulty, actively cheering me on and making me feel like I could do it, was at times truly emotional. One of that last walls between me and the videogame world seemed to be finally coming down. It honestly felt like being the scrawny kid on the playground and having one of the jocks come over and genuinely say, "Why don't you play ball with us?" With Celeste's help--and 3,186 game deaths later--I feel like I'm finally playing ball after years of watching from the sidelines, and it feels so good. I'll be forever grateful to Celeste for giving me that.

That's why Celeste mattered to me in 2018, and why it will continue to matter for years to come.

(Thanks for reading! This is the seventh post in my "Games That Mattered to Me in 2018" series, posted one a day between January 7 and January 16, 2019. Go here to see the rest of the series.)

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