By Neil Merrett
Celeste, released on Nintendo Switch in 2018, developed by Matt Makes Games
Celeste could arguably be called an “old-school” 2D-style platformer.
Old school, in this case, being used to describe a title that adopts the graphical conventions of previous gaming eras or even the deceptively simple challenge of making perfectly timed leaps over or around death traps and chasms. Sometimes these challenges provide a player barely a second in order to react or think of the next, lifesaving move.
The player launches themselves across fiendishly plotted levels to climb an occasionally fantastical, sometimes melancholic mountain setting that is made up of mysterious caverns, dilapidated cliff-side hotels and abandoned cities. These levels often present additional challenges in the form of capturing optional winged fruit that promises news secrets to unlock if found. Simplicity is the charm.
But Celeste also makes subtle use of modern game mechanics and narrative techniques.
Celeste can be described as a game about facing up to and embracing the unlikely sources of companionship and support needed when trying to overcome personal hang ups and literal anxieties. Learning about the perfect composition for a great selfie, is also another important narrative thread.
Over the course of the game with its myriad secrets and collectables, the player will not have literally climbed a mountain in real life, but they may be better able to consider their own demons by the end.
The success of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice at last week’s Bafta Games Awards is being seen as a recognition of games touching on issues of mental health and coping with the strange voices and thoughts in our heads.
Celeste is arguably built with a less complex narrative than a technically sophisticated modern adventure such as Hellblade, most of your challenges are overcome by jumping around after all.
Yet simplistic imagery such as a golden feather is used in-game to great effect to offer both physical and psychological support to the main character in a story that looks at the literal dark sides of our individual psyches.
This game creates a satisfying level of emotional and physical weight, whilst challenging the player to tackle a seemingly endless number of collapsing platforms and death defying leaps.
Celeste has a sometimes overwhelming sense of challenge and difficulty that is cleverly played up alongside a story about the more everyday ways we panic and become overwhelmed when under duress or suffering nagging doubt.
Games are increasingly subjective with regard to how successfully they can convey story and a satisfying sense of achievement.
Yet Celeste is a prime example of this emerging nature of game design that seeks to be a little more introspective. Satisfaction for many will come from trying to agonisingly get to the next safe-spot up the mountain, finding an ever more daunting challenge than the previous level.
Others may find its value is in the limited, yet satisfying interactions with the mountain’s other inhabitants.
A videogame may ultimately be fairly limited in terms of their scope to help overcome our worst impulses and fears, but they can be a useful tool to help some players better understand themselves and other people around us.
We all have our own mountains to climb afterall.