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Celeste Raises the Bar for Storytelling in Games

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If you’re anything like me, you were probably ecstatic when Celeste got a Game of the Year nomination for The Game Awards 2018. It may not have won, but the team at Matt Makes Games did go home with two other notable awards: “Best Independent Game” and “Games for Impact.” The latter, according to the Game Awards site, is “for a thought-provoking game with a profound pro-social meaning or message.” If you’ve played Celeste or are at least familiar with its themes of struggling with depression and anxiety, you’ll know this award was very well deserved.

I’m hardly the first to write about Celeste‘s portrayal of mental illness—I’m not even the first here at Gamnesia to sing the game’s praises—but as someone deeply touched by the game due to my own anxiety, I wanted to talk about how Celeste brilliantly blends this story with its challenging gameplay, and why that hands-down makes it my game of the year.

Warning: There will be major plot spoilers past this point.

If you follow game criticism, you might know of the term “ludonarrative dissonance.” This refers to when a video game’s story and gameplay do not mesh particularly well. For a recent example, look no further than Octopath Traveler (a game I also quite enjoyed). The game follows eight protagonists with individual goals and narratives, who wind up traveling together for no apparent reason aside from giving the player a full party, as per the JRPG norm.

Since the order of story chapters can vary per player, Octopath makes no real attempt to intertwine the travelers’ separate tales. In fact, story cutscenes only feature that particular chapter’s protagonist—on occasion you see the protagonist tossed into a prison cell alone, only to have the full party appear in jail with them when gameplay resumes. The game attempts to compensate for this with optional dialogue scenes in which the leader chats with another character about the chapter’s events, but while entertaining, this comes off more as a tiny bandage than an actual narrative solution.

So why do I bring up ludonarrative dissonance? Because Celeste pulls off the exact opposite, blending the game’s story beats with appropriate gameplay and level design, thus bringing out the best in each part. Arguably the best example of this occurs during the story’s turning point in Chapter 6. After Madeline finally opens up to Theo about her struggle with depression and how that motivated her to climb Celeste Mountain, she thinks the solution is to leave behind her vices and negative energy, which have taken the form of the antagonist Badeline (typically referred to as “Part of Me” in-game, but Badeline is her official name according to Towerfall). This attempt to deny the parts of her that she hates backfires when Badeline retaliates and tosses Madeline halfway back down the mountain.

Farther into the chapter, Madeline realizes that Badeline, being “Part of [Her],” cannot be destroyed or left behind, and she tries to make amends, proposing they work together. Badeline, who shares Madeline’s fears and anxieties about the climb, pushes back at first, creating the closest thing Celeste has to a boss battle. The two eventually make peace, and as they merge into a more powerful form, the words “LEVEL UP” flash on-screen.

Celeste has no actual level-up system, but the player quickly discovers that Madeline can now do not one, but two mid-air dashes per jump, which aids her in finishing the climb in Chapter 7. Here, rather than ludonarrative dissonance, we see an excellent example of ludonarrative resonance (or harmony, depending on your preference): with her breakthrough in the narrative, Madeline becomes stronger in the game, which complements the game’s theme of coping with mental illness.

On a personal note, this and many other moments in the game’s story resonated with me and my own journey through anxiety — but as I got to the more challenging B-Side stages, I found that observing Madeline’s character arc also made me a better Celeste player. I’m typically the kind of gamer that can rage pretty easily at challenging single-player games like this; Celeste‘s post-game levels are no slouch! But during my run of the Chapter 7 B-Side, I had a different reaction.

When I started to rage, I considered Chapter 7’s premise: Madeline accepts Badeline as Part of Her, and through their new bond they become stronger together. As I thought about that, I found myself channeling my frustration into determination (here’s to you, Undertale!), which helped me push myself even farther before I needed a well-deserved breather. That moment of clarity was when I knew Celeste would easily be one of my top games of 2018, and ever since, I have tried to carry similar lessons with me on some of my more stressful or anxious days.

I could point to several other moments in Celeste that helped me process my anxiety or that I could strongly relate to, but for now, I would encourage everyone to check out some of the countless other articles and videos that have been made on that very subject. And if you aren’t one of the roughly half million people to give the game a shot, I highly recommend checking it out or at least watching an LP – especially if anxiety or depression plays a big role in your life too. Celeste isn’t a perfect symbol of these struggles, nor is it a substitute for real mental health treatment, but it’s a beautiful reminder that we’re never alone in that fight.

As the game’s director, Matt Thorson, put it in his Game Awards acceptance speech:

“If Celeste has helped you come to terms with mental illness … you deserve credit for that. That change came from inside of you, and you are capable of a lot more.”
— Matt Thorson

Keep climbing, my friends.

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