Celeste – The World’s Most Therapeutic Rage Game
The rage game is relatively a new genre of game built entirely around difficulty. It includes many hit indie games such as Super Meat Boy, Cuphead, and VVVVV.
Rage games have simple mechanics, infinite lives, and levels that require a combination of planning and split-second reflexes. Rage games only work if they are hard but fair. If you fail in a rage game it has to be your fault, not the game’s fault.
When the player is presented with a near impossible challenge, overcoming that challenge gives them a rush of adrenaline and a burst of euphoria. This is the joy in rage games, the joy of mastery. However, this only comes after hundreds and hundreds of failures. This makes rage games inaccessible to most gamers. They have existed for ages as the sole territory of speedrunners and let’s players who shout into a camera for a few hours before giving up.
But Celeste… Celeste is different.
Climbing Your Own Mountains
Celeste is the new platformer by Matt Thorson and Noel Berry that has been taking the indie scene by storm. It has all the trappings of a rage game, the simple controls, the challenging levels, the infinite lives and so on, except it’s missing one thing: the rage.
Celeste doesn’t want you to scream on camera. It doesn’t want you to feel frustrated or discouraged. It wants to give you hope. The very first thing the game tells you is “you can do this.”
You see, Celeste has a story to tell, a story about depression, anxiety, and overcoming ones challenges. The main character, Madeline, is climbing Celeste Mountain because she feels as if her life is spiraling out of control. This is a challenge to her, a challenge that she is imposes on herself willingly just so she can prove that she can do it.
Madeline is the player.
Throughout the game, Madeline feels the emotions that the player feels. She feels as if what she is doing is impossible. She feels like it’s pointless. She feels like she is wasting her time. Yet, everything and everyone around her reassures her. Even when she is haunted by the specter of her own anxiety and depression, even when she is laughed at by residents of the mountain, even when she almost dies, she pushes on.
And so the player pushes on. Because Madeline is right, Celeste feels impossible and there’s really no point to playing it other than proving you can beat it. However, that’s exactly the magic of the “rage game.” Celeste wants to let you climb your own mountain, just to prove that you can. Celeste wants to teach you how to enjoy this genre.
How to Play
To do that, it first has to teach you how to play this genre. Luckily, Celeste’s controls are incredibly simple. Madeline can jump, mid-air dash in any direction, and climb walls. She can only climb walls for a limited time before her stamina gives out and she can only dash in the air once before touching the ground. This is signified by her hair turning from red to blue after using up her dash.
That’s it. Those are the only controls you need to memorize for the entire game. Everything else just remixes and reintroduces these mechanics in new and interesting ways.
A Chapter by Chapter Breakdown
In the first chapter you are introduced to the basics. First you are introduced to spikes and bottomless pits which kill you and put you back at the beginning of the screen. This gets you acquainted with the game’s death mechanics. You are then introduced to springs which catapult you upward and diamonds which will restore your dash in midair. Both will be elements found in every chapter of the game.
You are also introduced to breakable platforms, falling platforms, and platforms that begin moving when you land on them. These platforms introduce some other concepts, namely that environmental objects have patterns of behavior that trigger when you interact with them, and that you can add the momentum of a moving platform to your jump.
The second chapter introduces warps in space and time that catapult you through them when you dash into them. These warps also restore your dash. They teach you that some objects only have a special function if you dash into them.
You are also introduced to keys of two varieties. The common golden key will unlock any lock, however you need to first find it and carry it to the lock in question. Spinning shields unlock or alter a part of the level once you collect them all, but you have to do so on the same screen. These too will recur in later chapters.
Finally you are challenged with outrunning your darker self who will mimic all of your movements in a given stage. This forces you to stay moving, a theme which will also recur in later chapters.
Chapter 3 introduces the concepts of surfaces you can only walk on once before they become a death hazard. This is an evolution of the falling/crumbling platforms from Chapter 1. It also introduces switches that alter the environment, moving stage hazards and, most importantly, enemies. Here you learn that you can bounce off enemies to gain a boost in height.
Chapter 4 introduces clouds that give you a boost in height when you bounce off them. It also combines these clouds with the crumbling platforms from Chapter 1 to create platforms that boost your jump height that you can only use once. It introduces new moving platforms that move when you touch them, but this time you can control them yourself. It introduces wind, which can alter the momentum of your jumps the same way that moving platforms can. Finally it introduces blue orbs which shoot you in a direction when you touch them and restore your dash. These are basically just a combination of the diamonds from Chapter 1 and the warp zones from Chapter 2.
By now you should be seeing a pattern. All of Celeste’s major mechanics were introduced in the first few chapters. Every subsequent chapter is just another way to remix mechanics that you have already experienced. That way, you can use your experience with older mechanics to prepare for new ones. In a sense, every chapter prepares you for the next.
Chapter 5 introduces red orbs which operate the same as the blue orbs from Chapter 4 except when you shoot out of them you continue moving until you hit a wall. It also introduces enemies that hone in on your location and teaches you that you can use them to destroy crumbling platforms, flip switches or collect shield keys for you. Finally it introduces moving platforms that, this time, only move when you dash.
Chapter 6 introduces feathers which basically act the same way the orbs do, except when they shoot you off in a direction you have complete control of your movement. It also introduces moving platforms that once again move when you dash but only when you dash into them. It teaches you that moving platforms can be used to break through breakable walls and surfaces. Finally it introduces bumpers which act exactly like springs except they can bounce you in any direction.
Each of these chapters feels new and fresh without altering the game’s core mechanics. The only real alteration comes in the final chapter, Chapter 7. Here, you are given one tiny tool, a second mid-air dash. That’s it. You are then tasked with going through harder versions of the previous levels with this new power at your fingertips. The final ascent of the game introduces only one new mechanic: checkpoints. Yes, you have been playing without checkpoints until this late in the game, and this is the first time you’ll ever notice.
It Doesn’t Stop There…
This alone would be enough Celeste to eat up hours of your life but the game continues. Chapter 8 remixes mechanics again. You still have your two mid-air dashes, but now they don’t recover when you touch the ground. You HAVE to pick up a diamond to dash again. In addition you encounter switches that change the level between a fiery lava pit and an icy cave which further changes the mechanics of the environment.
But getting here isn’t that simple. To unlock this chapter you need to collect hearts in the other chapters. To do that, you need to either complete secret challenges or find hidden “B-Side” levels that further remix and reintroduce stage mechanics in even more challenging ways! These levels then introduce new properties of your existing tool set, like the jump-dash, which you always had access to but the game never taught you. Now you can traverse levels looking for hearts and secrets with ease.
Completing Chapter 8 gives you access to C-Side levels, even more difficult challenges with even more mechanics to teach you. After you complete these levels you will know every trick in the book. The only thing left for you will be to turn on the game’s speedrun clock and test yourself against the best times in the world.
Understanding the Joy of Mastery and the Momentum of Success
I’ll be honest, I haven’t beaten all of Celeste’s C-Side levels, nor have I unlocked every secret, but I haven’t stopped trying. Every day I put a little bit more time into Celeste, and every day I get a little bit better.
It’s weird to reflect on my experience and realize I climbed the mountain hours ago, days ago. I “beat the game” before I even tackled a single B-Side. I “beat the game” before I started hunting for special strawberries (which are collectibles hidden around solely for bragging rights.) I “beat the game” well before I even knew all the mechanics that Celeste’s simple control scheme had to offer.
And when I started Celeste I thought beating the game was impossible.
I’m several weeks past accomplishing an impossible task, and I’m purposefully challenging myself with yet more impossible tasks.
That’s the story that Celeste has to tell. It’s not a coincidence that Celeste’s main character, Madeline, suffers from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks. As someone who shares that experience, I can attest that sometimes even small things feel utterly impossible. However, you treat anxiety and depression by showing yourself that the impossible is possible, by proving that the impossible is possible. Beating Celeste didn’t just make me proud that I had triumphed over a rage game. It gave me hope in my day to day life.
In a way, Celeste allows you to experience what it’s like to struggle with mental illness. It lets you feel the frustration and despair of trying to complete a task that should be simple but feels overwhelming. It lets you bang your head against it over and over again and every time you want to give up it tells you that you can do it. It tells you to take a break, take a deep breath, and try again. It tells you that it’s OK if you fail, even going as far as saying to be proud of your death count because that means you are learning and making progress. It takes the “rage” out of the “rage game.”
And your success in Celeste avalanches forward. It gives you momentum. Once you defeat one impossible challenge the next doesn’t seem so impossible anymore, nor the next, nor the next, until eventually its commonplace. Eventually the impossible is easy. Eventually the struggle to “beat the game” will be a distant memory as you blast through C-Side’s with a smile on your face.
Why Did Celeste Succeed?
There are lots of reasons that Celeste has succeeded as an indie game. In a way, it shares DNA with major AAA blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. It’s a toy box filled with simple mechanics and rules that are constantly iterated upon.
It shares DNA with indie hits like Undertale or AAA hits like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in that it is an exploration of mental health issues expressed through mechanics as well as narrative.
It has tight controls, a charming art-style, a great soundtrack and fantastic sprite work.
However, the real reason why Celeste succeeds is because it teaches you one thing. It proves to you that “you can do it.” You can succeed. It’s easier than it seems and it feels really good. It’s not as hard as you think it is.
I suggest that everyone play Celeste at least once, just to try it out. It’s an incredibly fun game with a powerful narrative that might just have a profound impact on your life.
And if you get frustrated as you play just remember
“You can do this.”