Celeste's powerful mental illness themes can be too much to take
Celeste is an old-school platformer that is garnering a great deal of positive press, including here at GameCrate. In this side-scrolling platformer, Madeline is trying to climb Mount Celeste, which functions as a metaphor for her mental illness, depression, and anxiety.
For those who deal with mental illness in their daily lives, Celeste and its themes can provide either a healthy way of dealing with hard realities or a too-real reminder of pain and suffering.
Power and responsibility
A friend of mine with mental illness had just escaped a controlling, abusive relationship, and his experience with Celeste played a role in his healing process. For my friend, even simple tasks like calling a lawyer or going to the DMV caused crippling panic attacks. Executing perfect jumps to overcome the mountain’s deadly obstacles helped return his sense of agency. Celeste is designed to seem impossible, but never actually is. Things that seem hard can be completed with enough determination and breaks in between. To my friend, this felt like conquering his mental illness. It reminded him that he can in fact take control of his life and do what needs to be done.
I gave the game a try, and was upset almost immediately. I am the neurotypical primary caregiver for a person with mental illness, and my mountain feels like it never ends. Loving and caring for someone who suffers from chronic mental illness is a Sisyphean task. They see things you don’t. Tasks considered normal for neurotypical people are extremely difficult for them. They tell you that they’re considering suicide, and after you do everything you can to support them, you have to sleep four hours, get up, and go to work because the rent still needs to get paid.
Madeline felt like another person for whom I needed to take responsibility. The game does an excellent job with controls and level design, and above all, it is fair. When Madeline dies, it’s your fault. That is a brutal message for a caretaker to have to internalize, again and again.
If you make a mistake as a caretaker, there are no do-overs or takebacks. There are no second chances. When you decide to take on the role of a caregiver, it’s easy to demand perfection from yourself. Celeste magnifies this unhealthy impulse by requiring it to proceed.
It's important to point out that I realize that my life is not as hard as that of person that I’m caring for. Being in the blast radius of mental illness often feels impossible. Being the explosion itself is even harder.
But when you’re a caretaker for someone with mental illness, you don’t get days off, and good days rarely last long. Unlike a well-crafted platformer, it never feels fair and it isn’t designed to provide you with a sense of accomplishment. Celeste feels too much like my real life, and thus I can't spend my precious free time on it. Celeste encourages players to take breaks to center yourself, but oftentimes, as a caregiver, you don’t get a break.
Different ways of handling mental illness
Not all games about mental illness have this negative effect on me. I enjoyed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and I found Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest to be very educational.
It was easier to play Hellblade because most of its challenges were puzzles. They required using Senua’s altered perceptions to unlock her path. Mental illness was a difficult hurdle to get over, with voices taunting you the whole way, but the dueling system gave you multiple opportunities to make mistakes but proceed anyway. It didn’t feel punishing. And I must admit that mental illness is something that I wish I could hit with a glowing sword.
Depression Quest was useful to me because of the way that it presented its choose-your-own-adventure mechanic. Certain choices that were obviously “good” or “right” were unselectable. The game conveyed the message that actions that would be easy for me are impossible for people with mental illness. That’s a useful thing to be reminded of, especially as a caregiver. Also, getting to the end and absorbing the message of the game didn’t require a multi-hour slog.
We are living in a golden age of gaming, partially because more and more people are able to see themselves reflected in the medium. In games, mental illness and neurodiversity have, until very recently, been portrayed as a source of evil or cause of violent behavior, in games such as Outlast and Silent Hill. In actuality, the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.
Celeste is a step in the right direction, in terms of the portrayal of the too-often-demonized neurodiverse community. In Celeste, people with mental illness are just that: people. I know that this game has already had a powerful effect on people I care about, and a positive impact overall. I’m glad it exists, even if I’m not going to play it.