Mechanics as Storytelling: Celeste’s Difficulty

**SPOILER WARNING**

Death is inevitable – a statement that’s just as true in life as it is in video games. It’s especially relevant when discussing tough-as-nails titles like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, each with their dark atmospheres where repeated deaths create feelings of hopelessness and loss. It’s a similar yet distinct feeling found in 2018’s Celeste, a game with a much lighter and more hopeful design and art style than those previously mentioned, yet sharing their agonizing difficulty.

Surprisingly, all three of these games use their difficulties to elicit the same feeling from their players, which is one of triumph and accomplishment once those difficulties have been overcome. However, while Dark Souls does this to depict a lone wanderer’s struggle against a bleak world and Hollow Knight examines the nature of freedom, Celeste’s difficulty exists for a different purpose, one intimately tied to its story.

Climbing a Mountain Isn’t Easy

First, let’s examine the nature of Celeste’s difficulty and how it differs from those previously mentioned titles. Celeste is a platformer, meaning that the game’s main challenge is figuring out the right sequence of moves to execute in order to move from one piece of solid ground to the next. Aiding you is a handy dash ability, which lets you cover large distances easily. Hindering you are moving platforms, spring boards, narrow paths, spikes, spikes, and yes more spikes. Celeste ramps up the challenge steadily, but it won’t be long before you find yourself dying several times trying to complete a tricky sequence.

The game is a little more forgiving that Hollow Knight or Dark Souls, though. There’s practically no loading screen when respawning after death and every single chamber has a checkpoint at its start, meaning that death is never too great of a setback as it is in those other games. This also leads to certain rooms having more challenge than others, as larger areas ask you to perform more moves seamlessly before reaching the next checkpoint. By the end, you’ll be asked to jump and dash through vast swathes of the screen with little to no checkpoints in between.

Madeline

That’s the difficulty – now let’s talk about the story. Celeste is about Madeline, a young woman who wants to climb the eponymous mountain. We’re led to understand from her dialogue with other characters that she needs to do this because she’s feeling stuck in her life and she wants a win – something noteworthy that will prove to herself that she’s capable. Her journey is as much a mental one as it is physical.

Celeste Mountain isn’t an ordinary mountain, though. Madeline’s internal struggles are made real and tangible as her doubts, fears, and anxieties take physical form as a Part of Her manifests as a dark copy that tries to hinder her progress (we’ll call this Part of Her ‘Badeline’ from here on out). Haunted temples, unstable ghosts, and ethereal dream sequences are also all a part of her experience as she makes her way slowly but surely up the mountain.

Inside Out

Madeline’s struggle is both physical and emotional – it’s difficult climbing Celeste Mountain, and it’s difficult dealing with her many insecurities and self-doubt surrounding her ability to accomplish her goal. Just as Badeline was made real by the mountain, embodying all of Madeline’s anxiety and fear, so too does the challenging climb itself reflect her own emotional journey. Celeste Mountain is a place where the internal becomes external so it makes sense that Madeline’s journey to grow as a person would be made physical.

We know that Madeline has struggled a lot with her mental health. During a conversation around a campfire, she reveals that she’s dealt with depression and panic attacks in her past (and in her present) and that it’s not been easy getting to where she is. In this light, the climb up the mountain acts as a symbol of her mental journey – challenging and tough, often to the point of overwhelming her, but one that is ultimately worth taking.

The Road Ahead

Celeste’s difficulty can be frustrating at times. The game even has an entire mode called Assist to aid those who find they can’t enjoy the experience due to its difficulty. However, as the game itself reminds you when selecting that mode, the challenge is an intrinsic part of the Celeste story. It’s not just about you as a player overcoming the many, many hardships of the mountain, but about Madeline doing so as well. Reaching the summit is about more than just beating a tough series of levels, it’s about the struggles one faces with their own mental health and the better future that awaits after making that long and arduous journey.

Further Reading

In praise of Celeste | Eurogamer

Celeste stresses me out, and that calms me down | Polygon

City of Locked Doors and Lost Opportunity: A Cyberpunk 2077 Review

Cyberpunk 2077 is out and it’s certainly something. Following a years-long saga of marketing that courted controversy just as often as it promised groundbreaking innovations, the result is a thoroughly mediocre game from CD Projekt Red, the studio behind the Witcher series. The game itself is bursting with potential, from its three pronged tutorial system to the rich history of its chosen setting and genre to the casting of Keanu Reeves as Johnny Silverhand, legendary anti-establishment rockerboy.

For all its promises, Cyberpunk 2077 also had a bevy of red flags that should have tipped us off about the final product. A developer that rescinded its word on obligatory crunch, transphobic marketing that missed the mark on what cyberpunk is all about, and early reports of a bug-filled game all point to a final product that is painfully unremarkable. Let’s break it down.

Gameplay: 3/5

The gameplay in Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty alright, all things considered. Disregarding the occasional glitch that messes with your carefully planned strategy, it generally feels like a fun and satisfying shooter. The guns have solid weight and a good punch to their shots, katanas are exhilarating to swing about, and the leveling system is a fresh take on typical RPG perks and skills.

Where the game starts to fall apart is in content. While the core systems of Cyberpunk are entertaining, there ultimately isn’t that much to do in the game. There are the main missions, of course, which see the most variety of combat, stealth, and driving. The side missions also introduce interesting plots and expand the world, but don’t add too much to the gameplay. Then there are the gigs and the reported crimes, which flood your map screen. These are small encounters that offer extremely repetitive chunks of gameplay, most of which boil down to going to a location and then either stealing some MacGuffin or killing some target. The gameplay is still satisfying, but after a hundred same-y encounters, it starts to get a tad boring.

There’s also the problem of persistence. While a few minor choices in missions do allow you to affect their outcomes, these often aren’t very meaningful in the long run. In contrast to CD Projekt Red’s other games, your decisions are often quite limited, with very little impact on the game’s world. Combine that with a setting that feels static and unchanging, even as you complete quests that would surely tip the balance of power in Night City, and you get a series of storylines and missions that lack weight.

Originality: 2/5

This game is not derivative, which is to say that it isn’t a wholesale copy from any other game. That’s good, but it isn’t really innovating in any areas, either. Its central gameplay mechanics are the combat and the RPG elements, both of which are largely uninspired. Nowhere do we see anything fresh or new.

While the Skyrim style skill leveling mechanic is interesting and a handful of perks and cyberware do stand out from the rest, all in all it really just feels as though these systems amount to little more than a numbers game. All your upgrades just increase or decrease certain percentages – damage, critical chance, reload speed, stamina regeneration, etc. – often in miniscule ways that lack a sense of impact. The game simply doesn’t do anything new or fresh, adding next to nothing to the gaming experience you could get from a number of other titles.

Accessibility: 1/5

Yes, that’s a score of one. Cyberpunk 2077 earns it through a series of missteps that are all the more bizarre in what was a banner year for accessibility in games. The most obvious (and most publicized) oversight is, of course, the braindance sequence, which includes a series of flashing lights that caused photosensitive players to have seizures. While this has since been addressed, it points to a game that isn’t very interested in making accommodations for its players.

The easiest accessibility setting, subtitles, are of course present, though they often display huge blocks of text on the screen with little time to read them. The game has colorblind modes (though other titles have done colorblind modes better) and control remapping is present but limited. Particularly irritating is the inability to fully remap actions which require the player to double tap a button, such as the dodge action.

All of these accessibility issues exist on top of a game that takes little time to properly explain its core systems. The difference between leveling and street cred, the way perks, skills, and attributes work, and the confusing world of crafting all contribute to a game that doesn’t communicate its general gameplay very effectively. This alone isn’t a huge issue (The Witcher 3 had largely the same problem, after all), but when taken together with the game’s other accessibility problems, it creates a game that needlessly locks out a large chunk of its potential audience.

Look: 3/5

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: yes, Cyberpunk 2077 is graphically impressive (so long as you’re not playing on a console from the previous generation). This is practically a given. CD Projekt Red made a show of the scale and scope of Night City, the large crowds that wandered its streets, and the detailed ray tracing that would allow for incredible sights and vistas. Look is about more than just graphics though, and if we’re being honest Cyberpunk 2077 really isn’t that visually distinctive.

There are moments where Cyberpunk’s unique aesthetic breaks through, such as during a parade through Japantown or during a handful of braindance sequences. While certain areas have their own distinct visual style such as the deserts of the Badlands or the polished sheen of Corpo Plaza, it’s all just different brands of dystopia that we’ve seen before in other media. The look of Cyberpunk is nothing special, nothing unique, and ultimately no amount of style can compensate for a lack of substance.

Story: 2/5

To get the most pressing matter out of the way first: Cyberpunk 2077 is not a cyberpunk story. It has everything that technically places it in that genre, like body modification, a combination of high technology with low life, and rebellion against corporate authority, but none of the spirit. The game is closer to an action noir title with its bombastic fight scenes and tale of one simple job gone terribly wrong. It’s got the cyberpunk aesthetic to be sure, but the story is never about cyberpunk’s driving themes – what it means to be human, how body modification changes us, and how to express independence in a world full of control.

The story is less about the struggle between human and a machine than it is about the struggle between a person and another, separate person – V and Johnny Silverhand. They’re linked by technology, but roughly the same tale could easily be told without any of the futuristic bells and whistles included in the game. The main questline is admittedly engaging and Keanu Reeves brings a rough charm to Silverhand. That doesn’t change the fact that the game is merely paying lip service to the cyberpunk genre while going its own thematic route.

Then there’s the world in which the game takes place – Night City. Here we see a setting that operates almost entirely on modern trends, despite existing in the year 2077. Social norms and systems are largely the same, just heightened. Advertising is overtly sexual with an even greater focus on women’s bodies than we see today, sex work and gambling are pushed to the fringes of society, and while language may have changed a bit it still features roughly the same slang and terminology with a few minor additions. Night City isn’t the future – it’s just an exaggerated version of today.

Now this wouldn’t usually be a problem – stories about the future are almost always meant to talk to us about the present. The problem is that Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t seem to be saying anything about these topics. The explicit advertising, the omnipresent sex, the homeless vet sitting next to neon signs – all of it seems to exist to shock the player, to make us marvel at how depraved and excessive this dystopic world has become. It engages in no critical reflection on the issues it raises and it has little if anything to say about them.

In Conclusion

Cyberpunk 2077 is ultimately a game that failed in a number of ways. It failed to meet the incredible expectations set by its marketing buzz and hyped community. It failed its setting by telling a story largely uncritical and uncaring of the many, many themes prevalent in cyberpunk media. It failed in accessibility as it has done very little to address severe issues such as the seizure inducing sequences of the game and at times seems to actively work to exclude marginalized identities at times. While not a complete trainwreck of a game, it’s not exactly good either.

There exists a strong temptation to excuse all of Cyberpunk 2077’s flaws. Those who remember The Witcher games fondly and appreciate CD Projekt Red’s generally ethical stance on consumer relations may be inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and stick with the game as patches, free DLCs, and major content releases come later in in the game’s life cycle. As it stands, however, it’s hard to see the latest title from the Polish company as anything other than a disappointment.

Final Tally: 11/25