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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *