Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022).
Content Warning: mentions of anxiety and depression, spoilers for Celeste!
The "masocore" genre of video games is defined by being purposefully difficult to beat, often requiring immense skill or strategy, and known for engendering the kind of frustration that results in broken controllers or expletives hurled at the screen. One fascinating example of a masocore game is Maddy Thorson's award-winning platformer Celeste. Since its release in 2018, it has been paradoxically lauded for its accessibility and wide range of appeal to not only new entrants to the genre but also veterans and speedrunners. Despite its difficulty, with a focus on quick reflexes and tight button inputs, Celeste is not a game about punishing the player. In fact, the player's success is built into the very infrastructure of the game. Naturally, triumph is not a foregone conclusion--the game refuses to hand an easy victory to you, and much of Celeste's power as a love letter to resilience comes from this refusal to babysit the player. Success, when it does arrive, was not awaited passively. It was hard won in the face of struggles that span the game's design and story.
Although you can customise your name, the main character of Celeste is generally known as Madeline. Her quest is intensely personal, and a little obtuse to the people surrounding her. Despite her struggles with anxiety and depression (and a blatant lack of mountain climbing experience), she has taken it upon herself to climb Mount Celeste to prove to herself what she is capable of. Along the way, she is challenged by a shadowy doppelganger known colloquially as "Badeline", who is referred to in the game properly as "Part of You". The game itself is a gauntlet of platformer challenges, each taking up a single screen populated with various obstacles that you must climb and dash around. Once mastered, the platforming for each screen lasts less than 30 seconds. However, the process of mastering it takes far longer and necessitates long sequences of failing over and over, to the extent that there are in-built reassurances reminding players not to feel self-conscious about their death count.
Despite not being as devastatingly difficult as other masocore platformers, Celeste still presents a robust challenge, especially to those who aren't typically participants within the genre. However, unlike many of its contemporaries, Celeste does not seek to engender frustration in its players. Rather, it cultivates an approach of determination and experimentation, which is built into its ultimately quite lenient death mechanics. Colliding into spikes or careening off the map does not restart the entire level, merely bringing the player back to the start of the screen. There is no real negative consequence to dying, apart from self-consciousness. You are never meaningfully penalised for learning how to navigate Celeste. Instead, the game is encouraging, shrinking your staggering journey into screen-by-screen puzzles so that you get as much time to practise for as long as you need Thorson (and by the end of the game, Madeline, and the player) understands that achieving great things is a matter of small, successive, cumulative victories rather than one big leap. Mountains are climbed step after step; Celeste is conquered screen after screen.
Madeline's anxiety and depression are central to her story. It's why she's climbing the mountain after all, and why Badeline, a manifestation of her worst fears and insecurities, is so dedicated to stopping her. There is a clear parallel between the physical struggles of climbing a mountain (or mastering a challenging platformer game) and the psychological struggles of living with mental illness. Despite being "Part of You", Badeline is an active antagonist for most of the game, overwhelming Madeline with aggressive clones that make missteps a doom sentence or otherwise coaxing other characters to attack Madeline directly. Yet still, she remains "Part of You", and here is where we find Celeste's next lesson. Resilience against the external world is all well and good, and is indeed a skill that is crucial to cultivate. But it is resilience against the internal, and continuing to pursue one's goals despite any doubts, that is truly what's important to one's journey. Ultimately, the distinction between Madeline and Badeline is collapsed-they combine into one force, and the climactic act of the game follows a dialogue of growing understanding between the two of them. Mechanically, Badeline's influence allows Madeline to quite literally reach heights that she couldn't access before. The enemy is not the enemy at all. Rather, it is a vicious yet misguided manifestation of doubt, which is not defeated but instead accepted and embraced to achieve something more.
Unlike effectively any other canonical game in the. masocore genre, Celeste has an Assist Mode that you can activate at any time to make the process of playing easier It grants you game-defying abilities (infinite stamina, slowing the game's speed, and so on) that make finishing Celeste effectively possible for anybody, regardless of skill level. It also raises questions for a game that is ostensibly a part of the masocore genre. Why the Assist Mode if Celeste is meant to be unforgiving? How is somebody meant to learn and improve if they are essentially being handed the key to victory? The answer lies in the implicit trust that Celeste puts into the player; a trust that informs everything from the daunting but doable platformer puzzles to the dark but ultimately tender story of mental illness. The game goes out of its way to let you know that Assist Mode is not the ideal way to play the game, while still refusing to put it behind any barriers, thus allowing the player to decide the difficulty of their journey. This may, at first, feel like a cheapening of the game's challenge, and of the wider story of resilience. Anecdotally, however, this is not the case.
I know many people for whom Celeste was the first properly challenging platformer game that they finished in its entirety, without triggering Assist Mode at any point. Although my experience with platformers such as Hollow Knight set me up nicely to finish Celeste, I was still wildly frustrated at many points by the tantalising capacity for success. The game does an excellent job of pacing a player's skill development, centred around the intoxicating thrill of finally conquering a screen to propel a player further on. It was reassuring to know that it was there for me to use at any moment. However, it was also galvanising; I was determined to beat the game without Assist Mode, to prove to myself that I could. This is the trick of Celeste. It breaks down a seemingly insurmountable task into easy, bite-sized sequences, showing you the path up to the mountain's peak as clear as day. It is a game that tricks you into resilience, by proving to you that you are capable, again and again, of overcoming the problem that you face.
Celeste is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation, and Xbox.