Exploring Anxiety and Self-Doubt Through A Mountain Climbing Platformer
Author: William Macfarlane
This is a guest post and does not represent the views of CheckPoint.
“You can do this.”
Celeste tells the story of a woman named Madeline who sets out to climb a mountain. As the player, it’s up to us to make that happen, and so we believe in her. After all, this is just another platformer: get from one end to the other without getting squashed, impaled, or falling to your demise – seems straightforward, right?
The mountain has obstacles that harken back to the greats: massive rows of spikes, blocks with faces that slam into the ground around you (Hi Thwomp!), and bottomless pits that see you replaying that level over and over again. But, as soon as Lena Raine’s stunning composition begins and drives us towards the foot of the mountain, it becomes very clear that this little indie release is something special. It’s one thing to release a superbly crafted platform game with wonderfully fluid pixel animation and phenomenal music, but what Noel Berry and Matt Thorson have created is a completely new experience – and it’s a story that speaks to us on so many levels.
A Battle With Herself
After starting the game, it quickly becomes clear that Madeline has a more meaningful goal than just reaching the summit to satisfy some wild thrill-seeking bent. Soon, we watch on as a part of Madeline’s inner-self breaks away from her; becoming a kind of arch-nemesis more threatening than Wario ever was; and a physical manifestation of something that most of us are intimately familiar with: self-doubt.
Challenged with outrunning this shadow of insecurity, Madeline’s drive to accomplish the climb starts to become clearer as we make it further up the mountain, and we soon begin to understand that her escape to the outdoors is more than just an attempt to clear her mind. Our protagonist is trapped with a feeling that is paralysing; and one that she feels has condemned her to live confined to the boundaries that her self-esteem has forcedly placed around her.
How Does Celeste Communicate Madeline’s Relationship With Mental Health To Us?
“I can’t stop fixating on dumb crap.”
Madeline is someone who is prone to anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, and these feelings are acutely captured throughout the game. Celeste’s narrative presents the player with an intimate snapshot of one person’s sense of what depression feels like, and it draws us in further as a result. In one conversation, Madeline describes her depression:
“It’s like I’m at the bottom of the ocean. It’s claustrophobic, yet I feel exposed. I remember feeling normal. But now it feels just out of reach, no matter what I try. Then again, I was probably always messed up. It just took something hurtful to bring it out. There must be something wrong with me.”
Whether the developers have an intimate relationship with the subject matter or not, they’ve created something that is personable on a level that isn’t often seen in a platform game, and it so cleverly works to form an incredible connection between the player, the characters, and Madeline’s struggle. What sets Celeste apart from other games that touch on mental health, however, is how this game so innovatively melds the story’s themes into the gameplay itself. At one point, Madeline experiences a panic attack, and the world around her literally closes in – her surroundings become more and more intense, and the game’s speed, difficulty, and soundtrack mirror this. As the player, we feel somewhat of a sense of panic alongside Madeline, and combined with the game’s story, it is an effective and creative way of providing us with, at least, a snapshot into the struggles of mental health.
As we help Madeline to push through each trial, we are offered a real chance to reflect on these themes ourselves. Breaks in the predominantly fast paced gameplay see Madeline meet with other characters that offer her advice and support, and we’re afforded a sense of camaraderie and hope through her interactions with them. These experiences offer a way for Madeline to create tools that better equip her to handle her own struggle, and ultimately, they are tools that are transferred to the player to use as we progress through the game.
During her panic attack, a modern, hip, and happy-go-lucky photographer named Theo ends up talking Madeline through it. Theo tells Madeline to visualise a leaf, and suddenly we’re presented with a mini-game of sorts. During this, we’re asked to take moment out from the regular, fast-paced gameplay, and use patience, dexterity, and concentration to carefully float a golden leaf within a box on the screen. The way this game is played so successfully emulates a breathing exercise that we might employ in the real world, that it allows the player to step even closer to the feeling that the developers have tried to convey through Madeline.
On top of the help and advice that Madeline receives from other characters, we are given some perspective on their own struggles, and they’re far from one-dimensional. Theo appears as a self-assured and overtly positive character, though despite this, and despite his ability to prop Madeline up, he holds an outwardly enthusiastic obsession with the capturing the perfect selfie and increasing his social media status.
This is without a doubt no coincidence, and is telling of his individual struggle with self-image – one that many of us understand all too well in our communication age. Outside of the character interaction, the tone of the story is reflected expertly in the way the game asks to be handled. Lots of games that pride themselves on their difficulty can often feel unfair, and although Celeste can be taxing, it is rarely frustrating.
Celeste’s ability to form a parallel between the themes it projects, like anxiety, and how we feel as we manoeuvre Madeline through increasingly difficult levels, creates a magnificent connection between the player and the protagonist. We feel building pressure to move faster and faster, though Celeste’s expertly crafted control system is part of what invests us in Madeline’s journey, while still making sure that reaching the end is fun and achievable.
When a game is this difficult, it’s important that movement feels natural. Celeste’s controls are superbly responsive and intuitive. Combined with a stellar soundtrack and bright, flourishing visuals. We’re provided with an almost meditative experience. Ultimately, whether it’s the game’s ability to so successfully engross us as players with its story, the mini-games that capture the essence of breathing exercises, or just the way that fluidly zipping around the levels feels so freeing. Celeste is an absolutely beautiful game that gives us an unexpected journey through self-discovery and inspiring determination. It sends a poignant message about acceptance and self-love, and it is not something that I’ll forget in a hurry.