Celeste & Theming

When I finished Celeste, I had over 3000 deaths. The game is difficult but I was hardly ever frustrated. There is a great sense of triumph running throughout Celeste. Whether it is completing a level, grabbing another strawberry, or just making a tricky jump to advance to the next screen, it always feel rewarding overcoming a challenge.

As somebody that lives with depression, there has always been something comforting playing a very hard game. It’s the fact that a game that takes 100% of my focus and attention is the best way for me to get immersed. This mentality is present in the narrative of Celeste as Madeline wants to do the impossible task of climbing a mountain as means of coping with her anxiety. She doesn’t know exactly why she feels compelled to climb the mountain, she only claims she wants to take her mind off things. All throughout, Celeste is a mastercraft of theming through gameplay.

The theme of a story is the human experience that the story is exploring underneath the surface. To use Shakespeare as an example, Romeo & Juliet’s theme is love while Hamlet’s is revenge. Celeste’s theme is aniexty. Video games are interesting as a storytelling median due to their interactivity, which means things like gameplay mechanics can heighten or hinder the themes of the story. Badeline is an interesting example of this mixture this of gameplay and theming.

As a character, Badeline acts as a foil to Madeline. It’s rather on the nose, but she represents Madeline’s anxiety and all the negative emotions that come with it: paranoia, anger, insecurity. Whenever Badeline appears, she actively works to make things difficult for Madeline. She’s the first level-end challenge, trying to chase Madeline down to stop her on her journey. She even causes all of the panic attacks Madeline suffers from in the game, most notably on the trolley with Theo. She wants to stop Madeline climbing the mountain by making Madeline second guess herself and by throwing any hurdle she can in Madeline’s way, an obvious representation of anxiety and the difficulties it can cause in everyday life.

The crowning jewel of the game, both in gameplay and theming, is the final level. While a little overly long, this is where Madeline and Badeline work out their differences and rejoin to work together. In gameplay, this is shown as an additional air dash Madeline can now perform. This is the best reward to the player for overcoming the challenges they have surmounted to that point. The additional dash opens up the level design so much.  

In the last level, Madeline has to climb to the top of the mountain after falling to the bottom. It is the most challenging but also the most fun level in the game. With the additional dash, the puzzles become more complex and clever. They require more precision of action and a better understanding of the game’s mechanics and that’s what make them feel the most rewarding to complete.

The cutscenes in Celeste typically play out as conversations between characters at the beginning or end of the levels. But even with this separation between story progression and gameplay throughout the game, I was completely immersed in the story of Celeste because the themes of the story run throughout the mechanics and levels. Madeline’s struggles were also mine, but her triumphs and revelations were also felt by me.

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