by Stuart Urback
Talking about resonance can be challenging. Often it gets used in the place of “good”. It’s easy to fall back into substituting resonance for a simple “I liked that”. But it’s also possible for something to be resonant even if you don’t like it. Something can hit at your soul, even if you wish it didn’t. It’s when a single concept is expressed simultaneously through multiple mediums that something clicks inside your brain so you can “just” understand what’s going on. Resonance is also a groove. And grooves are good because you can go fast in them, but they also lock you into a single lane.
In her May 2012 essay, “The Narrative Gift as Moral Conundrum”, Ursula K Le Guin wrestles with the concept around a banal story, well told and its relationship to a powerful story, simply told. “Seldom if ever I have seen the power of pure story over mind, emotion, and artistic integrity so clearly shown.” p76, No Time To Spare. Le Guin makes the point that competent plot cannot overcome a plot which has artistic meaning. It is easy to put most pop culture into that bucket: a strong narrative but having little artistic merit.
Celeste feels like that type of pop culture. It hints at deep themes, without engaging them fully. It talks about mental health and personal doubt, but it doesn’t challenge the player (either with its narrative or its gameplay) to reconsider preconceived notions. Celeste climbs through the well worn groove of the hero’s journey, through doubt, guidance, to overcome the challenges put before them. So it would be easy to fault Celeste for its failure to push further into the depths of human experience.
According to Ian Bogost what makes games special is that they take “ground” (things we take for granted) and bring them into the foreground. In Celeste’s case, the “ground” would be the player’s ability to move through physical space. Especially for myself, as an able-bodied person, it is easy to take for granted my ability to move from point a to point b, whereas my ability to overcome my mental challenges - social anxiety, self-doubt, uncertainty - are challenges I often find insurmountable. By foregrounding the challenge of moving through space, and then mapping the mental challenges to the physical ones, Celeste forces the player to at least consider mental and physical challenges similarly.
Each of the individual components are so well polished that it’s hard not to appreciate the thought and care that went into it. At the same time, as a result, there are moments when there aren’t risks or leaps of understanding, or moments when the game tries something that might not work. Each of the components works well together.
The impetus for this article came from another article written on this website, about Gris. In it, Stacy explores how Gris impacted her on a personal level. Her discussion of Gris reminded me of my own time with Celeste, which is surprising, because Celeste and Gris feel like they are opposite ends of the spectrum. As it’s described, Gris is mostly experiential, there aren’t many challenges to sort through or skills to check at each stage of the game. Celeste resides at the opposite end of the mechanical spectrum because each section of the game requires new skills to learn in order to progress. Each section focuses around a particular theme and challenges the player to understand core concepts to progress.
Celeste, like Gris, has a competent story, and the themes that Celeste deals with, of personal exploration manifested as outward challenges, mirrors many of the same themes that Gris deals with. Celeste’s story maps onto conquering one’s demons through self-actualization by overcoming the physical challenges on the mountain. But, because Celeste is so up front about that challenge being rather close to a trope, and because the rest of the mechanics are so well tuned, it feels sincere rather than pasted on.
The music in Celeste, like the story, maps to each of the moments and the themes in the game. As I tensed up to encounter a challenging sequence of jumps, the music would tense with me. As I climbed higher and felt ever more competent, the music’s beats felt boundless and full of energy. It was hard to tell if my emotional states were a result of the music or if the music happened to mirror my emotional state.
As a player, every time I figured out how to press the buttons in the correct sequence to jump safely to the other side of the level, I felt a wave of accomplishment. As I progressed through Celeste, I felt myself building up a vocabulary of understanding how to exist in the game. I gained an ability to jump and double jump. I built the understanding of how to time the platforms as they flung me across the screen, or the golden feather as it gave me freedom to move how I pleased but would run out before I wanted it to.
The relationship between each of the bosses that Celeste encounters (her shadow, the inn-keeper), provide a nice mental model for the mechanical challenges I faced as a player. For, example, Celeste’s shadow will mimic all of your actions as you move across the screen, meaning crossing paths with a location you’ve gone before is difficult. So, taking your time or pausing on a difficult jump were impossible, the game forces you to keep moving, and as a result increases the tension. At the same time, the music would morph into a rapid staccato of intense beats, amping up the anxiety I felt internally.
That connection between the music, the story, and the gameplay helped Celeste hit home for me in a way that other games had not. Celeste was the first time I felt like the character on the screen reflected back personal struggles I encountered (and still encounter), and so it holds a special place in my heart. I didn’t just feel like the character was an avatar, I felt like I was a conduit for that character to help accomplish her goals.
While Celeste didn’t force me to reconsider my previously held beliefs, its combination of music, mechanics, and story left me uplifted and empowered. I finished my time with the game feeling similar to how I feel when I leave a Star Wars film - ready to take on the world.
Celeste is a 2018 release from Matt Makes Games (now called EXOK games), I played it on the Nintendo Switch.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.