With the award season right around the corner, Bonus Accessory will be taking a look at some of the top games of the past year, and examine why each game deserves the title of Game of the Year at the Game Awards 2018. This is part three of our five part series entitled ‘In Defense of’, and this time we are jumping and climbing to Matt Makes Games’s Celeste.
Approaching metal health in any light can be a touchy subject, let alone in video games. Few games have successfully pulled off appropriately touching on the subject while still having great gameplay and a compelling story. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice from Ninja Theory, which released in August 2017, comes to mind on how approaching metal health issues appropriately through gaming can lead to some of the best experiences in the medium, and I would honestly say that game would be the flag-bearer for expressing that message; that is, until the release of Celeste.
Celeste, which released on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in January this year from independent developer Matt Makes Games, is both simple and yet quite complex, in terms of how to describe the game. Let me explain.The Canadian developer brings one of the tightest and polished platforming experiences in years, with players jumping, climbing and using mystical powers to scale the perilous mountain. Levels are sprinkled with obstacles that require the player to make pinpoint movements to successfully navigate from checkpoint to checkpoint. While the difficulty is high, its presented in a way to players that isn’t a scare tactic, but one that is motivational. Director Matt Thorson and his staff designed the game to be approachable. Sure, there’s an ‘assist mode’ for players who truly don’t feel comfortable facing the uphill battle the fictional mountain provides, but Thorson clearly states when choosing the option that it is not the intend way to experience the game. Celeste is designed to push players, to make them feel uncomfortable and having them face frustration head on.
Plain and simple, you will die, and I mean a lot. By the time I rolled credits on my initial playthrough of Celeste‘s main story, I I tallied over 2,000 deaths. Yes, you read that correctly, there are three zeros in that number. Am I the best at platformers? Obviously not considering I perished over 2,000 times; but each time I died, I got a bit better. I began seeing the errors I was making. Mentally, I would find myself breaking down my game plan on how I would approach each portion of the level; remembering the mistakes I would make along the way and adjust said plan. The pacing of the game plays well into its difficulty/fun mixture, with respawns being almost instantaneously. Specifically with the Nintendo Switch version of the game, the style compliments the pickup and play mentality of the system. I’d find myself being able to pop through portions of the current level I was on my lunch break, or waiting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and easily being able to get that full experience on a strict time schedule. Like many of the games nominated this year, no time is wasted in the game, which makes it an especially rewarding experience to those on a tight schedule.
Celeste‘s narrative is where the complexity begins to set in, in one of the most rewarding ways possible. Players take control of a young girl named Madeline who intends to scale the mystical Celeste Mountain, located in the snowcapped Canadian wilderness. Along her way, she meets a cast of characters who range from support systems, such as Theo, to the wise cracking Granny, who simply doesn’t feel as though Madeline has the wherewithal to complete her journey to the mountain’s peak; yet, the biggest critic Madeline faces is herself. During the trek to Celeste‘s summit, Madeline experiences what is best described as an ‘out of body’ event, where she encounters an embodiment of her anxiety and self-doubts. While she continues to run from the self-doubt she keeps stowed away, she begins to face more and more instances that force her to confront the fears she keeps within her mind. For what appears to be a pretty cut and dry platformer on the surface, Celeste uses the its gameplay to translate a bigger message on facing our fears and anxiety. The mountain is truly a metaphor in its simplest form; an obstacle that one must learn to adapt to and eventually overcome. As I stated before, messaging on mental health is often something that is difficult to properly contextualize through media. Many forms of entertainment will encourage those who are struggling with aspects of their mental health to speak up, and that is absolutely a great message and starting point; but many don’t offer ways to combat these emotions due to its complexity. Celeste, on the other hand, finds a way to encourage those suffering to find the will and remove the self-doubt in a way that doesn’t take away from the excellent gameplay.
One of the most underrated aspects of Celeste is its artwork. With a blend of pixelated in-game assets along with hand-drawn ‘cinematic’ pieces, artists Amora Bettany, Pedro Medeiros, and Gabby DaRienzo craft a world of sheer wonder and beauty while basing the game in simplicity. Vibrant colors pop off the screen, while the sharp pixel-based environmental objects fit perfectly, as if they were apart of an elaborate puzzle. Growing up, I never found myself overly attracted to the 16 bit generation of gaming. My first main console was the Nintendo 64, which I got in 1998 at five years old, and while I did also have an NES in my home at that time, I was neck deep in the 64-bit CPU generation of gaming with the likes of the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I began to bolster my artistic palette and truly start to appreciate the beauty of the 8 and 16 bit generations of game. Moving to the era of high definition, and now 4K, no art style has seen more of a revitalization as the retro-style that games such as Celeste dons, and I truly see Celeste as the new standard for how games of this style should aim to be. Even the animation is so fluent and smooth, with the way the sharpness and definition remain with the excessive amount of movement going on during the more intricate platforming portions of the experience.
At the end of the day, no matter who takes home the title of ‘Game of the Year’, what Celeste has done for independent game development is something that will be felt for years to come. While independent games have continued to receive more and more attention, including with the likes of Playdead’s Inside receiving a Game of the Year nomination at the 2016 show and Studio MDHR’s Cuphead winning Best Art Direction last year, you get the sense that the scale may finally be tipping this year. Seeing what the team at Matt Makes Games accomplished with the staff size they have is the true embodiment of the phrase “quality over quantity”. Game development as a skill has become so easily accessible over the past decade that anyone with an interest in gaming can easily have the information readily available to learn at almost any point, and having a game with the budget and size of Celeste win ‘Game of the Year’ could be a jumping point for many small development studios in the future. While many independent experiences only last a few hours, Celeste‘s package oozes with replay-ability depth, not to mention a plethora of post-game content with the B-Side variations of levels, giving players the feeling to that similar of a AAA developed experience in a sense. For the first time since Geoff Keighley’s inception of the event, I truly feel this is the year a true independent project can potentially claim the crown of ‘Game of the Year’, and deservedly so. From a touching and moving narrative, to the master-class polish of platforming gameplay, Celeste may easily reach the top of the mountain to be crowned at 2018’s ‘Game of the Year’.