Indie Game of the Week 98: Celeste

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I went into Celeste with ambivalent feelings. It's one of the highest regarded games of this year, Indie or otherwise, but it's also one that proudly waves its masocore flag and wears its Super Meat Boy aspirations on its sleeves. I tend to lose my patience very quickly with difficult-for-the-sake-of-difficult games, in part due to the frustration-related "git gud" reasons you might expect, but also in how I've yet to see a game of this specific type really pull off the annoyance-assuaging balance of high difficulty and quick turnover for their whole game length, including Super Meat Boy itself. As these games go on, they lose the careful equilibrium of presenting very short instances of incredibly precise gameplay where a death is but a momentary blip (or several hundred) in your progress. Unfortunately, Celeste also runs into this same apparently inescapable issue.

But let's not start on a sour note. Celeste is magnificent in many ways that a 2D throwback platformer can be. Its controls are fluid, it has no shortage of ideas - each of the game's seven levels (well, eight, but that last one's currently blocked off for me) has its own "gimmick" that it creates enough instances around - it has a surprisingly poignant personal story about depression and having to live with oneself, its pixel art pulls all it can out of an 8-bit (but not really) palette, and it cleverly tweaks the collectible risk vs. reward system where it's not enough to grab the floating shiny (in this case, strawberries) but you have to make it back to stable land before it'll "confirm" the pick-up - a lot of the time, making it back to terra firma is most of the struggle.

There's definitely a lot to like about Celeste. It wasn't long until I was under its spell and into its flow, climbing and wall-jumping and air-dashing my way through multiple screens of obstacles and hazards like it was as natural as breathing. All the while, though, I was dreading the point at which it would eventually get too much for me - that never happened in the core game, but I've yet to attempt the notorious "B-side" variants of these levels - or when I'd start seeing the game go to a dark, dark place to maintain its rising difficulty curve. It eventually did just that in the game's third world: a run-down hotel haunted by malevolence, the last part of which requires running from a deranged concierge. This sequence started introducing very long stretches where you'd need to complete many jumps in a row perfectly before hitting a new checkpoint: an antithesis of the game's prior approach to having one screen with a handful of tough jumps per save. There are other parts of the game where it just went on too long (the game's only "boss fight", for one), or instances where you'd be trying to get a collectible and hit the next checkpoint thinking it would be a closer respawn, only to find that the collectible is now out of reach and you have no way of getting to it without either restarting the chapter over or coming back post-game when you have a limited version of a chapter select. The latter felt particularly vindictive, and more in line with what I'd expect from a masocore game that isn't interested in giving its player a good time. Cruel streaks that inevitably find their way into these types of games and takes them over like a malignant tumor.

Fellow climber and avid blogger Theo is a dork, but he's a nice dork with some deeper characterization further into the game.
Fellow climber and avid blogger Theo is a dork, but he's a nice dork with some deeper characterization further into the game.

That last point factors into what I dislike most about masocore games as a former game designer: I'm always of the inclination that you want to give the audience what they want. With Celeste, that's a challenging experience that is fun to master and mitigates the frustration with frequent checkpointing and minimal downtime between the moment you perish and the moment you respawn close nearby. And yet, because a reputation for stark difficulty must be upheld, you run into the occasional bouts of design cruelty just because. The next checkpoint will arbitrarily block you out of a nearby collectible, and we won't let you revert to the previous. This climactic encounter will have much longer screens without checkpoints because we want it to be more epic and challenging. We'll eventually introduce collectibles that you can't collect unless you beat the whole stage without dying. Eventually, you lose sight of your goal to give the player the best possible time and instead become more fixated on how your game will be perceived, and its reputation among masocore enthusiasts who might decry it for being too soft and accommodating. Celeste doesn't do that often, to its credit, but it does it just enough that I still want very little to do with the subgenre it belongs to. Otherwise, it's a fine game with a lot of heart and imagination that's worthy of its approbations. Just maybe not for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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