Developers creating games that have any semblance of plot or story must often make a decision. Gameplay tends to either be the focus with the plot serving as a vehicle to facilitate that gameplay, or takes a backseat and allows the story to be the reason for playing the game. It isn’t often that a game like Celeste - developed by indie publisher Matt Makes Games - combines both story and gameplay so effortlessly.
Mild spoilers ahead
The plot of Celeste is on the surface a simple one. You play as a girl named Madeline as she attempts to climb a mountain. In actuality, Celeste tackles a topic not often seen in gaming: depression.
It’s not easy to convey what depression feels like. Everyone handles it in a different way. To deal with her depression, Madeline decides to isolate herself from her past life and focus on accomplishing a goal. Players are barely told anything about Madeline’s background or her past. All we know is that Madeline wants to climb the mountain, she doesn’t know if she can handle it, and that it’s our responsibility to help her reach the peak.
The beauty of Celeste is that the difficult is intentional and necessary in order to have the player experience the same struggles and frustrations Madeline is facing. Madeline must confront both physical and mental hardships during her quest to the peak. As she climbs each cliff face, the literal inner demon (humorously named Badeline) in her mind slowly chips away at her will. Similarly, playing Celeste can be draining. Dying repeatedly in the same room struggling to overcome an obstacle can be incredibly disheartening. The player gets a sense of what it’s like to go up against what at first appears to be an impossible task.
Spoiler for the final few chapters (click to reveal)As Madeline finally reconciles with Badeline, she's able to accept herself for who she is and in doing so, become a stronger person. This is supported in-game by the unlocking of an extra dash ability. Throughout the entire game before this point, Madeline is limited to a single dash. As the players learn the mechanics of the game, they become familiar with the restraints and capabilities of the character. Adding a second dash on top of that releases these restraints and opens up a whole new world of movement for the player to explore with. This allows players to connect with Madeline and makes her growth feel more real.
Madeline’s fight against depression is represented by both her arduous quest to climb the mountain and also through the player’s own gaming experience. The fact that they are able to handle a topic like depression - something I am not unfamiliar with - so elegantly while also making it an integral part of the gameplay is a rare achievement. Celeste deserves all the praise it’s getting and I hope to see more games follow it’s tactful and thoroughly engaging approach to storytelling.