With seemingly all of my friends on the opposite coast getting married this year, the Nintendo Switch has been a blessing. Every time I am crammed into some middle seat on whatever budget airline will have me, I can power up the Switch and push down whatever anxiety comes from over six hours of pinching my sciatic nerve.
So, imagine my surprise when, about 30,000 feet over Earth and all of its terrestrial concerns, I found myself so stressed out by Celeste, an adorable 2D pixel puzzle platformer, that I reflexively shut off the system without saving and stared at the black screen until I calmed down.
If there was a list of things I do not like in video games, I can guarantee it would start with the following three mechanics:
- Time trails
- Situations where I'm being "chased"
- Any sort of requirement to be 100% exact with the controls
Having heightened visceral reactions to fictional material is the reason I even started writing Gentle Gamers. If the word didn't make me want to throw up in my mouth a little bit, I'd more regularly label myself an empath, in that I absorb emotions in a room without discrimination. I'm easily affected by any whiff of stress in those around me, so I try to avoid media that knowingly manufactures that stress within me (e.g., horror movies, "cringe" comedy, stealth-based missions in video games).
At the point in Celeste when I turned it off without thinking, my player's character was having to run away from something, while navigating a complex puzzle that required utmost gamepad precision. My heart raced. My hands tensed to the point that I had to shake them out. I felt truly miserable. But after a few minutes staring at the black screen, I turned the game back on and resumed my attempt. Returning to it wasn't masochism, and it wasn't because I still had over three house left on my flight to the East Coast. It was because, from the start, Celeste was purposefully leaning into these stressful game mechanics to make a point about those feelings inside myself, and I was curious where it was leading me.
In that way, Celeste is not only an equisitely constructed game, but one of the most empathetic I've ever played.
Celeste puts in the player in the tiny pixelated shoes of Madeline, a young woman who has made a promise to herself to climb the eponymous mountain. Despite the warnings that Mt. Celeste is dangerous, menacingly magical, and unforgiving, Madeline is unswayed. She says that she will make it to the top, no matter what anyone says. However, her repetition of this intention makes it abundantly clear that Madeline is performing the part of the brave and reckless adventurer. From her first steps onto Celeste's craggy slopes, she questions herself and her motives. Her desire to reach Celeste's summit is a manifestation of her bluster, and an attempt to kill the self-hating part of herself.
Since Celeste (the mountain) is a challenge to Madeline, so Celeste (the game) must also be to the player. It is a platform puzzler, meaning that Madeline must jump, climb, and dash through a series of trap-filled environmental puzzles. To progress through the game, the player must solve how Madeline can move from the start to finish without hitting any of the hazards.
There only four controls: directional movement, holding/climbing straight walls, jumping, and a mid-air dash to propel Madeline over longer distances (which can only be used once per jump, and which resets once Madeline is on a flat surface). Each action was each mapped to two different buttons on the controller, which allows the player to choose which button feels most intuitive. I found this helpful in moments of in-game stress, where I was tempted towards wild button-mashing, but instead learned to gravitate by muscle memory to the button I needed.
The mountain is divided up into different biomes, each with their own unique challenges (and equally unique and beautiful accompanying score, by compser Lena Raine). In one section, the player might have to additionally avoid little red blobs that are toxic to touch. In another, one must take into account sudden strong wind gusts that interrupt Madeline's jumps and push her in all sorts of directions. Like with The Witness, Celeste dedicates itself to a limited toolset. For instance, Madeline doesn't get incrementally more powerful throughout the game; whether at the first puzzle or the 50th, the options for solving it are identical. The player always can rely on Madeline's dash will only taking her so far, or that she can only hold on to a wall for a limited amount of time before turning red and losing grip. So, in each new biome, the player doesn't have to familiarize themselves with new ways to solve each screen; the ones that Madeline has has from the start will be enough.
Celeste is lean, which is an absolute requirement given its difficulty. And, oh man, is it hard. Navigating each new puzzle is an exercise in trail and error, which is (by nature) defined by hundreds and hundreds of mistakes. When done perfectly, each puzzle would likely take no more than a few moments to dash through. As it stands, each time the player misses their mark by mere pixels, hangs on to a ledge for a little too long, or turns away their attention for just a moment, Madeline is likely to die.
Every time Madeline falls to her death due to some player error, she almost instantaneously regenerates at the start of the puzzle, ready to make another attempt (and another, then another, and then another). The quick turn-around to rebirth means that each mistake might be frustrating, but you barely need to wait to try again. In this way, it feels similar to Dead Cells, with its design predicated on the knowledge that you're going to fail more than you succeed, so turnaround between each failure should be nearly invisible.
Offsetting the smoothness of the death/regeneration cycle is the game's death count, which is recorded and shown to the player at the end of every biome. This wasn't a number in the dozens; it was a number in the hundreds, or thousands. As the game became harder and I faced increasingly difficult puzzles, I found myself convinced that this one would be the one that would stop me in my tracks and that I would be unable to solve. There were some screens I would encounter and the apparent impossibility of safely navigating the traps made me think, "This must be a mistake." Through sheer stubbornness and some luck, I would solve each puzzle, but would cringe at how high my death count was.
I think of myself as a gamer, but not an adept one. I am afraid of failure, so games whose difficulty curves that require that regular failure are scary to me. Celeste pointing out how often I died felt like salt in the wound.
Early on in the game, Madeline encounters an old women who lives at the base of the mountain who says that Celeste might make her see things that she's "not ready to see." And it does. Celeste (the game), like Celeste (the mountain), reveal darkness. In the second biome, Madeline encounters a mirror that releases a nega version of herself (an entity she calls "A Part of Me") who voices her deepest self-loathings. This creature is a looming, red-eyed, grey-skinned specter, asking Madeline why she even thought she could climb the mountain in the first place. Not-so-coincidentally, this entity appears to Madeline at nearly the same moment when I started to truly doubt if I would be able to finish Celeste.
It was this character that caused me to turn off my Switch on the plane. At the end of the level in which she appears, she chases Madeline through a cavernous space. The player must both navigate the environmental problems while avoiding A Part of Me. I turned the game back on because Madeline was facing this personification of anxiety and self-doubt, and it just so happened that Celeste was making me feel those exact feelings at the same time.
After many stress-fueled minutes, I finally got through the puzzles. Not long after that, at the end of a biome and during a loading screen, the game provided me with a helpful tip: "Be proud of your death count! The more you die, the more you're learning. Keep going!"
In late 2017, game designer Jennifer Scheurle started a thread on Twitter, asking developers to share elements they had built into game code that were intended to influence the player's emotional experience. More specifically, Scheurle asked for mechanics that the player would experience without knowing they were experiencing it.
As an example, Scheurle shared that, though Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice implied that a certain number of player deaths would result in permadeath (i.e. erasure of all in-game progress up until that point, causing the player to have to start over), this was actually a lie. The spectre of permadeath was, in fact, intended to affect how the player approached the game, and tied in with Hellblade's themes of depression and PTSD.
Developers and designers jumped into the fray, making a list both long and varied. However, along with developers sharing their own behind-the-scenes secrets were reactions from some gamers who felt that these development techniques were a way of "dumbing down" gameplay; some argued that these were tricks used by the developers to make gamers feel good about themselves rather than actually creating difficult or challenging gameplay. Applied to Hellblade, this line of thinking would say that there should have been permadeath, otherwise it wasn't actually a challenge.
But it was a challenge. Unless they really decided to test out the game to see if the mechanic was real, a player would go into the game assuming that, if they made too many mistakes or were too risky in gameplay, that they could lose everything they fought hard to win. The mechanic might have been fake, but the reaction was real.
Not to mention that these hidden mechanics are nothing new: in Scheurle's thread, there was equal discussion of games like Hi Octane, System Shock, and (yes) Pac-Man. The idea that influencing a player's feelings deviates from the true Ur-Game is missing on what video games are.
Video games might incorporate elements of film cinematography, visual art, or literature. But, unlike other forms of culture, they exist in a collaborative relationship between the consumer and production: they require interaction. Their entire point is to form a relationship between the game and the player. As such, video games are a medium of direct emotional manipulation.
"I scare the shit out of people for a living"
Almost a decade ago, I worked for an organization that ran outdoor adventure team-building retreats. We'd lead people through games and puzzles in attempt to teach them how to work better together as a group. The highlight of the retreats was almost always our outdoor high-ropes course, which consisted of a number of scary-looking ropes courses, 30 feet off the ground.
I put hundreds of people in harnesses while explaining that the course they were about to go on was safer than getting into a car. I told them that the ropes we used could carry their weight of a couple of small elephants. I showed them exactly how the mechanics of our belay system worked.
Still, nine times out of ten, we'd get folks who would start their climb with utmost certainty, and be reduced to quivering masses once they got halfway up the Pamper Pole (so named because of a joke that it made people feel like they were going to pee themselves when they got to the top). As someone who climbed those same courses on my off-time, I too felt that gut-churning feeling of fear when I got to the top of an element. I knew, logically, that I was safe. But my body couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't.
After every climb, we'd lead the group through a debrief. Ultimately, the group would settle on the same statement, "This situation was manufactured to make me feel scared, so that I can better understand myself in situations where I react with fear."
I'd argue that, like the Pamper Pole, video games offer players the opportunity to gain emotional insight through their ability to curate a player's emotions. If a game is self-aware enough to know that its construction leads a player to feel fear or anxiety, it can construct a story to bring the player awareness to that feeling. It can take us through a digital high ropes course and then sit us around an 8-bit campfire, asking "So, what did we learn about ourselves today?"
moment of reflection
Celeste is modeled after games in the masocore genre (the word being a portmanteau of "masochist" and "hardcore"), especially 2010's popular Super Meat Boy. Masocore games are, by their very definition, intended to be frustrating. They are designed to ensure the player must fail much more than they succeed. What differs here is that Celeste uses the genre to emotionally manipulates the player into feeling stress and frustration, so as to echo Madeline's emotional arc.
I don't like anxiety-producing games because I feel ill-equipped to deal with those emotions in my regular life. So, when a game introduces anxiety, I take it on without being able to process it, instead holding it right in my chest. During Celeste, Madeline has and works through panic attacks. She constantly feels on the verge of failure. She meets characters who give her tools for dealing with her anxiety. She uses these tools to build a relationship with the part of her that she came to Celeste to destroy. Since the player is inhabiting the role of Madeline through playing the game, Celeste is also making available to the player these avenues for emotional development.
I was genuinely amazed to find that in the past few months, when encountering stressful situations, I would sometimes think back to playing Celeste. I remembered the feelings of hopelessness when encountering yet another seemingly impossible puzzle, and how much I hated feeling like I (like Madeline) was on the verge of having to give up. I remembered how every puzzle I thought I couldn't complete, I did. And I remembered that, even if I hadn't finished a puzzle, I was the only one considering that a failure.
Speaking more broadly, like how putting someone in high ropes was a way to make someone feel fearful while actually keeping them entirely safe, Celeste manufactures anxiety in a digital space. Both situations are forms of emotional manipulation. And, like the reactions I would see in participants after coming back to the ground after a particularly challenging high ropes adventure, Celeste affords player the rare opportunity to reflect on themselves with a valuable meta-awareness that they can bring to their daily lives.
So, what did we learn about oursleves today?