Game Mechanics and Mental Health

As I currently trudge my way through the impossibly difficult but optional B-Side levels in Celeste I look back at the journey that I’ve had with the game. My death counter sits closer to 5000 than 4000 and I’ve only completed 2 of the 8 B-Sides. The interesting thing is that I relish at those numbers, I am overjoyed to have spent over 15 hours and counting working to complete a game that takes some people as few as 8 hours to beat. Whereas other ultra-difficult games like Super Meat Boy, any of the Dark Souls, the Binding of Isaac or Darkest Dungeon aim to discourage you, aim to make you feel despair, Celeste makes me feel hopeful, strong, and proud. What makes Celeste different as a game from others of the ultra-hard variety is how it goes about transcribing its gameplay elements and the context of those elements in the game.

Celeste itself came out a dark place for its creator, Matt Thorson. Thorson told Kotaku that the development of the game and its story was a reflection of the things he was feeling as an individual. The game itself was meant to reflect overcoming depression and anxiety on an individual and personal level.

As Thorson was coping with his own personal gripes he reflected on past SNES platformers that acted as escapes for him and that’s when things started to click. “As I made that connection, it just made sense that the game was about that,” Thorson told Kotaku.

In an email to Vice, Thorson wrote, “Celeste’s motives are purely internal. It’s protagonist Madeline’s own depression and anxiety that drives her to climb Celeste mountain — partially for the punishing masochism of the trek and partially to seek catharsis,” he continued, “Thanks to its focus on mental health, this story is, “quieter, more introspective, and focused on a personal scale.”

That is where the gameplay in Celeste began to take shape. The creators always had at least a framework for the story of Celeste, as shown by a Reddit AMA answer by Celeste co-creator Noel Berry.

“We always knew the game was about overcoming something you personally set out to do, and that we wanted the gameplay (climbing a mountain) to mimic that of the player (beating a hard game), but the story grew very organically,” said Berry, “Matt is the one who really pushed that along.”

The game itself, if not clear now, is all about the protagonist Madeline setting out with the goal of climbing Celeste Mountain with no other reasoning other than being able to say she did it. The story centers around Madeline and her central antagonist, a shadow version of herself colloquially known as Bad-eline, that is the physical manifestation of her depression and anxiety.

As I stated before the game is ultra-hard and requires split-second decision making and reflexes to make it up the mountain. The platforming is tight, tense, nerve-wracking, and frustrating. You may question throwing your $70 Switch controller through the TV, and may even be forced to give up. But what keeps you coming back is how satisfying and rewarding the game feels to complete.

No matter how insurmountable the task at hand the game never lacks fairness, nearly every obstacle has a clear objective and every death can be counted toward personal mistake.

In an interview with Nintendo Life Thorson and Berry spoke on the balancing for Celeste.

“We also had a general philosophy that, though we want the game to feel hard, we always want it to feel fair. The game works in the player’s favor, wherever possible, and when it felt like a level or mechanic was hard in the ‘wrong’ way, it was cut or modified.”

They did this by having friends come over and play the game over and over until things felt right and fair. They did everything they could to make even the most impossible challenge seem attainable. Every spike or pitfall, every obstacle, meticulously placed with the player in mind in order to create an environment synonymous with the internal mental struggle that many of us go through. That with a little help and a little push even the seemingly impossible becomes possible.

This modus for storytelling is starting to become commonplace in the indie gaming world. A near-silent protagonist traverses an often difficult or dangerous world with little overt storytelling from the world around them. Games like Furi, Hyper Light Drifter, Subnautica, and the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon do this incredibly well. The environment and gameplay create a context for the sometimes subdued or unrepresented storytelling, also known as “show don’t tell.”

Circling back to Celeste. There’s just something magical about it. Something that gives it a special zest that will have me thinking about it years later, and it’s something that everyone should experience. I never knew a pixelated indie platformer would have me thinking so much about myself but I’m glad I tried it.

You’d think I could write a bio by now. Everywhere to find me.

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