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In praise of Celeste

What a game!

I know it's a week late, but Happy Birthday Celeste! It's been lovely having you around this past year.

Really, I'd like to merge the Switch's gallery with my phone. To have all these recorded shards of Celeste gameplay rightfully placed, spliced throughout my year alongside other cherished moments like - I've just checked - my gym bike times, a car parking permit, the sun setting behind a maize field, and a really good bread and butter pudding (multiple angles).

But from Celeste mountain I'd get the Old Site, and its star-glow that falls soft as snow. I'd get that single satellite dish with a playful secret. The stills I took of that lovely campfire conversation. A mystical ascent through northern lights. Reflection's floating jags of pink light. Of course, Madeline at the mountain summit. And also: lots and lots of proud recordings of inspired, flow-state control and grace (without the lots and lots of deaths that led up to them).

I especially like how the gallery changes when my cousin (who doesn't play many games, but fell hard for Celeste) took up the game in October, and we worked together to work out the knottiest sections. Later, we each got in the habit of checking the Switch gallery in the mornings to see if the other had made any progress in our simultaneous space-race; of beating the hardest, bonus-bonus stages (an achievement so difficult I half expected to get a personalised letter or something on completion). So the game slotted easily into our household's orbit, a new nucleus of thought and talk and competition. We'd analyse the micro-advantages of a controller (he prefers Pro, I prefer Joy-Con) and the nuances of movement and 'hang-times' at a level we normally only save for dissecting the many - many - YouTube dance videos we watch (shout out Kyle Hanagami! Love your work!). And we still regularly cite the game, now a shorthand for things that are lovely and brilliant and Sick, man.

'Yeah, so sick'.

This 'conversation' came up again the other day (Sick, man. Yeah, so sick), and I happened to be trying to write this article, so we started discussing what we thought the best thing was in the game. As in, the best bit of Celeste mountain's strange machinery. And in doing so it made me realise part of what I think makes the game so relatable, such a fist-bump-and-smile of a game.

I didn't get to go into Lena Raine's score in this article, but it's fantastic. Conjuring an enclave of safety, or the edges of panic. But as mood-making and transformative as Celeste Mountain's weather.

It starts here, with the best thing debate, though frankly it's a buffet of brilliant toys: There's the green crystals (that shatter-crack of a rejuvenated dash!). The Whomp blocks of Reflection (that grace-moment shudder before they accelerate!). Or maybe the feathers (such compression! such release!) My cousin is particularly fond of Hotel's soot-mites, whereas I could write an Ode (if I could actually write Odes) to the plump, pulsing Crystal Hearts (the way they burst with ripe abundance!).

But everyone loves the celestial jelly from the Old Site. You know, there's probably a fun game to be had in seeing how different write-ups and reviews have tried to describe the things; these suspended blocks speckled by a distant starfield, their gravitational undertow extending Madeline's dash into rippling, screen-spanning rushes. Which probably doesn't really convey it, I know. But in the hand they just work. So immediately gratifying and intelligible they feel almost inevitable, obvious. How did we not have these before?

So: the way Celeste feels to play in general is an all-timer, I think. One of the GOATs. Certainly, it hits that sweet spot of brilliant invisibility; of being so instinctive it borders on synaptic. Madeline's (quite grounded) jump and the accelerated down-weight as she falls. That just-so, sword-swipe whoosh of a boost before the R-trigger finger-cling of the grab. All of the rhythms and weights in rhyme, but then accented, emphasised in small amplifications; there's a slight squeeze of Madeline when leaps (check in Assist Mode to see!), the screen shudders as you dash, the controller tugs as you grasp a wall and countless other details seem to thicken (my notes for this piece were about 90 per cent the word 'thick') the feel of the game.

I know I can't say thickness again, but I do wonder whether this kind of evoked physicality somehow channels something of a real mountain journey, or at least the spirit of it. The way that everything coheres into something that has fullness, body, is a little like the tethering and connection that comes with that footfall and exertion and constant procession of conquering a peak - only here it is one-removed, translated. Minimised to fingers and thumbs and abstracted to two dimensions.

Anyway, what I'd really like to say is that I think this purity and polish in gameplay gives Celeste an honesty; it's unpretentious by whatever etiquettes gaming abides by. And despite Madeline's journey requiring her to deal with difficult themes - challenges like depression and anxiety and self-doubt - it never does so at the expense of the game proper, or the connection with the player. It never becomes - technical term - 'wanky', draping self-serious exposition around naff gaming and expecting a free pass. Instead it feels like good company, generous and well-intentioned; its light-touch approach to rather heavy themes feeling more convincing and paying off better because of it.

What I'm getting at is that Celeste works in the same way as one of its central themes: that the physical and psychological are porous, intertwined, interdependent. An overlap ripe for games to explore. And especially this one in which Madeline's physical journey up Celeste Mountain is also a journey inwards. In which the Mountain actualises her self-doubt as a depressive doppelganger (or 'Bad-eline'), and manifests her anxieties as darkened temples of mirrors and menacing purple tentacles.

A game that feels perfectly formed and complete, its physicality an intractable part of the whole. In which a tense and claustrophobic chase is followed by a scatter of celestial jelly, to dive in and out of and doodle through the air. A game that roots for the player, delivering a postcard cheerily encouraging you to Keep Going! because the 'more you die, the more you're learning', destigmatizing death and deflating needless perfectionism. Allowing you to engage with challenges so exacting you have to repeat them over and over like a finger incantation, learning a perseverance more felt than thought. A game whose story beats are partly played out in - lovingly designed and character-specific! - dialogue boxes that act as a subtle metre for perfectly formed, relatable truths. The old lady asks Madeline what her alter ego is even scared of? 'I hadn't thought of it like that before', Madeline replies. No, nor had I.

This is not gaming as a set of dressed-up digital hurdles to overcome, this is the opportunity to collaborate in something lovely and brilliant. We know it's hard but look how many amazing and surprising things there are to see and do! A sort-of replenishing. An internal accumulation as you play in this key of Celeste, pad in hand, un-picking pathways of progress that reward in the unwinding. A slow-grow mycelium of goodwill and connection that feels like an understanding. I once overheard my cousin laughing out loud in sheer delight at the ingenuity and hilarity of Hotel's B-Side. Pad in hand, motion as meaning.

You know, I realise technology can be fragmenting. How phones and twitter and Facebook posts can be splintered spaces of human connection. But Celeste is a game all about rifts and splits, of mirrors and reflections and refractions that can come together again. And I guess I just feel grateful to these few people, who seemed to have put so much care into making a strange, synthetic machine of separate parts - coding and words and music and art - that somehow comes together when playing to feel like something human, something whole.

Happy Birthday Celeste!

It's been a treat.

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