Celeste is a phenomenal, and difficult, game. I hadn’t heard of it until about a week ago, when fellow Fandomental Kylie mentioned it off-hand as something the streamers she watched declaring as “the greatest platformer of all time”. Seeing as how it was $20, and on the Switch, I thought why not? Maybe it’ll be like Shovel Knight, or Fez. Well, it wasn’t those things, but the story it tells is something that resonated very powerfully with me.
You play as a young woman named Madeline who sets out to climb the titular Mountain Celeste, somewhere in Canada. Easy enough set-up for a platformer. Except, very early into the game, you find out that Madeline suffers from anxiety and panic attacks (the coping of which is an actual game mechanic). The twist is that she doesn’t have a tragic backstory of any kind. Like, at all. And that kind of shocked me. Protagonists who struggle with mental illness are typically tied to a “root” cause of that illness, most likely some form of trauma.
But Madeline is just woman with some bad anxiety that she doesn’t really know how to cope with super well. That’s it.
In a nightmare, Madeline’s mother calls her on a payphone and speaks in a very guilt-trippy, almost antagonistic style. When Madeline wakes up and properly calls her mom, she’s nothing but supportive and happy to hear from her daughter, asking if she’s having fun on her trip and if she’s doing okay. If she’s struggling with her panic attacks. She’s completely encouraging.
As Madeline climbs the mountain, she encounters a few other wonderful characters, notably fellow mountain climber Theo. From their conversations, we find out that Madeline isn’t trying to climb the mountain as a form of escapism, or to figure out what she wants to do with her life; whatever it is she does for a living seems to make her happy. No, Madeline is trying to climb the mountain because she needs to be able to do something different, and prove it to herself that it’s possible.
And she does that quite literally, proving it to herself. After she breaks a mirror, a “Part Of Her” is set free on the mountain to hunt her down and fight her at every turn. It’s a simple color pallete swap of Madeline’s sprite, but it’s clearly a physical manifestation of her anxiety. The “Part Of Her” only has one goal, which is to help Madeline escape and go home, because she’s infuriated that she could ever be so stupid as to believe that this was a good idea. That she was capable of reaching the peak of the mountain. That she could change.
The harder Madeline rejects that “Part Of Her”, the more aggressive they become. The more often they appear in the game, and the more difficult it is to avoid them. There’s a point where the “Part Of Her” quite literally drags her down off of a cliff and all the way down to the base of the mountain. Eventually, Madeline figures out that everything that this “Part Of Her” does is out of fear for herself, and for Madeline. So she stops trying to fight it, which is ironically when the “boss battle” (if one can really call it that) begins.
After a long chase, Madeline manages to calm the “Part Of Her” down enough so that they agree to work together. Because Madeline just needs to able to try and reach the top of the mountain; it doesn’t matter if she makes it or not. It’s the act of trying, and doing so with self-confidence and self-care, that is important. And, well, she does make it up to the top of the mountain.
Anxiety is, in most instances, your brain’s fight-or-flight instinct going into overdrive. It’s flagging everything as dangerous and trying to protect you when there’s no actual threat to your well-being, be it physical or emotional. You process more information faster, which leads to panic since your brain can’t find the actual threat to you, thus defaulting to the conclusion that “it’s there, but you can’t find it”. This is why so many people who suffer from an anxiety disorder just freeze up or become overwhelmed in certain contexts; they literally can’t do anything else. Especially when they’re actively fighting their anxiety, and that’s the key to Celeste.
You can’t fight your anxiety. That only makes it stronger, just like it did with the “Part Of Me”. Only when Madeline accepted that aspect of herself as, well, part of her, did the “Part Of Me” become willing to cooperate. In the end, Madeline learns to co-exist with her anxiety, not just deal with it or acknowledge it. It’s a very powerful message from a wonderfully designed game.