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Celeste stresses me out, and that calms me down

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How I ease my mind with intense puzzles

Protagonist Madeline braves harsh winds in a screenshot from Celeste Matt Makes Games

The climb up the mountain in the brutally tough side-scroller Celeste isn’t exactly a pleasant one. Within a few hours, I died hundreds of times, many of those deaths caused by just trying to solve a single jumping puzzle.

For a lot of people, this is the epitome of stressful gaming. But I keep going back to Celeste and attempting its tricky levels. For one, it’s a great game; but playing it is also making the rest of my life so much easier to deal with. Pushing through the punishment of brutal masocore games like this one helps me reframe the aspects of my life that are the most challenging.

The stress of work, creative endeavors or relationships are all manageable on their own. But every so often, they can align and their impact can become overwhelming. Putting a controllable and difficult challenge in the way helps minimize their effect.

Maybe this sounds like the classic idea of “gaming as escapism.” But I see my love of putting myself through high-anxiety gaming more as adjusting the type of stress I invite into my life. To you, that may sound unhealthy. For me, it’s self-care.

The healthy stress of games

We can’t choose what problems enter our life, but we can choose how to deal with them. This is how I deal with mine: I replace my fear, anxiety and nervousness with challenges that I know have solutions, even if I don’t always know what they are at first. I still acknowledge the source of my real-life problems and I manage not to let them take control — instead, I use difficult games as a way to gain clarity on how to solve issues that really matter.

Doing this allows me to distance myself from the momentary panic of a hard situation. Tough games like Celeste are a safe space — which may seem ironic, considering their intensity — in which I know that there are rules to follow, and the context of the situation provides hints about what to do next. Even if a game is designed to be hard, it’s also designed to be beaten. That’s comforting, especially in contrast to the uncertainty of the real world where a single, unexpected moment can radically change your life.

Masocore games like Celeste are playgrounds for problem-solving and self-actualization. Although I could actually modify the game’s difficulty, I always gravitated toward the more challenging bonus stages. These areas present brutal tests of endurance and skill — and I find a lot of comfort in the repetition it takes to beat them.

Celeste’s B-Side levels only get more challenging as you progress. Each screen you encounter is its own self-contained puzzle that feels harder than the stages that inspired it. Clearing one feels tremendous, even if it means a more difficult screen is ahead. And that’s fine. Getting to the end means I’ve perfected the hardest configuration of ideas the developers could think of. I’ve mastered a small and difficult part of the universe.

Celeste’s story has also been an invaluable resource. Seeing Madeline, the game’s main character, push to the top of the mountain feels similar to my own trials with conquering my own mind and mood. It’s inspiring to see how she learns to take ownership of her challenges and that they can be a resource, rather than a hindrance.

Whether in games or in real life, I tend to overanalyze situations, which, at times, leads me deep into worry. If I let that part of my personality go unchecked, I can get pulled into some dark places. But I’ve come to understand that being so analytical is also the reason why I’ve been successful in my career, and it’s why I develop new talents so quickly. That part of me is a double-edged sword, but when I take advantage of it — like when I play seemingly impossible games — I can accomplish a lot.

I admit that this way of dealing with the things that stress me out isn’t perfect. But even small bursts of Celeste’s intense, brain-pushing levels tire out the part of my mind that wants to race to unhealthy conclusions. Once exhausted, I end up being better able to focus and center myself than I would have been able to if I spent that time worrying or wondering about hypothetical worst-case scenarios. As I get farther in Celeste, I feel more emboldened in real life — just like Madeline does as she quests up the mountain.