I don’t enjoy the punishing grind of a Dark Souls. I got about 10 minutes into Hollow Knight before bailing. The very idea of playing Cuphead makes me break out in a cold sweat. If a game is too hard, I’m out. I assumed that Celeste, the extremely challenging platformer from Matt Makes Games, wouldn’t be for me.
Polygon’s own review starts with a warning: “You will die around a thousand times before you reach the top of the titular mountain.” And I did die — well over a thousand times. I never reached the top of the mountain. But somewhere along the way, I fell in love with Celeste, with all of its frustrating traps and labyrinthine levels, more than any other game I played this year.
GOTY #5: CELESTE
For our 2018 guide to the best games of the year, Polygon has been counting down our top 10 each weekday, ending with our top choice — hello! — as well as the full list of our top 50 favorites from 2018. And throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays and surprises!
Lighthearted visuals and an intimate story set Celeste apart
While still unapologetically difficult, Celeste is kinder and gentler than most other games in the masocore genre (see: Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac, N++). The SNES-inspired pixel art is charming and vibrant. Even the more intentionally repulsive obstacles are also kinda pretty, the way even the goofiest puppy is still adorable.
In classic platformer fashion, game mechanics are introduced gradually. As soon as I get the jump, wall-grab or air dash moves down, a new move or hurdle appears, either helping or hindering my journey across increasingly complicated stages.
Celeste is challenging, but never unfair. Patterns are consistent and established early on; everything does what the game tells you it will do. Ice blocks fall when touched. Benign fuzzy tendrils turn into poison goo. Gems recharge my air dash.
Celeste gives me the tools and guidance to succeed so that every death is my own fault. I find this oddly comforting, since I know every stage can be bested; I just have to keep trying.
I’m happy to practice my skills because even the deaths are so, dare I say, forgiving? Rather than starting over at the beginning of the level or some predetermined checkpoint, I just appear at the beginning of the specific challenge that sent me to my doom, immediately refreshed and ready to try again.
Repeating challenges to make gradual, hard-won progress isn’t just a clever game mechanic to keep players engaged — it’s also the driving ethos of Celeste’s story. Its protagonist, Madeline, struggles with anxiety and depression. She’s in a bad brain place and, despite both ominous warnings and offers of companionship, she wants to climb Celeste Mountain on her own. Because, well, she feels like she needs to climb a mountain on her own. She’s taunted by a dark shadow of herself, bluntly named Part of Madeline, who tells her that she can’t do it, that she’s not good enough, that she should just stop trying.
I can tell that the story is building toward a triumphant victory, working together with the shadow to reach the summit and prove that we are better than our flaws and fears.
I wouldn’t know for sure, though. I haven’t made it to the top.
What’s the opposite of rage-quitting?
Like most people I talked to about Celeste, I saw myself in Madeline. I also struggle with anxiety, depression and a Part of Emily telling me that I’m not enough. When I started playing Celeste, I saw it as a therapeutic personal challenge. Like Madeline, I could push past my own self-doubt and stubbornness and make it to the top.
For a while, that’s what I did. I died and respawned and learned and got better. I let myself feel victory and frustration, shame and pride. I got very, very close to beating the whole darn thing.
Then, two screens from the finish line, I found myself hitting a wall, literally, over and over and over again.
I’ve always been competitive: with my sister, with classmates, with initials on a scoreboard, but most often with myself. When I couldn’t figure out how to beat this one screen, I screamed and threw my Switch (onto the bed, it’s fine) and raged at myself. For weeks I tried again and again, never getting past that one tricky jump.
Then, one day, I calmly quit. I realized that I had learned all the wrong lessons. Celeste Mountain isn’t literal — it’s a metaphor for overcoming the lies your brain tells you. I didn’t need the cliché triumphant moment, I just needed to sit down with the scary parts of myself and tell them to stop being so hard on my friend Emily. Me.
I don’t know if I’ll ever go back and finish Celeste. Maybe I’ll even swallow my pride and turn on Assist Mode, a toolset that makes the game easier without shaming me for using it. But what I got from my own doomed playthrough is more valuable to me than than a completion badge. I allowed myself to fail. I won.
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