Celeste Review

An unhinged and disabled trans woman rambles about why she doesn’t like the trans game.

Over the past year or two, I have steadily been moving away from non-visual novel game reviews. Partially because of other more pressing personal projects. And partially because I’ve felt my opinions differ from the general consensus enough that I feel that a lot of games are wasted on me. Despite knowing this, I decided to pick up a renowned game to play when I wanted a break from another project. And the game I chose was Celeste. A 2018 cult hit platformer that quickly accumulated critical and commercial success, earning a spot in gaming canon, and acclaim from the queer community.

That’s the first reason why I checked it out, and the second is that a former friend of mine gave me guff for never having played the game.

“How can you be trans and a gamer and have never played Celeste? That’s like against the rules!” 
After spending 18 hours with the title though… I should have let the game live in my mind through its reputation.

Celeste Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer/Publisher: Extremely OK Games

Part 01: A (Personal) Tale of Growth and Anxiety

Going into the game relatively blind, I was told that the story of Celeste was its strongest element. The story is about a young woman named Madeline climbing a mountain, not really for any explicit reason, but rather to prove something greater to herself. As she embarks on this venture, she encounters a small supporting cast of characters, stumbles onto unexplained magical phenomena, and comes away as a more fully formed person. 

However, that is just the surface level, as there is a good deal of thematic and symbolic depth to look into with this title, both narratively and mechanically. The obvious symbolism of someone trying to climb a mountain as a way to deal with one’s unresolved personal issues. The constant sense of perseverance seen throughout Madeline’s journey as she goes through greater and wilder hazards. The concept of anxiety is represented throughout nearly every facet of the game. Being a prominent part of the story, a mechanically reinforced part of the core gameplay and level design, and an undercurrent in nearly every conversation. Along with the implementation of Madeline’s magically induced alter ego, who impedes her progress initially, before Madeline comes to accept her as an intrinsic part of herself. 

There’s definitely a good deal to enjoy and appreciate about Celeste’s narrative on this front. But I also don’t feel as if the story was given as large of a focus as it could have been, and players need to interpret and dig into things to fully understand what’s going on. Such as how this story was partially a reflection of mental health issues that the director, and other staff members, were going through during the game’s development. This is reflected in the earnest depictions seen throughout the game, and attempts at broaching and combating these issues is more than admirable. However, it still feels like it was written by people still coming to terms with their own issues… because it was.

Celeste has a lot to say, but it does not feel as detailed as one might expect from an older or more congruent writer. It feels a bit more like a mirror than a proper thesis, if that makes any sense. 
To me, this lack of matured thought is most obvious with how the game handles Madeline’s status as a trans woman. She was written by a trans woman, created by a trans woman, but said trans woman did not come to terms with the fact that she was trans until after the game’s initial release. As such, she is not openly acknowledged as trans throughout the game, but her ‘transness’ is thoroughly represented on a symbolic and subtextual level. 

Climbing a mountain is a good metaphor for any sort of internal struggle, including gender issues. The doppelgänger is a repressed part of Madeline’s identity, and repression is typically a big part of being trans. A lot of lines are given a far greater meaning when reading the character as trans. And the difficulty of navigating this setting can easily be read as a metaphor for gender transition. 

Also, there’s a trans flag on her desk in the secondary ending. Because that’s slightly more subtle, and far easier to read in bad faith, than having a character go out and say ‘I’m trans by the way.’ 

The worst thing I could say about the story of Celeste is that it was written by people who were still coming to terms with themselves. Which is ultimately a weakness and a strength, as while it is still working out how to convey certain topics, it does what it does with a level of honesty. So much so that I can easily see why the game managed to affect so many people.

I would say they didn’t really affect me, but if these themes weren’t so intrinsically tied to the game’s narrative, I would probably have stopped playing the game part way through the third chapter. But I stuck with it, collected all the crystal hearts, B-Sides, and strawberries, and got to the 15 heart gate in chapter 9.

Part 02: Walk. Jump. Dash. Grab. Climb.

2D platformers are one of the most pure and quintessential genres in gaming, a foundational part of the medium, and these downright marvelous vessels of design. I, naturally, enjoy them— two of my top ten favorite games of all time are 2D platformers— but while playing Celeste, I kept thinking “I don’t think I actually like 2D platformers.” 

I probably could leave it at that, as I don’t think there is a more succinct way to convey my frustration with this title, but I should explain things in detail to dissuade any confusion. 

From a purely mechanical standpoint, Celeste is a deeply simple 2D platformer. The only verbs are walk, jump, dash, grab walls, and climb walls. The game is largely screen-based, with each one posing the player with a platforming puzzle, where they need to use Madeline’s limited dash and grabbing/climbing stamina to reach the other side. Things are made more complicated through the addition of environmental obstacles, ranging from the usual static, moving, and situational death traps to the rare enemy. Or interactables such as moving platforms that trigger upon contact or dashing, or various breeds of goo balls that let Madeline travel further or faster.

From a pure design standpoint and identifying the elements that Celeste uses to assemble and craft its challenges and chapters, the game teeters between rock solid and excellent. Many of its design elements are familiar and well established, but the game manages to successfully use these elements while continuously feeling fresh and inventive. It introduces a mechanic, keeps throwing around new ways to build upon it, and just when it starts getting a bit old, it is put aside. 

…So, why do I have such strongly negative feelings about Celeste? In short, because it’s hard.

Part 03: Nebulous Nuances of Mountain Climbing

Now, when I say hard in this context, what I really mean is that Celeste is a punishing game. The opposite is true. Its punishment for error is going back to the start of the puzzle and doing it again. No penalty, no mockery, no ‘do you want to try again,’ just respawn and go. Heck, you can even skip the second-long transition if you are that impatient. Dying is seamless, the game actually encourages the player to view their death count with pride, and even people who are supposedly good at the game still die a bunch.

What I mean when I say this game is hard is that it has an incredibly slim tolerance for error. It wants players to do things in a very specific way. Meaning that many puzzles are broken down into two pieces. Determining the correct way to use the relatively few mechanics to achieve the goal of reaching the other side of the room. And trying to input the correct sequence during the correct intervals. It is not lenient, it does not want players to experiment with solutions, and wants them to do one thing one way.

Now, this does not sound bad, as the game just wants the player to be very methodical and technical with their inputs. And that does not seem like it should be a problem, as Celeste does not have bad controls, physics, or general game feel. Things are responsive, snappy, and overall feel great. However, it does have a lot of sensitivities and nuances with its movement and momentum

It wants the player to deliberately and delicately control things in the air. It wants players to memorize the difference between a running jump with a few frames of lead up and a static jump. It wants players to constantly do the right thing at the right time. And it wants players to understand every nuance with how the protagonist moves, and… there are just too many of those for me to process and comprehend. Especially in a game that has such a fondness of high speed and high intensity settings. 

It is a harsh task-master, and its challenge is both incremental and cyclical. The game keeps getting harder, more demanding, and the average deaths per success per room dramatically increases as the player progresses through the game. To the point where it felt like I had to try most rooms over a dozen times before I got it right once. And while I could tell I was getting better, there was a very real ceiling on my input proficiency.

I am not, and never professed to be, good at video games, and I particularly struggle with games that feature more ‘complex inputs.’ By complex, I mean things like needing to combine multiple button presses with directional movements as part of a single sequence within a slim time limit. Especially if they are directional movements. (So you can imagine why I don’t fly with fighters.)

This is an issue I’ve had with inputs… forever, and here, it culminated in what I want to call an average 10% chance of input error with one of the game’s core elements. Dashing. 10% of the time when I am supposed to dash straight, and I do a diagonal. 10% of the time when I am supposed to dash diagonally, and I go straight. You might think that sounds really high, and it does. But it at the very least sounds about right, and is compounded by a few instances where that average 10% was an error I made over ten times during a single puzzle.

I could try to blame the fact that I was using the analog stick of an Xbox Series controller, rather than a proper D-pad to do these fixed directional movements, but that’d be wrong. I’ve been playing 2D games with analog sticks for 15 years— like some sort of freak— and these are the controls I’m most comfortable with.

I was bad at understanding the higher level movement mechanics. I was bad at doing the bad inputs. And when combined with a high tolerance for error, I struggled to enjoy the overwhelming majority of my time with Celeste. All of which stings harder than most due to how the game warranted such a glowing reception, and lacks a front-facing reputation of being an exceptionally difficult game.

Knowing this reception, I could not help but foster a sense of bitterness and resentment toward this title. Because I regularly felt as if I was too stupid to appreciate the title in the way a mainstream audience did. I can acknowledge that Celeste is a well made game, but despite its simple mechanics, it has a level of depth that I find to be simply impenetrable.

Part 04: Appreciated Assistance

‘But what about the assist mode?’ Would be a good response to the last section. For those unaware, Celeste features robust accessibility tools labeled under the ‘assist mode’. A series of options that help cater the game to the person’s preferences and accessibility needs through a seamless and intuitive interface. Something that critics and especially accessibility advocates have praised for making Celeste a game that everyone can experience. 

…Which is technically true, but let’s go over the options. The player has the ability to enable an infinite dash and invincibility feature— basically and no clip and god mode. So just about anybody with an appropriate input device can soar through the world and experience what the game has to offer. However, doing so means that players could/would effectively skip past puzzles and not engage with the mechanics on quite the same level they were designed around. 

Other less design altering features are infinite stamina, which lets Madeline grab onto and climb objects without worrying about her invisible stamina meter. Which I used once, because I simply could not understand how the stamina system worked. There’s no gauge, and I still don’t know how much stamina an action uses. 

Then there is dash assist, which pauses the game when the player presses a dash button, letting them manually aim their dash before they actually do it. This was, naturally, a godsend for someone with a 10% chance of error when dashing, but it does sometimes destroy the flow of the puzzle, and disrupt the rhythm the game is built around. That is, unless it is paired with the greatest accessibility tool I have ever seen in a platformer like this. The ability to decrease the game’s speed.

When playing Celeste at 50% speed, everything works pretty much as it does by default, but instead of getting a tenth of a second to do an action, players get a fifth. That makes a world of difference and transforms what would have been prohibitively difficult for me to something that I could realistically perform. I tried to stick to the regular speed unless a puzzle required ‘sufficiently advanced’ timing. But come the fiery antics of chapter 8, I spent most of the game at 50% speed. And come the space sea shenanigans of chapter 9, I kept that setting locked at 50%, because holy crap does chapter 9 demand perfection

Regardless, playing Celeste at 50% speed is like playing a Super Nintendo game with the hardware throttled to induce permanent slowdown. And… I love it.

That all being said, is there a part of me that wishes I tried to complete these challenges without using these assists? 


I don’t play games for any sort of ‘pride and accomplishment’ or any tired guff like that. If I wanted that, I’d build up more professional credentials and write more novels. You know, things actually worth being proud of, or are actual accomplishments. Besides, I’m disabled and have a long-standing history of motor skill issues dating back to when I was, like, four. (I would say documented, but I think all that old stuff has been shredded at this point.) So I have zero qualms about using any sort of accessibility tools like this. They were made for people like me.

It’s thanks to these features that I was able to complete the main story. …Not chapter 9, not any of the Very Hard B-Sides, let alone the Very Hard++ C-Sides. But I snagged all 175 strawberries, which… I have some thoughts about.

Part 05: Picking Strawberries is the POINT of Mountain Climbing

In Celeste, strawberries are a form of collectible that the player primarily earns in two ways. By exploring a part of the environment and following various clues, such as gaps, cracked walls, or unusual geometry. Or by completing alternate challenges, either positioned alongside a required puzzle, or positioned in an optional room. They serve as a means of demonstrating a player’s skill, understanding of the mechanics, and their eye for detail. …But I’m inclined to say that these, like most collectibles, are a bad inclusion. 

At its core, Celeste is a linear story-driven game, and while it has been due course to litter those with collectibles for the sake of ‘replay value,’ playtime bloat, and achievements, they don’t really work here. They are optional challenges, but are so prominent that it feels wrong to miss one when you see it, as it is deliberately ignoring a challenge and a unique part of the game. Choosing to ignore them is tantamount to choosing to ignore a side quest in any game with a quest system. You can do it, but if it is right there and only takes a few minutes… why not just do it? And why even make it optional if it is part of the intended experience?

However, Celeste is also a saucy dog-like child when it comes to hiding these things, and is not above any tactic when it comes to strawberry distribution. Urging players to take leaps of faith, exploit systems that players could otherwise go through the main game without understanding, or ignore the telegraphed correct path in order to explore background elements. But it is at its worst when it hides a strawberry just before the start of a new checkpoint. Throw in the fact that players need to clear a chapter before they get a strawberry checklist and… yeah, this is a game that really pushed me into using a guide to find its collectibles. (Thanks IGN.)

The obvious criticism to this point is to emphasize that these strawberries are optional and you do not actually need to collect them to achieve anything. To which I say, what about the far more elusive and enigmatic crystal hearts and B-Sides required to complete the final two chapters? Added up, those challenges are dramatically harder than collecting every strawberry. So, I’m inclined to say Celeste is just being dishonest when it says players should “Only collect [strawberries] if [they] really want to.” You can just pass them by, but they are easier than content required to unlock the true ending so… why not just grab them all if you are that proficient and dedicated?

Part 06: Gorgeous Gems and Kindergarten Paste

Celeste’s minimalist pixel art style is gorgeous on every level. It does a brilliant job of conveying character details while using about as few pixels as possible. The environments are all colorful, distinct, and beautiful, with every chapter having its own identity. The visual effects, from wind to snow to screen shakes all do a lot to illustrate the extreme level of polish the artists imposed on the game. And the animation of Madeline herself is simply stellar, conveying a level of fluidity and motion that only go to add much to the game on both a visual and mechanical level.

This sprite work is the main visual element of Celeste. But rather than committing itself to be pseudo retro throwback, maintaining the general look while implementing features and effects impossible on older hardware, the game flirts with a lot of other styles. 

Dialog boxes are high resolution 2D artwork with a unique design meant to convey each character’s identity and visual motifs. Character portraits are smooth and cutesy 2D illustrations, but they have choppy speech animations that mirror those seen in early sprite based games… which just looks a bit strange to me. The CGs and in-game photographs feature a different illustrated style that, while displaying excellent shading and color, marks yet another different art style. And the game also has a 3D stage select map with 2D icons that… also don’t really fit any other style.

While I enjoy a deliberately eclectic and messy art style, that’s not quite what we have here, and it just strikes me as bizarrely sloppy in what is otherwise a highly polished title. The same goes for the way the game chooses to center text in its dialog box, which… I’m sorry, but I need to go on a tangent about this. 

Roughly 15% of the dialog box is dedicated to the character portrait, meaning that only 85%, ignoring the percentage allocated to margins, of the box can be used to display text. This should be fine, but rather than aligning dialogue to the left, like most games, Celeste aligns it to the center of the portion of the dialog box to display text. Meaning at the 42.5% or 57.5% point of the dialog box, depending on if the portrait is on the left or right side. It’s an atypical decision, but would be fine in most instances.

However, the dialog boxes themselves sometimes contain border elements that denote what the center (50% point) of the dialog box is. And if you adhere to this border, then text will always look off-center. This problem could just be solved by removing the center element of the border, but the developers decided not to do that. Oh, but that’s only when one line of text is being displayed. When text is on two lines, the game centers the top line of text, and the second line of text is left aligned to the first line. Which… just looks amateurish to me.

I can acknowledge the visual and presentational strengths of this game… but I do think that some of my issues with consistently performing actions had to do with the presentation. Sometimes I just refused to accept that background elements were background elements. Sometimes the excessive vibrant visual information and environmental effects made it hard for me to precisely measure things in a game that demands such a high level of accuracy. The (optional) screen shake is so distracting that I am baffled at how anyone could complete this game using it. My brain was simply incapable of processing the nuance to the hit boxes of the non-Euclidean jagged icicles in what I kept telling myself is a ‘block-based’ 2D platformer.

As for the music… I unintentionally played about 25% of this game without music. I disabled it for the puzzle to get the B-Side cassette in chapter 4 of the game, and did not realize it was disabled until chapter 7. How did I not notice? Well, that is a testament to how detailed and engaging this game’s sound design is, and how much of the game is designed around the rhythm and feel of its audio effects.

I would regret this behavior, but I actually do think that unwanted noises can be a distraction in a game as precision driven as this. Sometimes the game’s score does not really mesh with the pace or tempo required by the stage, because the exact tempo changes with each puzzle. Or to put it in a more simple way. The music and level design, in tandem, kept making me think that Celeste is a rhythm game, when… it’s not.

Part 07: Rolling Down The Mountain

To wrap this all up with a nice TL;DR, I can acknowledge Celeste’s narrative, mechanical, design, and presentational strengths. Its story, while a bit doughy in spots, is both enticing and clearly came from the hearts of its creators. Its gameplay systems are simple, yet used incredibly well in a game that in many ways warrants study and analysis. And though I think the glue holding the presentation together is a bit watery and cheap, all the elements are pretty great.

…But I still never want to touch this game, and wish that I never played it. 

The intense difficulty and challenge never really filled me with the sense of satisfaction I feel it was meant to. While the pixel perfect precision introduced in later sections turned what was a speedy short platformer into one where I began dreading what bullcrap the next challenge would contain. The accessibility features helped a bunch, and helped me reach beyond the first set of credits, but there is a limit to what I can do with these eyes and hands. 

If you loved Celeste, that’s cool, but for me, it served as a harsh reminder that I should probably stick to what I’m good at, and hand in my g-word card.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Kelly Miller

    Yeah, it didn’t take me long into Celeste to realize that although it’s not a death platformer like Eryi’s Action, it is DAMNED close.

    1. Natalie Neumann

      Considering the widespread appeal of this title, it NEVER occurred to me that it would be even close to a ‘death platformer,’ so that assumption definitely shaded my expectations and overall thoughts on this game.