Being a human being is hard. There is no right way to do it, and yet all of us have to struggle with figuring out what to do in our dumb meat bag bodies for the cosmic blink of time we get on the only planet (potentially anywhere) with some intelligent life.
For many of us, video games are a convenient answer. They’re fun, abundant, affordable, and some of them aspire to be impactful pieces of art. They don’t always do a great job of speaking to the human condition, though. In fact, many games thrive by offering us an escape from the human condition.
But what if there was a game that was not only a great deal of distracting, immersive fun that also gave us insight into what it means to be human and grapple with the big questions of whether or not we’re doing it right?
Celeste is a treacherous 2D platformer designed, directed, and written by Maddy Thorson that became a breakout hit in 2018. The story follows Madeline, a young woman who has decided, for her own reasons, to climb to the summit of Mt. Celeste. She runs into a number of memorable characters in her journey, and also one notable villain — Badeline. Badeline is a shadow version of Madeline, a manifestation of her inner demons of anxiety and depression that Madeline must battle against as she climbs higher and higher. Madeline’s struggle against Badeline is extremely relatable to anyone who has ever doubted themselves (e.g. everyone).
Celeste succeeds on a gameplay level by being perfectly balanced in its difficulty and techniques. It’s favorably compared to Super Meat Boy as one of the best (some say THE best) 2D-platformer of all time. Madeline is a delight to control. Movement is responsive and fluid and fair, a tall order for platformers. You never feel like the game gets cheap or sneaky, every challenge inevitably reveals itself as possible and the surge of pride you feel after navigating a difficult passage happens again and again and again.
But what takes Celeste beyond good into great is the seamless way it blends its storytelling with the game’s progression in a genre not known for delicate or complex stories. Madeline’s struggle is easy to identify with because it deals with our commonalities, the kinds of things we wrestle with at the core of who we are. I can count on one hand the number of times video games have made me cry, and Celeste would take up two of my fingers.
The human element of the story is due to its connection to a very personal journey for creator Maddy Thorson who used a blog post last November to confirm what many had long suspected - Madeline’s journey in Celeste was influenced by Thorson’s experience as a trans woman. They explain in the post that the story in Celeste was “unknowingly written from a trans perspective” due to Thorson still believing they were cis-gender during production despite being “waist-deep in gender feelings (and other anxieties).” Thorson explains that, due to the benefit of hindsight, fans should consider Madeline canonically trans even though this isn’t overtly referenced in the game, aside from a brief glimpse of a trans rights flag during a cutscene.
Because the human condition also includes a considerable amount of jerks, there have been gamers who take issue with Madeline’s story in-game and Thorson’s story in real life. Thorson correctly argues that if you felt a connection during Celeste that is somehow ruined by the fact that three years later the character is recognized as trans then you have some transphobic shit to work out on your own. For the non-jerks of the world, Celeste offers a touching and intimate portrayal of humanity at its most honest.
“If you’re a cis person and you personally relate to Madeline, you shouldn’t feel like we pulled one over on you,” Thorson writes in the post. “Instead, you could take this as evidence that trans and cis feelings aren’t so different, that the chasm between transness and cisness isn’t such a wide gulf, and that most of the ways that trans existence is alien to you are the result of unjust social othering and oppression.”
It’s hard to argue that there’s a better game out there to celebrate during Pride Month, let alone one that’s also available in the Xbox Game Pass library. Celeste is available now on Game Pass, as well as for sale on PC, PS4, and Switch.