Greatness from small beginnings.
6 mins // 08DYA18
I love indie games. The idea that a small team, and sometimes even a single person, can tackle and create something so vast, so beautiful, is inspiring regardless of your field or disposition towards video games. Even more amazing is when the game itself turns out to be as charming and full of wonder as Celeste is. Truly, marvelous is the best word I’ve got for it; I haven’t felt this sense of wonder in a game since perhaps FEZ.
Years after indie video games hit the mainstream in the West with Braid, and even longer after the amazing Cave Story redefined the market, Celeste shows that you can still make a standout experience in indie games in 2018. In a market that is often called oversaturated to the point of being impenetrable, Celeste manages to do the impossible. As a 2D pixel-art platformer, no less!
The stroke of brilliance here comes not only from the excellent controls, tightly designed screens, beautiful soundtrack, or lovely graphics. Instead, their great innovation is marrying the gameplay + story itself (solo climbing a mountain) to both the tale of its development and to the struggle of the player against the challenging game. With this innovation, the team at Matt Makes Games has managed to make something that is far more than the sum of its parts.
Celeste got its start as a prototype in the form of a Pico-8 game. Pico-8 is a sort of all-in-one virtual game console. Basically, it’s a piece of software that allows you to create games by writing the code, creating the art, and making the music and sound effects, all inside the system. Not only that, Pico-8 has its own self-imposed limitations, to mimic the limitations imposed by the hardware on consoles like the GameBoy and NES.
In Pico-8, you’re limited to a resolution of 128x128, 16 colors, and a maximum cartridge size of 32k. There are only 2 buttons to be used, and a D-pad. This means all the games on Pico-8 have a recognizable and similar aesthetic.
I’m a fan of imposing limitations and restrictions on yourself, as I feel it often leads you to more innovative and creative work. With these limitations on the Pico-8, it leads to a heavier emphasize on clarity, on using simple game mechanics that can be understood in a second but take the duration of the game to master.
Celeste is a masterclass in this. Most of the game (both the full and Pico-8 versions) is a series of self-contained screens, which function as their own challenges. Designer Matt Thorson said in the Celeste Reddit AMA that he designed the screens that were simple to understand to be difficult to execute, and the screens that are difficult to understand to be simpler to execute.
This clarity in design is essential to Celeste, and a big part of what makes it both so accessible and so challenging. Redheaded main character Madeline stands out strongly against the blue mountain, as do strawberries, the main collectible you can collect for an added challenge. There are stages in which the strawberry is in plain sight, and the challenge lies in finding out how to collect it safely, and other stages in which the collection is easy after finding the straw better hidden.
Like most platforms, the main mechanics at play are movement and a jump, but that’s not all Madeline has in her arsenal. Her defining tool is the dash, which can be used to launch her in one of eight directions and to re-aim her after a leap. In addition to this, she can also wall-jump like Mario or Meatboy, or grab onto walls to hang and climb.
All of these piece together to form a comprehensive movement set that afford a range of ways to interact with the environment, and to accomplish the challenges presented to you. I’m still finding many new ways to piece these moves together. It was only after watching my girlfriend play the first few levels that I realized you could use the dash before the jump, to give your leaps more momentum otherwise limited to fast-moving platforms.
Beyond even her normal moves, each area of the game (ass accessed by the lovely low-poly world screen) has its own mechanic to remix your moves. The first area after the tutorial has space-colored blocks, which can be dashed through and grabbed onto. All of these pieces come together to make each area feel unique and well thought-out, without taking you too far away from the action.
These mechanics are contained in a highly polished and beautiful package, on par with any piss-bottling solo developer’s passion project (at a fraction of the dev time!) The love and care put into all the sprites, the map screen, the satisfying chimes and jingles when you complete a stage or collect a strawberry can be felt and experienced.
The score by Lena Raine is one of the finest I’ve heard in a game. Seriously. It goes from chiptune, to electronic, to breakbeat, and everywhere in between. It both pulls you into the task at hand, and draws you beyond the screen to wonder about what lies ahead. It’s joined my roster along with scores like the ones from FEZ and Sword & Sworcery as something I think I’ll be listening to for a long time. I’m listening to it right now.
Celeste is a game that gets stuck in your head. There are mysteries and moments of intrigue and beauty. There’s intense challenges, but only as far as you want to push yourself. If you just want to play the game, but aren’t able to execute what it asks, or don’t want the stress, they’ve graciously included an "assist mode", which is handled so thoughtfully and respectfully I’m not sure anyone else could do it better.
Good that it’s there, too: this game is hard. Not crushingly so, but if you choose to go for 100% completion, the game will make you work for it. Some of the strawberries seem to be within your reach but require patience and time. I quickly had to abandon my “not skipping anything” strategy to opt to come back again and again. In addition to the main game, there are side levels that exist to test your mastery of the mechanics.
I had a pretty good suspicion this game would be good. I had played the Pico-8 version and loved it, and watched the game blossom via the social media of the team at Matt Makes Games bring it to fruition. What I didn’t expect was how good. Or how well they would leverage each piece of the puzzle to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
Take the story for example. By now, most Mario games forgo this convention, unable to find a compelling reason to go through the gauntlet of Bowser’s design other than to rescue the princess. I would generally consider myself a game-purist; game design and mechanics above all else. Stories are just window dressing.
How good it feels to be wrong.
Somehow, the team infused a platformer with a story that not only compliments the game play, but resonates beyond the game. It has stakes, twist, real-world complications, and helps you empathize with Madeline. I’ll leave out most narrative details, but suffice to say I think it is supremely well done.
At the end of the day, I don’t often remember the specifics of games. I don’t know how many screens I’ll remember from Celeste a few years from now. I remember the feeling, how it feels to play a game, to hear the music, to complete the challenges presented. Most of all, I remember the feeling it brings up inside me, be it a sense of cleverness, or of power, or sadness, or fun. Celeste has all these things.
By stripping down to the essentials, Celeste manages to fill the gaps in with mystery and wonder. There are no loading screens listing the buttons. There is only you and the challenge, the boundaries between you and the game as thin as possible. Somehow I found myself more immersed in a pixel art platformer than even the fanciest first person game AAA can muster.
A few years from now, I won’t remember collecting strawberry #24, but I will remember birds on a balcony, shooting apart in a starburst, in front of a satellite dish.