The Unusual Kindness of Celeste
Redefining the emotional capacity of the “masocore” genre
Published on April 14, 2018
(This article contains general spoilers for Celeste)
About 20 minutes into this single stage alone and I’ve died 153 times. The character death animation isn’t gratuitous; your character touches an environmental hazard, and the sprite disappears in place of some circles radiating out from a center point. My fingers are acting funny. I’m reminded of my frustrating moments playing the alto saxophone in high school. After a few hours of butting my head up against a piece, the nerves controlling my hand movement started to lose any intelligence that they may have been building towards. But playing Celeste is a much more independent experience than practicing the saxophone — my successes and failures are experienced only by me, as opposed to my parents and whoever else was in the house to face the consequences of my practice.
As the player, I have 7 input keys. Besides the directional buttons, I can make the protagonist, Madeline, jump, cling, or dash. These actions comprise the core verbs of Matt Makes Games’ Celeste. Released in January, Celeste’s gameplay exists in a newly coined genre — Masocore. The label is a barely cute portmanteau of masochism and hardcore. On Giantbomb.com, Masocore page editor Beachthunder describes that “through trial and error gameplay, complex game mechanics and intense difficulty, Masocore games are specifically designed to frustrate players over and over again.”
The guts of the Masocore genre are not new. Developers combine the hyper-difficulty of the arcade and NES era, where games were made difficult to suck quarters out of gamers or to artificially elongate experiences, with polished gameplay loops that tread well-worn territory. The non-originality of hyper-difficulty in video games and familiar mechanics require developers to create a world whose existence somehow warrants the frustration it will inevitably bring to players. We can look at the universe of Hotline Miami as an unremarkable example: a hyperviolent, surrealist reality that embraces meaningless violence while standing on the ledge of critiquing it. The game packages bloody dread and scattershot cynicism in neon wrapping paper. The punchline of Masocore is postmodern and masculine in delivery: you hate yourself and enjoy pain. Have fun.
The handful characters that appear in Celeste live in a world of magical realism, the Latin-American literary tradition that lets supernatural elements co-exist with the world we know. While the protagonist, Madeline, traverses hundreds of stages with the typical unrealistic agility found in pixel-art platformers, she also explicitly speaks about her struggles with alcoholism and anxiety. A selfie-obsessed traveler you encounter has a sister that’s going to school to be a civil rights lawyer — and also gets stuck in a magical mirror dimension.
This half in, half out approach to reality grounding brings to mind two of 2017’s best releases: Night in the Woods and Dream Daddy. Night in the Woods’ protagonist, Mae, actually bears similarities to Celeste’s Madeline: young women at crossroads in their lives, not where they planned to be, running from and confronting mental illnesses that haunt them. Mae interacts with a community that she’s known all her life of fellow anthropomorphic animals in an economically emaciated Appalachian community. Madeline’s interactions are wildly more sparse. Through the eyes of Madeline, the only people you interact with for a large part of the game are off-kilter, two-dimensional weirdos. A ghostly innkeeper, a cruel old lady, and some other random hiker who probably you’re not trying to bond with.
Game Grumps’ Dream Daddy stacks its non-player character introductions early on in a similar way, teasing the player with a quick interaction starring a goth fanfic loving Daddy next to a vignette of a coffee-shop-owning indie-music Daddy in his natural habitat. All seven dads can be described in similarly pithy ways and the game tasks the player with answering why each dad is so much more than their short descriptions.
Neither Dream Daddy nor Celeste judges their protagonists for the shallow ways they first see others around them. Being kind means giving people time to grow and flourish into how they want to be seen. But it also means giving people time to let their defenses down, to be open enough to let people in as their fully formed selves and not just their 2D facades. Sure enough, your handful of acquaintances in Celeste become a diverse network of support and friendship — a touchstone for this moment in life.
In a 2017 talk given at Indiesummit, Dream Daddy Co-Creator Leighton Grey pushed developers to “write diverse character, represent diverse groups of people, include people, don’t write humor that punches down.” This talk on the art/philosophy movement of meta-modernism has a permeating theme of creating authentic and non-alienating engagement with an audience. Celeste’s way of creating this authentic relationship is by constantly showing the player that it cares. In doing so, it redefines the emotional capacity of its genre.
Early in the game, a loading screen in Celeste communicates to the player that it’s not going to reward you for picking up every strawberry you see. Strawberries, the collectibles of the game, are liberally dispersed in hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. Celeste doesn’t hold up a veil to the challenge it presents. It clearly communicates “if this is something that you find enjoyable, do it. If not, that’s okay because it’s all the same to us.” In another loading screen a few hours later, you are told that most falls happen from exhaustion, and that taking breaks is good. This double entendre, referencing a mechanic where Madeline will start to slip if she’s made to grip on to a surface for too long, serves as a gentle nudge for the player to be conscious of how to healthily play video games.
The moments that serve as Celeste’s emotional peaks seem ripped off the pages of a therapist’s workbook:
A companion directs you how to focus on a single feather to get a panic attack under control.
Chasing down a shadow version of yourself who embodies all of the darker parts of your mind, you lessen her destructive capability by embracing her.
You play through these sequences, and by the way, they’re really hard to get through. Celeste’s thesis is that self-inflicted harm doesn’t need to be embraced to contextualize pain for the player. Things should get easier as you struggle. When it does find moments of levity and humor, while self-critical, these moments never punch down to vulnerable characters. It finds ways to acknowledge that challenges can feel super rewarding, but a healthy life is defined by the nuances we use when selecting which hardships we will undertake and why.
When I booted up Celeste today, I found out my file had been corrupted. It was a serious bummer, as I had started on collecting some of the bonuses in the game. I deleted the corrupted file and started a new save. Familiar early game levels weren’t acknowledging that I had already conquered them. I was messing up on the same jumps I had last time I played this section. But that’s okay. Things were slowly getting more manageable and this time around I knew I wouldn’t be alone in my journey.