Spoilers for Celeste below
Muhammad Ali once said, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
The game Celeste, is filled with these pebbles: a mis-timed jump, a boost used too early, a ledge you held onto for too long until Madeline, the game’s protagonist, falls to her doom. She hits the spikes—boom—and you start over try again. And again. And again.
Obviously, in real life a fall into a spike pit is a bit more permanent. But that feeling of trying to cross an impossible gap or climb an impossible mountain is all to familiar to people who live with mental illness. It’s very fitting, then, that Celeste is a game about climbing that mountain, and despite all the slips and missteps and mistakes, picking yourself up and trying again. More than that, however, is that Celeste is about accepting parts of yourself that may seem negative, rather than fighting them.
The worrying life
When I was a kid, I worried about everything. As an easily frightened child with an overactive imagination, my fears and worries ranged from everything to the minute (ghosts and vampires) to the cosmic (black holes and meteors).
Around the time I was in Junior High school, these anxieties became obsessive. They only escalated as time went on. I was plagued by dark thoughts, and sometimes they would get so bad that I felt like I couldn’t get rid of them. They would latch onto my brain and every time I tried to fight them off, they just came back stronger. Sometimes I would obsess over a single worry or thought for months, and would wrack my brain trying to find ways of “proving” these thoughts were wrong. I would sometimes fall into a depression because of this.
If this seems vague, it’s because I don’t want to share these thoughts.
When I was a teen, I would imagine that one day I would grow up and all this anxiety, obsession and depression would go away. I thought it was a part of me that I had to get rid of, and that it would either die off or I would find a way to kill it.
“This mountain is a strange place”
Celeste is a game without a traditional antagonist.
Very early on in the game, Madeline comes across a mirror that shows a dark reflection of herself. This dark part of her breaks free and proceeds to antagonize her and taunt her as she continues her climb. She’s a manifestation of all of Madeline’s cynicism, doubts, anxieties –all the parts of her she feels is holding her back.
Yet Celeste does something unexpected: this dark part of Madeline is not the antagonist of the story. At first she may seem like it, especially when she’s chasing you or tossing fire at you. But as Madeline continues her climb, she reaches a point where she realizes that this dark manifestation is part of her. When Madeline says, “You’re a part of me that I need to let go”, the dark part of her becomes enraged and Madeline plummets deep into the mountain’s caves.
In the game, the only real antagonist is Madeline herself. She is never really sure why she wants to climb this mountain, only that she feels she’ll find some closure by doing so. And when she falls into the mountain’s caves, she realizes that the only way she can climb this mountain is to face the dark part of her self, and find a way for the two of them to understand and accept each other.
When I was 23 years old I was hit with the worst bout of anxiety and depression that I’d ever encountered. And it was then that I realized that I wasn’t going to outgrow my mental issues the way I thought I would as a teenager. I wasn’t going to just grow up and leave all the anxiety and depression behind. I tried medication, but that just ended up making it worse.
Around this time, I had started taking steps to manage my anxiety. I started practicing mindfulness and facing my problems more directly rather than suppressing them. Part of it was a spiritual issue, so I took steps to learn more about my religion. It was a difficult time in my life. In fact, anxiety and depression have been difficult things to deal with my whole life. One of the most important lessons I ever learned, though, was that trying to fight your mental issues—be it anxiety, depression or intrusive thoughts—is actually counterproductive. Sometimes it just makes those feelings stronger.
But looking back, I’m glad that I lived with all this anxiety. Not because it’s pleasant in and of itself, but because the journey it forced me to go on helped me to understand myself better.
One of the most surprising pieces of advice I heard is to thank your anxiety. It’s just your mind trying to protect you from harm, but for whatever reason it goes into overdrive. So you simply tell your anxiety, “thank you, but I got this”. You acknowledge it and listen to it, instead of fight it, but reassure yourself that you are going to be ok.
Reaching the peak
At the end of Celeste, Madeline accepts this part of herself and literally embraces it. Through that acceptance, she gains new abilities that help her to finally climb to the mountain’s summit. I failed a lot in my playthrough of Celeste. But the game was designed to encourage you to keep on trying, and even if you activate the games Assist Mode, it never judges you or penalizes you for doing so. It’s as if the developers were trying to tell us that some people need more help in climbing their mountains and facing parts of themselves that they’d otherwise try to hide, and that there’s no shame in that.
Celeste faces the issue of mental health with a surprising amount of depth and honesty that I didn’t expect to see from a video game. Instead of the age-old message of “defeat your inner demons”, Celeste instead challenges us to evaluate ourselves—especially the negative parts—and learn to accept them. It’s no coincidence that Madeline calls the dark version of her “Part of Me”. It’s a far more hopeful and relevant message in a time where mental health is becoming more and more understood.
No matter how long the journey, no matter how hard the obstacles—no matter how many pebbles try to wear you down—you can make it to the top if you accept every part of yourself, no matter how many times you fall.
Not to mention it just feels so good when you finally nail that perfect run.