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Assist Mode is great; I’d like a Forgive Mode too.

I applaud the intent behind Celeste’s Assist Mode that allows for tweaking aspects of the game and lets players of varying skill level and physical capability enjoy overcoming an appropriate challenge. And I hate to come across as complaining about it. But the fact is that Celeste is a game that I found very frustrating and I wasn’t able to fix that with Assist Mode - because Assist Mode doesn’t let you tune punishment.

Celeste is a precision platformer. You have a set of abilities: running, jumping, wall-jumping, wall-climbing, and an air dash. Some abilities are limited and get refreshed by standing on solid ground. You must use these tools to get through a series of platforming challenges in varied environments with their own varied mechanics, such as platforms that move when you air dash or midair gems that replenish your abilities without you needing to land.

Most challenges in Celeste really have two parts: the puzzle of figuring out how to use your limited abilities and the particular environment to navigate each obstacle course, and then actually executing your solution with precise timing and positioning. To use my own terminology, this is a tactical challenge (figuring out what to do) followed by an action challenge (doing it). They are difficult in different ways and can separately be interesting/dull or hard/easy to individual players.

This is risky, because it means a player has to enjoy and be sufficiently competent at both the tactical and the action challenges in order to enjoy and progress through the game. Someone who likes charting a path through each screen but then lacks the reflexes to actually follow that path is not going to have a good time.

Ah, but here’s where the Assist Mode options come in, right? Well, sort of. Assist Mode allows for the following options:

  • Game Speed. Defaults to “100%” for normal speed; you can decrease it to “90%”, “80%”, “70%”, “60%”, or “50%”.
  • Infinite Stamina. Defaults to “OFF”, you can set it to “ON” and then you can wall-climb or wall-jump forever without needing to land.
  • Air Dashes. Defaults to “Default”, which usually means you can only air dash once without landing (or hitting a mid-air gem, etc.). You can also set it to “2” for two air dashes without landing, or “Infinite” to allow endless air dashing.
  • Invincibility. Defaults to “OFF”, which leaves you vulnerable to hazards. You can set it to “ON” which allows you to walk right through hazards and bounce right out of bottomless pits.

There’s quite a mix here, targeting different kinds of challenge. Slowing down the game speed effectively increases the player’s reaction speed and improves their ability to position and time things precisely - this makes the action challenge easier. Meanwhile, the limits on stamina and air dashes and the failure mode of hitting an obstacle or falling into a pit are part of the tactical puzzle. Loosening these changes the parameters of the puzzle and makes the tactical challenge easier - though in kind of a ham-fisted way. Some puzzles are easier if you loosen or remove one of the constraints; others are just no longer puzzles.

(There’s also a Chapter Skip option that I don’t really understand. Like, I guess I’d rather it be there than not, but I have trouble imagining who would use it. It’s not like skipping a terrible vehicle section in a shooter - every chapter is based around precision platforming, so if you don’t like it or can’t do it in one chapter you probably won’t have a different experience in the next. Additionally, story and dialog scenes happen within chapters, so if you’re playing for that or to explore the world, skipping chapters will actually prevent you from getting what you came for. I’d much rather have an option to skip individual rooms within a chapter, so that you can bypass specific problematic challenges and still see the world and story.)

With all these options, it seems like just about anyone could manage to finish Celeste one way or another. But that doesn’t mean they can make it enjoyable to play.

For my part - I liked the tactical puzzle of figuring out how to use my abilities to navigate each room. And at first, I found it satisfying to put my solutions into action. But just like Super Meat Boy, death resets you to the beginning of the current level, which is a very small amount of punishment in the early short levels and a much higher amount in later long levels. Even when there’s solid ground you can safely pause on in between challenges, death always takes you back to the very beginning of the level. There are (usually) no mid-level checkpoints, like ‘Splosion Man on Hardcore. I got sick of making it through a series of discrete challenges only to be off by a few pixels on a jump late in the level and having to start all over.

So after getting through the first couple of chapters without Assist Mode, I turned it on. What I wanted was an option to make death reset you to the last solid ground instead of the beginning of the level, but this wasn’t there. There’s no option to reduce punishment, unless you count invincibility which removes failure entirely. So what I started doing was - when I died late in a level, I’d turn invincibility on, get back to the last solid ground before I’d died, turn invincibility off, and try again.

That worked for a while, but I started getting tired of going back to the menu to toggle the option, and finally I just left it on. Once I’d crossed that line, the tactical puzzles became less compelling too, since there was no longer a constraint of true failure. So it made less and less sense to still obey the other constraints, and by the game’s halfway point I was invincibly air dashing through each level just to see the world and the story.

Now, this might sound like I ruined the game for myself, but I don’t really think that’s true. It’s closer to true to say that I wasn’t able to fully save the game for myself. Once the game’s strictness and punishment combo meant that I found it more frustrating than satisfying, I wanted to quit. Unlike the game’s player character, I had nothing to prove and saw no reason to waste my time suffering through the game.

For most games, that would have been the end of it, and if I were dead-set on seeing the story I would have just watched a Let’s Play. But with Celeste, Assist Mode gave me another option. I was able to finish the story out that way instead. But it wasn’t much better than a Let’s Play. I couldn’t remove just the parts of the design I found frustrating without removing most of what made it a game at all.

I’d be interested to hear from someone who found vanilla Celeste unenjoyable but for whom Assist Mode made it a good game. I’m sure such players are out there. But I wasn’t one of them. Not because of challenge, but because of punishment.