|

Climbing the Mountain Because It's... Wait, Where Is It Again?

For me, a lot of Celeste’s difficulty felt unintentional.

First, some background about me: I have a terrible sense of direction. It’s hard for me to build mental maps of areas and to visualize where locations and landmarks are in relation to each other - and thus to figure out how to get from one place to another.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, I was once asked for directions to a building that was literally next door to where we were standing. I pointed in the wrong direction. This is not an atypical example.

I rely heavily on GPS navigation. Even if I’m traveling between familiar locations and it should in principle be easy to figure out how to get from one to the other, if I haven’t already memorized that specific route I need the map on my phone to guide me. Without it, I will make wrong turns, and even when I make the right ones I’ll anxiously second-guess myself the whole time.

In games, I’m the same way. I roll my eyes when I see someone complain about how games don’t let the player get lost anymore because they’ve never stopped letting me get lost. If a game is nonlinear, I need a map. And even in games that have maps, all too often it’s some semi-abstract not-to-scale low-detail representation that barely helps. (Like, here’s the map from 2008’s Prince of Persia.) I generally can eventually puzzle out how to get where I’m trying to go, but it’s stressful and difficult in a way that isn’t fun and isn’t the interesting part of the game. If I have to do more than a little of that, it can easily render the entire game just plain not worth playing for me. Whereas a good map allows me to offload that mental work and actually enjoy the game.

Because maps are so inconsistent across games, this can result in some really frustrating experiences where I’m drawn to an interesting-looking game, have a good time at first, and then realize the areas are becoming larger and more complex and there isn’t a good map. The game thus becomes more and more work to play - not challenge but work - and I have to decide whether to abandon it or suffer through (and probably abandon it later if the trend continues). Metroidvanias are especially dangerous for me - by the time I get the Ice Armor or whatever, I have no idea how to get back to the Ice Cave or whatever, and if there isn’t a good map then I have to spend a lot of time in a tedious hunt or put the controller down and try to look it up online. A few Metroidvanias have really good maps - SteamWorld Dig 2 has a fantastic one and showed me that I actually can enjoy Metroidvanias if I’m not constantly getting lost. But enough of them don’t that in practice, I just have to write off most of the genre - very few games advertise themselves on the quality of their maps and it’s just not worth my time to try out Metroidvanias and hope they have good maps.

Okay, back to Celeste.

Celeste is a game about overcoming challenge for the sake of it. (It’s a little like Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy in that way.) Player character Madeline is climbing Mount Celeste - an unnecessary and very difficult task - to prove to herself that she can. This is presented to the player as a series of precision-platforming challenges, similar to Super Meat Boy with more abilities and mechanics. It’s divided into discrete rectangular areas, starting out as one screen in size and becoming larger as you go. Each such area can be thought of as a “level” - you enter at one point, traverse the level’s platforming challenges to reach an exit point, and then transition to the next adjacent level’s entrance point.

However, it’s only mostly linear. Some levels have multiple exits and/or multiple entrances. Sometimes this is just for greater interconnectedness in a region, sometimes it’s to enable multiple objectives that can be completed in varying order, and sometimes it’s just for optional offshoot levels with extra challenges and collectibles. But even in that latter case, it’s not always clear which exit leads to an optional offshoot and which leads forward. Fairly early in the game, I found myself in a level with two exits, neither of which was clearly the “correct” one - and when I chose one, it turned out to be a one-way door and I couldn’t go back and try the other. Since an earlier area had put one of the game’s rare dialog-laden character-revealing scenes in an optional offshoot level this was quite aggravating and I just had to hope all I’d missed this time was a collectible.

Despite not being a Metroidvania, Celeste has a setup that could absolutely support a Super Metroid-like grid-based map. This would be especially useful when returning to chapters to find the collectibles you missed before. Yet… there isn’t a map. At all. (The game does have a thing that it calls a map, but it’s actually a chapter select menu.)

Now, I read a lot of essays and watched a lot of videos about Celeste before playing it. And I had no idea going in that it wasn’t fully linear. Nobody talks about this. Everyone talks about the platforming challenges and the Assist Mode that tweaks the platforming challenges. It seems very clear that the game’s interesting challenge is supposed to be the platforming within levels - not finding your way between levels. The latter aspect hasn’t even warranted a mention anywhere that I’ve seen.

But when I realized the game had nonlinear paths with one-way doors and there was no map, I was tempted to immediately abandon the game because it was going to be too hard and no fun to play. I wouldn’t be able to focus on the platforming challenges because I’d have to spend too much mental energy trying to build a model of the layout between levels and hold it in my head with no in-game assistance and miss out on content when I messed up. I’d be stressed out the entire time about something that not only isn’t the point of the game but that nobody even seems to acknowledge is a part of it.

Ultimately, I got through it. But to do that, I had to stop myself from trying to build a mental map. I had to stop caring about collectibles. I had to stop caring about exploring the world. I had to tell myself I didn’t mind if I missed content or optional challenges. In other words - I had to disengage with parts of the game that actually are important and interesting. I finished with a very low strawberry count and zero interest in going back to find the ones I’d missed, let alone the crystal hearts or whatever I’d need to unlock the post-game chapters.

I just can’t imagine this was developer Matt Thorson’s intent. The game is so clearly about overcoming the platforming challenges, and being accessible and tweakable enough that virtually any player can do so with high-but-surmountable difficulty. The only way this makes sense to me is if it genuinely didn’t occur to him that he was creating this other, less interesting, less surmountable source of difficulty along the way. And given that nobody I saw talk about this game mentioned it either (not to mention the sheer number of intelligent folks I’ve seen straight-facedly tell people they should turn off HUDs and navigational aides to better enjoy their games (which to me is like telling someone with a hearing impairment to turn off subtitles to better enjoy the dialog)), he’s far from alone in this. I have to conclude that players with senses of direction as poor as mine are exceedingly rare, or at least unknown. So, I can’t complain too much about not being catered to.

Still, Matt Thorson clearly wanted just about everyone to be able to enjoy Celeste; I for one would have been much more able to do so if it’d been linear or had a map.