Celeste-ial Game Design

Celeste is a 2D platformer developed and published by Matt Makes Games. It’s available for $20 on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch. This analysis will have significant story spoilers ahead, just to give a warning!

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I wasn’t prepared for how strongly Madeline’s story would resonate with me. For some games, you wonder if a movie would do the story better justice. But in Madeline’s case, this is a story that you need to experience with her instead of just observing. There are two main design choices in Celeste that I feel contribute to this effect: one is the difficulty, and the other is the dash mechanic.

This Mountain is Definitely High Enough

From the very beginning, Celeste shows you that this is a tough game. Each level requires careful planning and even better execution. You are going to fail that jump again, and again… and again. Even with the quick respawn time and generous checkpoints, you are going to feel frustration and doubt about your own abilities. And yet finishing that one level gives you such a sense of achievement. You really overcame a tough obstacle.

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The designers made the wise choice of having your gameplay experience reflect the character’s experience as she climbs the mountain. You end up feeling the very same things, at least to some degree.

Leap of Faith

Next is the dash. This move gives you a brief burst of momentum you use to cross gaps, hurdle obstacles, and avoid hazards. Every time you dash, her hair turns blue and you can’t dash again until you land on solid ground. Through the level design, the designers made sure you keep thinking about this mechanic, as almost every chapter has some variation of it. I’ll include a list of these level gimmicks below:

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The player learns the importance of this move subconsciously over the course of the game. Then, at the end of Chapter 6, Madeline confronts her anxiety and makes peace with it. Now on her side, Madeline’s other half gives her a double dash and a head full of pink hair. Equipped with this new move, she can cross over gaps and leap to heights never thought possible. It makes the trip to the summit a bit of a joyride. That final level was so satisfying, and it was all thanks to this perfect exchange of narrative and gameplay.

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What did you think of Celeste? What parts of its design stood out to you most? If you liked this post, here are some YouTube videos by some awesome people that you will probably enjoy:

“Celeste’s Candid Portrayal of Mental Illness,” by Conjecture:

“How Celeste’s Mirror Temple Creates Fear,” by Daryl Talks Games:

“Breaking Down Level Design in Celeste,” by OK Beast:

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