What a game Celeste is. It’s barely been out a week and already you can find close to a hundred editorials singing its praises. Players and critics have praised the game for its incredibly competent platforming mechanics as well as its charming artstyle and soundtrack. The game has also been celebrated for its accessibility options, allowing players to tweak the speed, challenge and overall feel in order to make it a little easier for themselves. As well as these surface-level achievements the game also manages to hide a rather compelling story revolving around mental illness. It is here that the game most interests me, not for its subject matter per se, but for the message it leaves once the credits roll. That message is the polar opposite to the one most games offer related to mental health. That message, as simple as it is, is so often left out of the conversation and that is that it is possible to manage, live with and survive mental illness, a happy ending is on the cards.
The way video games treat mental illness is largely a mixed bag but is getting noticeably better as the years go by. Previously relegated to being a scare-tactic or gimmick, psychosis is now being explored in ways which add something meaningful to the overall conversation. Horror games in particular have used this trait as a gameplay mechanic, showing characters going insane, often becoming murderers. Game’s like Life is Strange, Absolute Sunlight, Depression Quest and Hellblade are recent examples of how the industry’s approach to mental illness as a theme is changing, we’re finally growing up. While there are plenty of games which portray mental illness in a realistic way, almost every single one comes with some warning flags. Depression is ugly, anxiety-vile, so it is not surprising that games which revolve around these themes tend to focus on the decline that a person suffering faces. Most games follow a character on a downward path, which I’d like to make clear is still absolutely an important facet to show. Problem is, there are very few games that show the other side, the side of those who tame and manage their demons. On finishing Celeste it struck me just how few games, movies, experiences there are that offer a safe space to analyse the act of coping with depression or anxiety. I recently found myself switching off and subsequently bailing on the Netflix show End of the F***ing World. It’s not that I disliked its portrayal of things like self harm and depersonalisation, it was that watching a show so embedded with these themes caused me to relive a lot of things I wasn’t ready to face. Sometimes just seeing people face these issues can trigger suicidal thoughts in those who are going through the same thing.
Of course I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t play games or watch TV shows which contain this type of content if you are mentally ill, I just wish there were more experiences which showed any kind of recovery. I do believe however that watching a show in which a character with depression slowly loses their grip and becomes suicidal is not the best viewing for a suicidal person.There is a recent trend for films and TV shows to focus on psychopathic male protagonists, sexualise them even. This worrying trend of using mental illness as an interesting character trait to add flavour is detrimental to say the least and ultimately ends up romanticising illness. I am glad that games seem to be a little more realistic in their portrayals, even if it’s mostly indies doing so.
Celeste is no less a comment on Mental illness than any of the games I’ve mentioned before, it just portrays an inherently more accessible and safe way of experiencing it. The game consistently encourages you to go on, reminding you that failing doesn’t mean anything and that you don’t even have to go for the collectables if you don’t want to. The main character Maddie goes through a character arc in which she learns to talk to and eventually work with the negative version of her. This dark Maddie is abusive, manipulative and mean in the early stages of the game but quickly Maddie realises just how much she needs her, as after all is said and done she is a part of her. This mirrors something which every single person struggling with depression and anxiety has to accept eventually. The fact that you will never truly be without your illness, it will come and go like the seasons but trying to cut it out completely will simply make things worse. Upon realising this Maddie gains new abilities which allow her to conquer challenges she previously couldn’t. As someone who has accepted and learned to work with my anxiety this resonates massively with some of my experiences. When you’re at your worst, battling and rebelling against your own mind, even the simplest of tasks like getting out of bed can feel impossible. Learning coping mechanisms like the feather breathing technique used in the game can help you overcome these seemingly small but no less important milestones.
The game’s attitude towards the player goes a long way in putting its message of self-help across. In Celeste you die a lot, I actually died 1824 times in total. Not once does it mock you or punish you, instead placing you back to where you fell and allowing you to try again. There are no tricks, not a hint of sarcasm or ill-intent, just the gentle nudge of a game which wants you to succeed. I think why this felt so special is because, since games were first introduced, there has always been a player vs. game mentality. Games are supposed to be challenges to overcome and beat. Celeste throws out this notion entirely, choosing to work with the player instead.
I’m not sure if the assist options would give enough leeway to allow it but I really do wonder about the game’s potential for teaching young children to deal with mental illness. It’s a simple enough story at its heart, a girl trying to climb a mountain, but the message that you have to learn to live with EVERY part of you, even the bad parts is an invaluable one. It’s rare that a story about mental illness is even at all suitable to show a child, solidifying the need for more positive experiences like these. This game, unlike many others, features no warning label, nor should it. It weaves its message on mental health into its characters, its gameplay even in a way which doesn’t beat you over the head.
Despite its simplicity, Celeste manages to solidify what can be a hard truth to learn. Things can and do get better for people suffering from mental illness and practising self-acceptance and coping techniques go a long way towards a manageable existence. While I am pleased that there are games which show the very real ugliness and hopelessness that depression and anxiety can cause, I’m also pleased to have experienced this tale of a young woman who manages to thrive in spite of them.
You can check out our review of Celeste here but do make sure you give it a try yourself as it is easily one of the greatest platformers ever made.
If you’re suffering from mental illness and would like resources and advise to help you through it, check out mind.co.uk