Rapidly propelled to the top of the pantheons of many gamers scattered around the world, Celeste continues to fascinate, enabling an entire community to rally around the game. By distilling an intimate and accurate message through a meticulous construction of each stage of the journey of Madeline, the heroine of this story, this independent project is a jewel of game design, the inexhaustible fuel of analyses as regular as they are varied and pertinent. This modest post will focus on the game’s opening, i.e. its short prologue which, in just a few minutes (or even a handful of seconds for the quickest), dispenses with the essentials of what the Celeste experience as a whole tends to become. This review will be divided into two parts: first, we’ll describe a few of the events that punctuate this introduction; then we’ll get down to deciphering both the pure gameplay mechanics, and the narrative and symbolism associated with them. Put on your warmest parka, slip into your padded boots and wrap a woollen scarf around your neck, as you and I set off on an assault on Mount Celeste.
Please note that this text assumes you have (at least) finished the Celeste prologue. However, references to subsequent levels are regularly included throughout the paragraphs.
The game begins with the most basic form of narration, simple lines of text, which appear over a snow-stained sky. An anonymous narrator speaks directly to Madeline, whose first name appears in red, unlike the other words, which are woven in immaculate white. Seconds later, the avatar launches into the first playable tableau, a screen that already offers some basic but essential information about what Celeste is as a videogame work. First of all, it’s a two-dimensional platform game, based on the character’s mastery of movement, but also on the player’s reflexes, observation, analysis, curiosity and risk-taking. This first screen is traversed from left to right, a convention popularized by the genre’s origins.
Like Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo R&D4, 1985), the first obstacle is not far away. Unlike a small goomba (an enemy creature in the aforementioned game) relentlessly closing in on Mario, Madeline’s initial test takes the form of a simple ravine to jump over. The latter embodies the game’s central movement, the pivot around which all the game’s mechanics revolve. A pair of acrobatics later, a huge boulder detaches itself from the wall forming the backdrop and falls on the protagonist, who owes her survival only to efficient reflexes on the part of those holding the controller. Indeed, releasing the pressure on the directional key or succumbing to the hesitation of making another quick jump are enough to lead the young woman to her death. Having triumphed over these initial setbacks, Madeline reaches the screen’s exit on the right-hand edge.
What does this first contact with the game reveal? First of all, that there will be no enemies during the adventure other than the mountain itself (with a few narratively justified exceptions, but that’s a topic for another post). Here, the adversary is nothing less than Mount Celeste itself, i.e. physical nature, a summit on the metaphorical level, but also a level design on the metatextual level. This hand-crafted construction of the game world, devoid of any random or procedural elements, is implemented by the development team, who decide on the position of each of the various elements that make up the tableaux that punctuate the journey. These guide a learning process stretched out over the course of the adventure, serving to develop the skills of both players and Madeline. Little by little, by surpassing themselves and performing one feat after another, they will progress and eventually come to dominate the gameplay, through the prism of progressing to the top.
In Celeste, the adversary is ultimately oneself. This analytical guideline will be unfolded through the development of Madeline’s character, via various encounters and scripted sequences, which weave a story that tackles the intimate through a certain melancholy. It’s time to move on, to move forward. From left to right, as the game invites you to do from the very first screen. Yet it becomes clear that simple linear progression is not an option, neither in Celeste nor in real life, which explains the position of the exit from the very first screen of the game’s first real level: in the upper right-hand corner, at the top of the image. Later still, the game explodes this convention of linearity by proposing back-and-forth movements, labyrinths and even a fall to symbolize withdrawal. However, it’s still far too early to go into all this, so let’s proceed in order and resume our study of the prologue, the first stage of this long, introspective journey. Before all that, there are still many trials to overcome, including the famous prologue, which already offers a few surprises for the more adventurous. Indeed, if Madeline decides to break with convention and heads left from the very first screen, she may discover her car parked at the foot of the mountain.
As well as referring back to some of the best-known secrets in video game history (such as Sonic the Hedgehog – Sonic Team, SEGA AM8, 1991 – and its extra life hidden to the left of a level’s starting point), this discovery brings with it a dose of environmental storytelling. The vehicle expresses the young woman’s solitude and resolve: she’s come a long way, she’s made the journey alone, and it’s too late to turn back. The mere presence of this car cuts Celeste‘s playground off from the rest of the world. The climb will be a bubble, the only thing to occupy Madeline’s mind and steps. A break from everyday life. Already, a few clues to the protagonist’s torments are presented to the most daring players, using the simple sprite of a car. In the same vein, Madeline’s first steps are greeted by a discreet but nonetheless present sign broken in two, indicating the desolation that will reign beyond the land it marks the boundary of.
The game’s second screen pits Madeline against a cliff, which she can climb by holding down a key. This movement already existed in the previous screen, but is only taught here. However, climbing up the walls of the first panel and exiting the picture from above also leads to another hidden secret, accessible only after a piece of scenery has broken away from the cliff. By falling to the ground, this boulder can serve as a platform, providing access to elements high up on the screen. The mountain’s ambivalence is revealed: if Madeline manages to tame it, Mount Celeste will no longer be an adversary, but an ally. Or, by extension, if the player succeeds in overcoming his or her own flaws and doubts (expressed through learning and mastering the gameplay), he or she will emerge all the better for it: the newly revealed passage is in fact created upwards, that is to say, metaphorically and physically, an elevation. In addition to these two levels of interpretation, it is possible to broaden the spectrum of this analysis and thus reveal the real purpose of the game, to which we’ll return in a few paragraphs. Of course, there’s no real reward in accessing the hidden screen (the game design doesn’t lend itself to this), other than the satisfaction of those who hold the controller in their hands. When you reach this tiny secret zone, a few fledglings displaying a multitude of colours will be able to see you and fly away.
Let’s go back a bit in time, when Madeline was learning the move that would enable her to climb the vertical walls of the set. This technique is revealed to her by a blue bird perched atop a rock face. All the bird does is reveal an ability she possessed without even knowing it. As Madeline climbs, the character’s animation conjures up small white clouds around her, symbolizing the effort involved. After a few seconds, Madeline blinks, then loses her strength and grip on the wall. An endurance gauge, hidden from the player’s view, governs the character’s physical capabilities and thus the distance she can climb. This second movement is therefore an extension of the jump, allowing you to go even higher than a simple leap. After crossing a handful of precipices and climbing as many walls, Madeline triumphs on the second screen. The next screen depicts the meeting between our heroine and the game’s first non-player character, an elderly lady living in a hut at the foot of Mount Celeste.
After a few exchanges, the old lady reveals that if the path to her cabin already looked dangerous, it’s nothing compared to what awaits us next. Then she laughs, her laughter dancing across the screen as the syllables “HA HA” escape her mouth. On the next screen, the last syllables are still audible, but die slowly in the corner of the image as Madeline walks away. Yet this grating echo continues to haunt the character and, by extension, the game’s audience. The old lady’s prophecy is fulfilled sooner than expected, incarnating itself in a gigantic but dilapidated bridge over the void, which inevitably collapses under the character’s footsteps. It’s at this point that a gameplay reality hits the controller holder: Madeline can’t run, her movements are constant and uniform.
The only way to survive and access the rest of the game is to keep moving to the right, jumping when necessary. The music, hitherto extremely gentle, also takes off with a much more dynamic melody and rhythm (a musical movement that will envelop the entire game until the expected explosion on the final climb). At the end of the course, the last stones of the bridge collapse, and Madeline falls into the jaws of the ravine below. At that moment, time stands still, as a familiar blue bird appears on the screen. There, he shares a new skill, a sprint, a rush forward, commonly known as a dash. At the touch of a button on the controller, Madeline can dash through the air, in any of the game’s eight directions (forward, backward, up, down and the four diagonals). The game then waits for the person holding the joystick to activate this first dash before returning to the safety of terra firma. This time, Madeline’s power is revealed – she didn’t have it at the start of the adventure. It’s a third entity that helps her awaken. Then the character catches her breath, and the camera flies away to display, once again, a few sentences. The prologue ends here.
Note: it will be possible to cross the bridge during the game’s epilogue to reach, once again, a hidden screen. The meaning and nature of this last secret will be detailed in a future text, obviously dedicated to this section of the adventure, but it’s useful to assert the existence of an essential theme already: an individual’s strengths lie dormant within him since his first breath, and the real challenge consists in revealing them and then exploiting them wisely.
Unlike the other non-player characters Madeline will meet later, the old lady won’t have a name until the release of the game’s additional content (called Farewell). Instead, the woman is referred to by her function, what she represents, namely being a hermit, who has tamed the mountain and lives in her cabin in the company of her blue bird. The final third of the game will show that she also has a second home, in the heart of the mountain (chapter six), which is of course of significant importance, even if it’s still a little early to talk about it. Here, she plays the role of sage, a facetious sage we might add. Narcissistic, she tickles Madeline’s pride, not only to see if the young woman is ready to continue despite the warnings, but also to force her to surpass herself, by provoking her. It sounds like both a warning and an impulse. The latter takes shape in the form of the dash that the bird reveals to Madeline, as if it were passing on its knowledge to the climber, knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. The blue bird is, in effect, an extension of the old lady, her familiar (a bond reminiscent of that between witches and their totem animals).
The choice to crystallize this animal companion in the form of a bluebird is not insignificant either. The bird is, by nature, free in its movements, it embraces the sky and can fly over Mont without constraint, it knows every nook and cranny. It symbolizes the freedom Madeline seeks to conquer and regain. As for the color blue, it’s a symbol of escape, but also of wisdom and faith, connotations it has perpetuated since the Middle Ages. Blue is also, of course, the color of heaven. In other words, the celestial color. Last but not least, it’s a cold color, in total harmony with the setting of the prologue and summit: snow. Not to mention the fact that it is essentially opposed to warm colors. Warm like, for example, the red of Madeline’s hair, which serves as a visual indicator when using the dash. In this way, content, aesthetics and gameplay are linked in a whirlwind of ideas and concepts that only make the game more coherent, more accomplished and therefore more intense.
In these few minutes, the game design has already revealed everything about the game to come. The prologue’s linear construction indicates that there will be one and only one path to the summit, embodied by a succession of seven levels to be traversed, dominated, and ventured ever higher. The two secret screens accessible from the initial screen illustrate the abundance of mysteries to come, while demonstrating that to see everything in the game, it is necessary to extricate oneself from the main path. The few tamed moves (jumping, climbing and dash) are taught from these first steps, and the rest depends on their gradual mastery. More complex moves, designed in advance by the development team, already exist, but the game only makes their use explicit and reveals their existence in the final levels, as if Madeline already had all the strength she needed to accomplish her undertaking.
The essence of the game’s message is here, in this short prologue, its purpose illustrated by the discovery of Madeline’s upcoming journey, which the audience is about to embark on in her company. Although this is an intimate subject, because it’s specific to the character’s feelings, it’s nonetheless totally universal. It also resonates directly with players’ consciences. In addition to the different forms it takes for each and every one of us, the challenge that Celeste proposes to us through this succession of levels forged in ardent passion is also crystallized in the game’s invitation to surpass oneself through ascent. We’re going to win this test, and the game already knows it. The development team knows we’re going to succeed, and will never stop believing in us.
It’s then that the last words of the prologue appear on the screen, words that perfectly sum up the message carried by the game, the developers, and all those who believe in us and carry us forward every day:
You can do it.