The Mountains We Make: Celeste and Mental Health

Opinion by Sam Quirke,
Caution: Spoilers for Celeste ahead — along with minor spoilers for Life is Strange, What Remains of Edith Finch and Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice.

Beneath the noise of the latest video game-related scandal on social media, I believe games as a storytelling medium are maturing rapidly. Challenging themes that would have been brushed into the corners of the Steam marketplace even two or three years ago are enjoying the spotlight. This is thanks to competent developers, trusting publishers and a gaming public more willing to expand their horizons.

One of the more noticeable trends in recent years has been video games' relationship with mental health. Where we once had to defend our industry against the notion that playing a game was turning our brains into mush, we now find that video games are breaking ground where other mediums cannot. These meaningful expressions of mental health are important touchstones, but they're also unanimously stories of extremes.

ScreensIf this screen is familiar to you, you'll know what I mean.

The easiest stories to convey to a mass audience are the most dramatic, where the protagonists face the highest of stakes. If a storyteller wants to focus on mental health, it's understandable that they may take a character's mental illness to as critical a conclusion as possible — to make sure they are hitting those narrative peaks for the strongest impact. Thus Life is Strange's themes around depression are tangled up in the trappings of horrific trauma, abuse and murder. Edith Finch is fundamentally about death; it has a harrowing and incredible depiction of mental health in one of its segments, but it can only lead to a fatal conclusion. Perhaps the most talked-about recent game when it comes to depictions of mental health is Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. It's an incredible dissection of the experience of psychosis, but it's an extreme mental illness ramped up to a spectacular, horrifying degree.

What we see less of, in any medium, is the depiction of mental health conditions of the everyday. Chronic depression and anxiety affect so many of us, and yet it doesn't really get the exposure it needs in conversation until the sufferer takes a turn towards the extreme ends: destroyed relationships, abuse, suicide. I suffer from these conditions myself and it's a lot more nuanced and mutable than most fiction would have us believe. Often it's simply a case of surviving as best we can, day to day. I would love to see more games address this aspect of everyday depression and anxiety without resorting to the usual Hollywood pathway from trauma to self-destruction — or worse, a definitive moment of being "cured" that doesn't actually exist.

This is why I fell utterly in love with Matt Makes Games' Celeste. Beneath this challenging and pretty pixel art platformer lies a genuine and honest understanding of anxiety and depression, the way it manifests and the ways in which we might manage its effects.

CelesteIt's also a brilliant platformer with a great soundtrack. Just go play it already and meet me back here.

My recent glowing review for Celeste covers the basics — it's a challenging platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy, featuring a similar degree of pixel-perfect difficulty and near-instant restarts after failing a section. It's wrapped up in a very pretty art style and a beautiful soundtrack, and it serves up a full plate of remixed ultra-hard levels, collectibles and challenges. It's about a girl called Madeleine (by default — you can change the name) and her decision to scale the mountain called Celeste. No concrete explanation is given for her decision to take on this bold expedition, only that it's something she desperately, stubbornly wants to achieve. Celeste is no ordinary mountain, either. Madeleine will come across ghosts and magic and even a shadowy purple-haired version of herself, a mean trickster gleefully throwing obstacles in our heroine's path.

The idea of confronting an "evil" version of oneself as a metaphor for overcoming our negative emotions is hardly new — it's almost a fantasy RPG staple for protagonists to fend off a shadowy version of themselves. However, the name of Madeleine's dark counterpart is significant. Although she initially appears behind a mirror, this "Part of Me" isn't a reflection at all but an integral component of Madeleine's psyche. As the game plays out, Madeleine gets more frequent opportunities to stop and talk with this Part of Me, gaining a deeper understanding of her motivations and intentions. The more Madeleine resists and attempts to dismiss the Part of Me, the worse things get.

CelesteBoss battles with the Part of Me always stem from Madeleine trying to distance herself from her counterpart.

Towards the end of the game, Madeleine has a moment of euphoric understanding of herself that leads her to believe she is cured. A lot of us have experienced a similar moment in the early stages of therapy; the act of finally understanding some aspect of our condition is so euphoric that we mistake it for a cure. Madeleine triumphantly points the finger at the Part of Me, explaining that she doesn't need this particular part any longer. Of course, this is mere seconds before everything goes disastrously wrong. Madeleine, like many of us, mistakenly thinks that the harshly critical inner voice needs to be banished when in fact it needs to be calmed and nurtured. It's often a crucial (if currently hyperactive) analytical part of our psyche. When Madeleine recognises this and begins to converse with the Part of Me as an ally, she finds herself able to head for the summit once more. The moment was incredibly resonant for me, and yet underneath some fantastical imagery it didn't resort to anything more dramatic than a young woman bickering with herself about climbing a mountain.

Why is Madeleine climbing the mountain at all? It's a question she is frequently asked by the few characters present in the game, and she doesn't have a solid answer. She is merely climbing it because she feels like she needs to. This is a typical side of depression and anxiety that isn't well understood by those with no direct experience of it. Depression conjures up images of sadness and tears, lethargy and a lack of will to achieve anything at all. That's certainly one course depression can take us down, but it can also manifest in a stubborn drive to achieve; sometimes throwing ourselves at a task, however meaningless, allows us to escape that feeling that we aren't worth anything at all. So Celeste is a mountain of Madeleine's own making. An achievement to conquer that doesn't necessarily mean anything to anyone but Madeleine, but it provides that dopamine hit of succeeding at something, which is of course exactly how Xbox achievements themselves can make a lot of us feel.

Celeste PortraitIn a certain light, the mountain almost looks like my TA Score graph.

The trick is in tackling these things for the right reasons. At the start of her journey Madeleine isn't tackling Celeste from the heart, but the mind. Specifically, she's climbing the mountain because she feels worthless and thinks she has something to prove. While she's steeped in this mindset, things don't work out. She can't open up to the old lady of the mountain or to her newfound friend Theo because the climb is a strange form of penitence she must suffer alone. Madeleine's resistance and denial of the Part of Me lead to the latter lashing out at another character, derailing the entire expedition while Madeleine fends off a sudden boss encounter. It's only when Madeleine starts tackling the scarier mountains — accepting the help of others, accepting the whole of herself — that she can refocus her aims. After the Part of Me is finally reconciled, Madeleine still wants to face down the mountain — but her language around the task has changed. Now the ascent is a fun challenge, not an obsession and a deflection from deeper issues.

It spoke a lot to me about why I play games and chase down achievements. Video games are a form of escapism for me, but they are also a way to make small achievements within parameters I set for myself. So many successes in reality exist in a grey area. It's hard to determine what counts as success, let alone achieve that when up against a whole host of societal pressures and the random-number-generator of life itself. In games and in achievement hunting, I can set my own goals with the aim to accomplish them. I can make them as tough or as easy as I like, but typically this will average out in the middle. If the mountain I make is too small, I won't get that dopamine hit that comes from stretching myself. At the same time, if I make the peak too tough... that's when I run the risk of throwing myself at impossible tasks in order to validate that Part of Me that is afraid that I'm worthless after all.

Celeste handles this admirably in the gameplay as well as in the story beats. The game's Assist Mode opens up the playing field by giving access to a number of gameplay tweaks. These range from slowing down the game speed, to increasing the amount of jumps available, to full-on invincibility. You can turn these on and off at any time throughout. In this way, Celeste gives me the tools I need to tailor my experience based on how I'm feeling. The door isn't shut in my face when I fail to grasp the next ledge, as it is in so many challenging games. Not only does this allow me to experience the narrative, but it builds my confidence to strip away additional layers of safety on my own terms.

Announcement ScreensGoing it alone can be rewarding — but seeking help isn't the same as failing.

Celeste has a positive and pragmatic approach to anxiety, too. A brief gameplay and story beat is to visualise a feather and breathe evenly in order to keep it afloat. This little trick works for Madeleine and it's a simple reminder to us as players and humans, too. Sometimes coming back from the edge of an anxious moment isn't about deep-diving into the minutiae of the event or problem, but simply taking a breath and coming back later. This little story beat comes back to me when I'm tackling a tough section of Celeste's later stages. If I find myself hurling at a difficult section relentlessly, I remember the feather and stop to take a breath. Again, it's not foolproof — and Celeste goes to lengths to separate this relieving trick from a cure. Theo is the one who imparts this little nugget of wisdom, but we later discover that not everything is rosy in Theo's head either; he's not a paragon of mental wellbeing, and we should take his advice with a pinch of salt. When the feather itself becomes a gameplay tool in the last levels of the game, it allows Madeleine to reach new places and move in new ways yet doesn't reduce the overall difficulty. Understanding the difference between relief and a cure is important when undertaking any recommending wellbeing exercise, including escaping into video games. Playing games won't fix everything, but as long as I recognise that and enjoy the relief they can give, they might lead me to a state of mind which allows me to make progress in other aspects of my life and wellbeing.

Throughout Madeleine's adventure, we never find out the real source of her mental suffering. This makes Celeste particularly remarkable in its ability to speak to the everyman — those of us quietly managing the ups and the downs day to day. We don't need to know why Madeleine is depressed or anxious, only how to overcome these obstacles in her path. Sometimes that's true for mental wellbeing in real life too. Madeleine doesn't receive some staggering revelation at Celeste's summit, either. The Part of Me will remain forever; Madeleine has a better understanding of it and a stronger bond, but the challenge to cooperate with this hyper-critical aspect of her psyche remains. Madeleine and the player's only reward for reaching the peak is a moment of reflection; a peaceful rest, a beautiful view, and an achievement to congratulate us.

CelesteAlso, there's always time for pie. An important life lesson.

Ultimately, the mountains we choose to climb in gaming are of our own making, as are the rules we set in climbing it. Whether you use a guide, boost a multiplayer achievement with friends or challenge yourself to an extra hard setting, the victory for reaching the summit by whatever means should be ours to celebrate. As long as we make these mountains for the right reasons and enjoy the climb, they might just help us tackle the larger peaks in life itself.

I'd love to hear about any games that speak to you in the same way — and the summits you are proud to have reached. Please let me know in the comments!
Sam Quirke
Written by Sam Quirke
Sam has been a Newshound since 2016. He loves gaming on all devices and in all genres. He remains a stubborn Assassin's Creed and Pokémon fan.