Affective gaming goes to the next level
Recent video games, such as ‘Celeste’, ‘Oxenfree’ and ‘Night of the Woods’, are exploring fragility and depression within the conventional frame of gaming
The third-highest-ranked game for the Nintendo Switch, according to Metacritic, a reviews aggregator, is the title Celeste. Published by a small independent developer, Celeste is nothing like the only two other games that rank above it in the all-time Switch scores: The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild and Super Mario Odyssey. Both those games were epoch-making, works of sprawling genius in which Nintendo flexed every last muscle to give the new console a strong line-up. In both games, players are dropped into sprawling worlds in which they explore, solve puzzles and overcome bosses.
In Celeste, on the other hand, you help a troubled young girl named Madeline trek to the top of a mountain named Celeste. At first glance, Celeste is reminiscent of old-fashioned “platform” video games in which players completed levels by hopping from platform to platform, over obstacles, through checkpoints, and past bad guys. And Celeste harks back to some of the most exceptional titles in that genre in its challenge, intricate level design, and simple-but-satisfying control scheme. Madeline can run, jump, grab on to walls, and make a dash in mid-air.
In Celeste, developers Matt Makes Games take all the on-trend aspects of platform gaming and pixel art design and refine them to a level that is truly exceptional. But there is one more thing: Celeste is not so much about a girl climbing a mountain, but a girl overcoming herself.
As soon as the game starts, Madeline is mired in doubt. Will she be able to climb the mountain at all? But she has to. And you have to. And so off you go.
Slowly, you begin to realize something. As Paste magazine’s Garrett Martin wrote in a generally positive review in January: “The mountain is a metaphor.”
As Madeline proceeds uphill, it dawns on us that the mountain has agency. It slowly begins to throw Madeline’s fears and anxieties right back at her. As the levels become harder, Madeline’s inner monologue turns more and more self-critical. Soon, all these fears and anxieties and self-doubts crystallize into a genuinely scary, floating apparition Madeline calls a “Part of Me”. It is, of course, a facsimile of our protagonist but in a ghoulish purple colour.
“Scary Madeline”, when she appears, gives the game a sense of tension. And even the most seasoned gamer will find her dialogue disturbing. “But I’m not the only creepy thing living in that messed up head of yours,” the apparition throws back at Madeline in one scene.
Complementing this narrative thread is the superb gameplay itself. Celeste is incredibly hard for most gamers. Fall off a platform, you die. Dash into a spike, you die. Indeed, this writer died around 8,000 times in the course of completing the main storyline (there are fiendishly hard bonus levels to try afterwards). This challenge might seem paradoxical—so the game is about conquering your fears, but it also kills you hundreds of times? Come on!
This is where the designers have made perhaps their smartest design choice: In Celeste, you respawn at the beginning of that screen immediately.
There are no lives or hearts or continues. You die, you start again. You die again, you start again...again. Each time you get a chance to try a new strategy, a new route. So much so that when you get through a particularly difficult stage, the sense of achievement is very real. All along the way, the game keeps track of how many times you die. For many Celeste fans, these death counts—whether impressively low or in the high tens of thousands—have become badges of honour. Overcoming, the game seems to suggest, is possible.
Celeste is one of several current games that take on the inner strife of the protagonist in different ways. In Oxenfree, players get to grapple with teenage relationships, warts and all. In Night In The Woods, you play as a college dropout who comes back home, only to discover a hometown in decline, and a cast of residents all grappling with problems. Chloe Spencer of Kotaku praised Night In The Woods for dealing with the topic of depression with empathy and sophistication.
Mental health issues are difficult to depict in any entertainment medium, especially in an interactive medium for play such as video games. Indeed, video games have long had a reputation for taking and enhancing the “deranged villain” trope of cinema. And as Martin wrote in Paste, a metaphor is ultimately a metaphor. The line between acknowledging mental illness and reducing it into a gameplay caricature is thin.
But many games are at least grappling with these issues. And they have several incentives. A booming market for indie games means that designers no longer have to make huge, sprawling, graphics-heavy blockbusters. Instead, they now have a market open to picking up small, narrative-led games in which realistic characters speak realistic dialogue in the pursuit of somewhat realistic goals. And nothing is more real than the trials of the mind.
Without a doubt, there is the genuine threat of mental illness and other problems being reduced to gaming clichés. But at least games now appear to acknowledge that inner strife is both common and worth talking about.
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