Game-related ramblings.

Keeping Score: Celeste

This is Keeping Score, a series about games and their soundtracks. This particular post is also the honorary fifth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, because Celeste was added to the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality when I was nearly finished playing it. Don’t worry if you missed the bundle, there are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Longtime readers may remember that I am a fan of Matt Thorson’s games, which I highlighted as part of a post celebrating super-hard platformers way back in 2012. Matt Thorson came to more prominence in 2013 with Towerfall (or rather, the multi-platform reissue Towerfall: Ascension in 2014), but I never played it as I’m not set up for local multiplayer. But Matt Thorson’s next game, developed with a larger team, had me quite excited: Celeste is a return to their earlier style of single-player, highly challenging platformers, but with much higher production values and finesse. Critics heaped it with praise, and I nabbed it soon after release, but as often happens I was distracted by many other games and didn’t get around to playing it until recently.

After I’d played for some time, and conquered all but its toughest challenges, Celeste was added to the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. I’ve been picking things at random from the bundle and writing about them in my Scratching That Itch series, but of course, my choice of Celeste was not random, and indeed was made before the bundle launched. Still, since Celeste is included in that absolutely massive bundle, consider this post — which I was fully intending to write anyway — an honorary entry in the series.

I must admit that I did have some concerns about Celeste’s narrative going in. The protagonist, Madeline, is determined to climb Celeste mountain, and I knew from reviews I’d read that the mountain is at least partly a metaphor for other struggles in her life, including anxiety and depression. This gave me pause, because it’s become something of a trope for male designers (I did not learn until researching this post that Matt Thorson identifies as non-binary) to write games with female leads which turn out to be metaphors for depression / grief / mental illness / some other type of “feelings”, as if these things are the sole purview of women. It’s particularly odd since many of these designers are drawing from their own experience, and yet still feel they need a female character in order to tell the story. This is common enough that it may be establishing or reinforcing unhealthy stereotypes, even as it promotes discussion around mental health.

I am hardly an expert on anxiety, depression, or the other things touched on in Celeste’s story, but I am happy to report that I found the narrative was handled extremely well. The credit for this does not belong with Matt Thorson alone. Celeste’s title screen says it’s made by “Matt, Noel, Amora, Pedro, Lena, Kevin, & friends”, and the credits also list several narrative consultants. The team clearly made an effort to create a story that treats its subjects with appropriate depth and nuance. Madeline and the characters she meets on her climb slowly reveal new facets of themselves at the story progresses, and each have their own arcs to follow. At one point I expected the story to head in a cliched direction, but instead it pivoted and took a much more satisfying path. I was not only invested in Madeline’s climb, but deeply cared about all the other characters too, and by the end I felt that the story was one of the best parts of the game.

This is the story that Celeste’s exquisite platforming deserves. Channeling years of experience making challenging platformers, the team have created a game that is an absolute joy to control. Care was clearly lavished over every aspect of it, from the sound effects and visual feedback from Madeline’s movements, to the precise height of Madeline’s jumps and length of her dash. When I started playing I had trouble because I kept expecting a double-jump, like so many of Matt Thorson’s earlier games, but instead Madeline has a dash move which can be performed in one of eight directions. She can only dash once, however, before needing to land on solid ground, something that’s helpfully communicated by her hair turning form red to blue when her dash is spent. The mid-air dashing is reminiscent of Matt Thorson’s 2009 game FLaiL, but it’s refined here, tuned to work together with an array of other moves. Madeline can jump off of walls and even cling to them and climb them, although she will quickly tire out and start to slip. Jumps, dashes, and wall-based acrobatics, combined with superb level design, provide an array of challenges that are always a pleasure to tackle.

Celeste is also wonderful to behold. It uses a chunky pixel art style, but packs intricate detail into every scene. Several layers of background art grace each area, with crumbling masonry and old advertisements, cobwebs and disused furniture, flags fluttering in the wind, and more. And yet it is always perfectly clear which elements are interactive and which are just extra embellishments. The lighting is masterful, with bright sunlit exteriors and gloomy passageways looking equally amazing. Each of Celeste’s Chapters has a different visual style and color scheme, lending each location its own character as Madeline navigates her way through it. The Chapters offer natural break points between play sessions, but I found it hard to stop playing when I knew there was a new, beautiful place to explore just ahead. And as a counterpoint to the big pixels, character portraits during conversations and story scenes instead use a crisp, cartoon style that allows for a range of great facial expressions. Characters aren’t voiced, but their dialogue is accompanied by an endearing warbling sound effect that expertly captures tone and cadence. Even non-interactive scenes are captivating.

Celeste’s story spans seven chapters, as well as an eighth which serves as an epilogue, and each introduces new mechanics for the player to navigate. Some are familiar, like the floating crystals which can re-charge Madeline’s dash while she’s airborne, which date all the way back to the double-jump crystals in Thorson’s 2004 game Jumper (and its sequels). Many, however, are new, and are used in brilliant ways to create new navigational challenges. Celeste has an impeccably pitched learning curve, constantly teaching players new things even as they master earlier moves. Scattered throughout the chapters are strawberries to collect — often in semi-secret side areas — which pose an extra challenge just for the sake of it. There is no reward for collecting strawberries other than the satisfaction of having done so, but that was enough to tempt me to track them all down. There are some secrets to find in Celeste that come with bigger rewards, however, such as unlockable “B-side” versions of each Chapter which offer tougher challenges constructed from the same mechanical pieces. Players are free to pursue these whenever they please, but I decided to finish the original chapters first, and recommend that players at least progress a good way through the game before heading into the B-sides.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Celeste is how encouraging it is. Games focused on stiff challenge can often feel punishing, as players fail again and again. Furi is a good example, among games I’ve played recently. But while I failed plenty in Celeste, it never felt punishing. It always seemed that the game was cheering me on, willing me to get just a little bit farther next time. This is a remarkable feat, achieved through a confluence of the excellent writing and characters, sublime level design that thematically reinforces the story at every turn, and Lena Raine‘s fantastic score, which I’ll write a lot more about below. Celeste is a game about persistence, and it absolutely nails that theme by ensuring its players never want to give up, no matter how tough it gets. Celeste even features a range of impressive accessibility options, to ensure that everyone can set the challenge to the level that’s perfect for them. Players can opt to slow the game down, make Madeline invincible, grant her infinite stamina so she can climb as long as she likes, and more. Many developers would have clung to the difficulty curve that they’d so painstakingly designed, so I respect Matt Thorson and their team for trusting players to find the right level of challenge for themselves.

It was pleasure, then, to play through Celeste’s Chapters, and I’m especially enamored of the Chapter 7 finale. This was the toughest challenge yet, but there was no way I could give up. I couldn’t let Madeline down now, not after she’d come so far, and despite facing a set of obstacles that would have absolutely terrified me if I’d seen them in Chapter 1, the main emotion I felt through it all was triumph. This was it, the final push on the way to the summit, and we were going to do this. I can’t recall the last time a game left me feeling so satisfied at its conclusion.

Of course, Celeste is far from over at that point. I happily dove into the B-sides, which often focus on a specific set of moves, like wall jumping and climbing, until players have become masters. There’s no longer any exploration, no optional strawberries or secrets to find, just an obstacle course, pure and simple. Eventually these reach a point where there is but one single path through an array of deadly spikes and other hazards, and I learned to read the screen ahead of time. At a glance I knew I would have to jump there, perform a series of dashes between dash-recovering crystals, drop through that bit, leap off the wall over there, and then another set of dashes to climb up and through that gap… a mad series of airborne acrobatics during which gravity was a vague memory. And then I found myself facing the Chapter 7 B-side, so much more challenging than my original ascent and yet somehow just as triumphant, as I put all my newfound mastery to the test and reached the summit once more. Brilliant.

Chapter 8 is a really nice epilogue, letting me know how the characters I cared so much about were doing, and offering a fascinating new area to traverse. Appropriately, it’s not quite as tough as the climax of the story proper, instead acting as a more introspective affair. A fine coda. Completing it, I was offered some new optional challenges to pursue, but also an entirely new Chapter. Chapter 9, entitled “Farewell”, was added to Celeste in 2019, more than a year after the original release. I foolishly jumped right in, but backed out quickly to try out some other challenges first. Chapter 9 should unequivocally be played last, after players have finished everything else in the game, because it is by far the toughest challenge. It’s also far longer than I expected, dwarfing the Chapters that came before. It was so incredibly worth it.

While Chapter 9 is structured like an ultra-tough B-side, as opposed to the more open style of the earlier Chapters, it features an excellent new story to follow. Set some time after the epilogue of Chapter 8, I joined Madeline for a new tale that is every bit as affecting as what came before. It’s a wonderful capstone to a fantastic game, and I look back on it with just as much fondness as I had for Madeline’s original ascent to the summit. But man… it is hard. I thought that my time with Celeste’s B-sides had made me a master, but in Chapter 9 I realized there was so much left to achieve. Some of the B-sides teach advanced moves, which result from quirks in the way Madeline’s movements interact with the environment, but Chapter 9 expects players to use these tricky maneuvers for routine navigation. On top of that, it introduces new mechanics that require absolute precision. At first I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to manage it. Reaching each new screen was a struggle, and every time I thought I was making progress, I’d realize there was still so much more left to go.

But I persevered. Before, I used to think in terms of what moves I had to use — a dash here, a wall jump there, then cling to that moving block — but in Chapter 9 I started to think in terms of the actual keypresses involved. Hold the grab key, then let go, then up and dash, then press the jump key after exactly a split second, followed immediately by holding right and the grab key again (in case you’re worried: Celeste supports gamepads too, I just find it easier to use the keyboard for games without analog movement where precise directional inputs are needed). I learned that some of the advanced moves were actually more forgiving than I’d realized. Sometimes I’d assumed I had an infinitesimal amount of time to hit a sequence of keys to pull off an advanced move, but in fact the timing window is longer than that, and indeed waiting that extra split second before executing the move is critical in order to proceed. My only complaint about Chapter 9 is that its challenges are sometimes difficult to read. In a few places, I honestly did not know how I was meant to get through, and had to turn to the internet for answers. I found many others seeking help with the Chapter, but the ones dispensing advice were correct: it’s not as hard as it looks. Just keep trying. You’ll get it.

Chapter 9’s final gauntlet plays very differently to Madeline’s climb to the summit in Chapter 7, but it captured the same triumphant feeling for me. By the time I’d worked through the rest of the Chapter to reach it, I no longer doubted myself, confident I could pass it no matter how daunting it looked. Celeste’s development team had pulled it off a second time, offering another deeply satisfying finish, another testament to persistence. Just thinking about it makes me smile. Marvelous. I do worry that many players may have missed Chapter 9, if they played Celeste closer to release. And it’s a tough sell for those returning to the game after a break, since it builds on the hardest challenges from the main game, and players who may have lost some familiarity with the controls will be in for a shock. But it’s so good. It’s worth running through some B-sides again as a refresher if necessary. Just be sure to play it.

That’s about all I have to say. Celeste is one of the best games I’ve played, and writing this post made me want to play through it all again. Having loved Matt Thorson’s rough, early work, it’s a pleasure to see their team build on that experience to produce such a tight, beautiful, joyous game. I recommend it in the highest terms. Pick it up on itch.io, Steam, the Epic Games Store, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, or Xbox One. Or, if you happened to donate to the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality, then you already have it, and can simply go play it.

The Score:

Lena Raine’s original soundtrack for Celeste is superb, embedded so well in the game as to be inseparable. It makes heavy use of chiptune-inspired synthesizers (beware the mildest of spoilers for Chapter 2 in that post), a retro yet modern style that is often used for game soundtracks, but sets itself apart through the piano melodies which drive most of the tracks. This pairing works so well that I’m surprised I’ve never heard anything like it before. It lends the music of Celeste its own distinct voice, even as it conjures the familiar. What struck me the most about it, however, is how calm it is. Many games designed to be highly challenging opt for high intensity music, that gets players’ blood pumping. But Celeste’s score is much mellower, even contemplative. This makes a huge difference to the tone of the game.

While I often had to execute a series of fast maneuvers, I never felt that I was sprinting through Celeste. The music put me in a more methodical mindset, encouraged me to think carefully before moving, to keep control of myself, to not be discouraged by my failures. To keep trying. To steadily make progress by learning from my mistakes. It’s not what I was expecting, to be honest, but it’s perfect. It’s also connected to the themes of the game at the deepest level. Motifs recur often, some associated with certain characters, others with concepts or narrative themes, recontextualized each time based on what’s happening in the story. Musical tracks evolve over the course of Chapters, reflecting rising stakes or new revelations, blending seamlessly into new arrangements. Intense moments, when they occur, are all the more forceful given the restraint of much of the music. I mentioned above how I often moved straight into a new chapter just to see it, but the new music was an equal incentive.

I can’t imagine playing Celeste without the music, but I was surprised to find that the music works remarkably well without the game. Celeste’s score is sold separately, and comes in three pieces. The first is the main soundtrack, which features 21 tracks spanning over an hour and 40 minutes. Included are all the main themes from each Chapter, along with the music for most cutscenes, menus, and other incidental bits. For a soundtrack that’s so intertwined with the game itself, it makes a great standalone album, and listening to it gave me new appreciation for Lena Raine’s compositions. For example, the piece “In the Mirror” has many reversed elements, such that it works just as well when listened to backwards as it does forwards (seriously! Try it out!), which leaves me in awe. That’s some serious dedication to theme. With all the tracks laid out in sequence, I was able to pinpoint different motifs and really listen to when and where they appear throughout the score, marveling anew at just how considered every piece of music is. “Reach for the Summit” rekindled my feelings of triumph all over again, as disparate elements of the soundtrack combined for the finale. Other parts of the soundtrack are more strongly associated with specific moments in the game, yet still work as part of the album. The segue from “Madeleine and Theo” into “Starjump” is just as awesome in the soundtrack as it was in the in-game scene it accompanies.

The next piece of the soundtrack is the Celeste B-Sides collection. This features eight remixes of the Chapter themes from various artists, which accompany the B-side levels in the game, as well as a bonus track from Lena Raine. Comparatively shorter at only 35 minutes, the collection is nonetheless fascinating due to all of the different interpretations on offer. Noted chiptune artist Maxo takes one of the more upbeat tracks from Celeste and grants it a mad, whirling energy that eventually coalesces into a funky groove. Ben Prunty, famous for composing the soundtracks to FTL and Into the Breach, offers a remix that leans more towards the latter, opening with some sinister bells before adding a prominent rhythm guitar line. Christa Lee, who “makes jazz-infused music for and inspired by video games” according to her Bandcamp description, transforms her chosen piece almost beyond recognition, creating an upbeat, swinging synthesizer jazz number. Paris-based in love with a ghost reworks one of the Celeste’s sparsest arrangements into a downtempo number awash with pulsating synths. 2 Mello, known for the soundtracks for indie games like 2064: Read Only Memories and If Found… focuses on one of Lena Raine’s piano melodies but adds the synthesizer equivalent of a smoky saxophone, a funky hip hop beat, and, later, a trumpet and strings. Jukio Kallio, who composed music for games like Nuclear Throne and Minit, keeps much of Lena Raine’s original composition intact, but dials back on the notably intense selection through the addition of prominent guitar melodies. Matthewせいじ, composer for Zachtronics, adapts the moody theme for the Chapter 8 coda into something that sounds like it could accompany a rainy street scene in a cyberpunk city. Fittingly, the remix that accompanies the Chapter 7 B-side, wherein Madeline reaches for the summit a second time, comes from Lena Raine herself, under her alias Kuraine. It transforms the soaring music from the original ascent into a throbbing house track driven by a looped synthesizer arpeggio, the audio equivalent of a steadfast determination to never give up no matter how hard it gets.

Last, but certainly not least, is the soundtrack to Chapter 9, “Farewell”. Returning to Celeste for this final Chapter, Lena Raine offers nearly 40 minutes of new music that avoids merely rehashing the original score and instead heads in new directions. The synthesizers are still there, but they’re downplayed in favor of violin, viola and cello, which are nearly as prominent as the piano. There’s also heavier use of percussion throughout, particularly in the higher registers, like hi-hats and cymbals. New melodies and motifs appear to accompany the touching story of the Chapter, before merging with familiar themes from the original soundtrack as the story reaches its conclusion. It’s a beautiful accompaniment to what may be Celeste’s most memorable Chapter, establishing its own musical identity yet retaining its link to the original score. And once again works brilliantly on its own too.

Technically, even these three different releases do not encompass all of the music in the game. Some 8-bit remixes that appear at specific points, some pieces from cutscenes, and the Chapter Complete jingles do not appear, but are collected in Madeline’s Grab Bag, offered for whatever price you deem it worth. I can see why these were cut from the main soundtrack release, but I’m happy that they’re available anyway for completeness.

So, there you have it. One of the best games I’ve played, and one of the best scores I’ve heard. I hardly need to reiterate that I highly recommend them both. All the music is available via Lena Raine’s Bandcamp page, which also features her other compositions, including some Kuraine releases and her first album, Oneknowing. In addition to checking those out, I need to investigate many of the artists who contributed to the B-sides collection. Looks like I’ll have plenty of new music to listen to in the near future!

If you want to read more about games and their music, check out the rest of the Keeping Score series. If you’re here because of the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality (note: these two reasons for being here are not mutually exclusive), I’ve been randomly picking things from the bundle in my Scratching That Itch series. This post counts as an honorary fifth entry, meaning we only have 1699 1736 to go.

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve been reading your blog for a long time now – I believe I found it from a comment left in one of the RPS articles – but I’ve never messaged you or left a comment. I know that your posts became a bit sporadic in 2019 and at the beginning of this year, and I hope you got through whatever it was that held you back.

    I just wanted to let you know that you have an avid reader here and that I _thoroughly_ enjoy your reviews – from your excellent writing, the way you break a game down, your meticulous attention to detail, and your game selections. Your love of the game shines through and it is very much appreciated.

    I hope you find success in whatever it is you do and that this passion for gaming bears fruit for you.

    – Abbas

    • Wow, thank you! I’m so happy you enjoy my posts so much. I do occasionally plug my blog in the comments at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, so you definitely could have found your way here that way. They were also kind enough to link to my multi-part History Lessons posts on Betrayal at Krondor when they wrote their list of the best games based on books, and a post I wrote about coming up with a new name for roguelikes (a bit outdated now, since everything’s a roguelike these days) made it into one of their Sunday Papers lineups.

      My slower posting rate wasn’t the result of anything holding me back, it was just a lack of free time, for both playing games and writing about them. Mostly due to being more busy at work, but also more time playing board games instead of PC games. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of Gloomhaven, which has consumed many weekends that I might have otherwise spent playing PC games and writing about them. I also picked some really long games to play… Kingdoms of Amalur took me many months of finish. But I’m really enjoying writing smaller posts more often for the Scratching That Itch series, so hopefully those will keep coming at a faster clip. I’ve also got some longer posts lined up which should appear soon-ish, and I should start playing the next subject of my History Lessons series any day now. So there will be some long, in-depth posts coming too!

      Anyway, I’m glad you enjoy reading so much. I’ve no intention of stopping the blog, and still plan to write about whatever I’m playing, even if I end up being too busy to play or write often. But hopefully I’ll have more time to write moving forward!

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