“One more try…”
“I can do it this time…”
“My timing is just off by a bit…”
I must have had this conversation with myself a hundred times during my playthrough of Celeste, a 2D platformer that turned heads upon its release in 2018. The game was much beloved by critics and audiences alike, due to its heartfelt story and simple mechanics.
I acquired the game about 8 months ago, and following my own backlog rules, put it to the bottom of my list after hearing of its incredible difficulty. Quite a grave mistake, it turns out, as I truly wish I had discovered the game much sooner. I could gush for hours, but this isn’t a review, so I’ll put it simply.
Celeste is one of the most charming, playable and enjoyable games I’ve ever come across.
We want to look at Celeste through a different lens, however. Difficulty and accessibility are often mentioned in the same breath, with some finding them to be intertwined. Let’s examine how this game handles both ideas to see what makes it so enjoyable for all comers.
Difficulty by design
Difficulty in games has always been a hot topic, with some developers and enthusiasts boasting openly about it. Titles like the “Soulsborne” games developed by From Software are punishing, to say the least. They are characterized by giant boss monsters who can destroy you in one hit, and even regular encounters with enemies can end your life quickly.
Every game approaches difficulty in its own way, and none can say what is the “right” way to do it. First-person shooters can employ “monster closets”, where enemies appear continuously until a certain point on the map is reached. Often, racing games will have the “rubber-band effect”, allowing AI-controlled racers to catch up instantaneously when the player gets too far ahead. Players often complain that these methods feel contrived, and often like cheating on the part of the developer, garnering a negative response in reviews.
Enter Celeste, also widely known for its difficulty, but which accomplishes it in a wholly different manner. Players often boast proudly of their death count on the way to completion. On my first try, I racked up 2,640 deaths before I reached the summit of Celeste Mountain. But not once did I feel like the game was cheating, manipulating or standing in my way of advancing in the game.
The only barrier to my success was me.
Flash back to the conversation at the beginning of the article. Celeste is the type of game where every death has meaning, where you learn something each time you fail. Thus, every time you die, you feel the next go will be the one where you finally succeed. It’s so hard to stop playing because you always know you can do better the next time, that you’re one quick twitch away from cracking the code of each screen.
There is no frustration or desire to quit, as it all feels so incredibly fair.
The imperative of accessibility
Now let’s examine the other helix of the game’s DNA, accessibility. Over the last several years, hundreds of hours and thousands of words have been spent on the topic of accessibility in gaming. Broadly defined, accessibility deals with how differently-abled individuals can interact with games. The conversation is often based on ways to help those individuals play games more easily, and enjoy them more.
Microsoft released an adaptive controller for the Xbox One in 2018, designed to deal with the need for greater accessibility. Accessible game devices are for sale everywhere on the internet. Largely though, accessibility has fallen to game developers to create within their games. Some have attempted to solve this conundrum with an “Easy” mode, which is often looked down upon in the industry as a wrong-footed effort, like putting a band-aid on a gunshot.
Enter Celeste, which I believe is the gold standard for designing accessibility into a game. This isn’t just for the sake of saying your game is accessible or pandering to the masses for good press. This is a set of tools allowing anyone, not just those with physical limitations, to customize their gameplay experience.
The simplicity of the game’s controls gives the first nod toward true accessibility. Since there are only three commands used in the game, it is possible to assign each to a face button. Thus, someone who perhaps has reduced grip strength or arthritis could play the game without ever needing to hold the controller. With the gamepad on a flat surface, one hand would go for the analog stick and one for the face button presses.
The next facet of the design puzzle falls under the heading of Assist Mode, which can be toggled on or off at any point. This is truly where the customization aspects begin. The first option is Game Speed, which players can adjust from 50% to 100%. Reducing the speed allows a great deal more time to enter button presses and orient your analog stick to where you want to end up.
A key element in the game is the Air Dash, which zips your character from platforms to walls and everywhere else on a level. Most of the game is spent with the ability to dash once before returning to a standing position restores your ability to dash again. Assist Mode gives you the option of two dashes between landings, or even infinite dashes. This can also be combined with a Dash Assist toggle, allowing the game to effectively pause while you use an arrow to determine where the dash will take you.
Assist Mode features several other tweaks as well, including Infinite Stamina (allowing you to cling to walls indefinitely), Invincibility (rendering those level-covering spikes harmless), and the ability to skip any of the game’s nine chapters altogether if you so desire. Add in the exact-point saving system, where you never lose any progress, and it’s clear that Celeste has found a sweet spot between difficulty and accessibility.
It is my sincere hope that the game’s developer, Matt Makes Games, continues to grace us with their creations. Celeste is a sublime example of design speaking to the masses, inviting them to come in and sit awhile, enjoying the game in whatever way they choose. Maybe they play, maybe they just skip to the end, like reading the last page of a book first. They have the choice, though, and that is what’s most refreshing about this experience.
For those of us who love games, who wish to see them grow and be widely accepted, isn’t this what we should want? Games that offer challenges to the most skilled among us, while still welcoming in non-gamers who will hopefully want to stick around when they’re done. Let us celebrate games like this, and hope they should encourage others to do the same.
Now more than ever, we need things to unite around, communities where all feel welcome regardless of age, ability or other immutable characteristics.
Stay safe, and long live gaming.
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