GOTY 2018: Game of the Year
And the 2018 Silicon Sasquatch Game of the Year is...
#1 - Celeste
Matt Makes Games | January 25, 2018 | Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One
I was about four screens into Celeste, back on January 25th of 2018, when I realized I was almost certainly playing my game of the year.
That's not a good thing, really, for a critic. Or even someone who, like me, only pretends to be a "games journalist" or whatever once a year. But I've been playing games—and writing about them—for long enough to know when I've found something really special.
Of course, I couldn't have known exactly what would lie between those first few steps onto Celeste Mountain and the seventy hours, give or take, I would spend with the game throughout 2018. I'd have no way of knowing, for instance, how the touching story of Madeline's climb would play out, or how supporting characters like Theo would weave into her life and bring both levity and much-needed sympathy to her journey.
Celeste primarily gets its praise for its impeccably precise level design, its authentic and well-executed story about dealing with anxiety and learning to accept oneself, and its infinitely replayable soundtrack. But there are so many finer points that place this game clearly, in my mind, ahead of any other game that was released last year.
There are the strawberries—175 optional challenges, physically scattered throughout each level, each one placed tantalizingly just off the beaten path—and each one a lesson in disguise. In a game that's literally designed to encourage the player to discover that they're capable of greater feats than they assume going in, these strawberries are micro-lessons in stretching one's limits, and for me, earning each one triggered the sweetest release of dopamine. I earned every single one.
There's also a suite of interesting design choices that determine how Madeline's friendship with Theo develops. He's initially tucked away off the beaten path of the first level, and you don't have to stay and talk with him—but if you do, there's more to talk about than may initially be apparent. Theo pops up occasionally throughout the rest of the game, sometimes to offer much-needed comfort and stability in times of crisis. (Turns out that feather/breathing technique works in real life, too.) And then there's that campfire conversation after you emerge from the mirror temple, where you can choose to turn in and go to sleep early before your climb resumes—or you can stay up and talk, and before you know it, the option to go to sleep has vanished. It's just one small way that the game shows careful consideration for the experience it wants to convey; who hasn't found a friend who, when they really hit it off, decides without a second thought to forego sleep in order to stay up talking?
And then there's this most-elusive thing—the thing that, as a designer, is my own personal holy grail. It's what, in my mind, elevates Celeste into the ranks of the most important games I've ever played.
What makes Celeste my game of the year, more than anything, is how the entire experience employs every angle and every opportunity to encourage the player to keep trying, to never give up, and to believe that they can do this.
Celeste is extremely hard, and that's coming from someone who demolished Super Meat Boy back in 2010 and hasn't stopped seeking out challenging games since. I love a good, steep difficulty curve, provided it's attached to a well-designed and fair experience. But I've never found a platformer as difficult as Celeste—not even classic brutal challenges like I Wanna Be the Guy require as much consistent precise execution in their hardest moments. But what got me through those games was my own raw stubbornness, my need to convince myself that I was still great at games no matter how brutal or unfair the challenge felt.
In recent years, I've largely lost that drive. I discovered speedrunning about six years ago, but I convinced myself that my reflexes were shot—that it was too late for me to pick up a game and master it.
I beat Celeste on a casual playthrough a few days after it came out. And then something interesting happened: I wanted to keep climbing. Not to prove myself to others, or to brag about completing the game's challenges to my friends. I wanted to keep going because...well, I felt good. I liked how I felt about myself, and I didn't feel the need to tell anyone—it was purely a sense of personal fulfillment I was getting out of the game.
So I kept going. I found all the B-sides. I finished them. I chased down the strawberries. I puzzled out all of the blue hearts, and I completed the Heart of the Mountain. And then, riding high, I conquered the C-sides—the hardest, most-compact challenges in the game.
And I kept climbing. I'm still climbing.
Over the summer, I decided to give speedrunning Celeste a shot. My best time through the game at that point was about two hours long, cumulatively. I aimed to get under an hour. (Of course, the world record is now something like 27 minutes, but I'm not aiming to be the best. I just want to be better.) I'm still a few minutes shy of that hour-long runtime, but I found I couldn't get enough of the joy of really perfecting my skills in Celeste. I practiced specialized movement techniques over and over and delighted at just how empowering it is to know how to hyperdash, to infinitely climb walls, and to jump off of spikes—to do things that seem impossible at first, but once you realize you're capable, you feel this essential sense of accomplishment.
And that, really, is what Celeste is about, in all its forms. It's about overcoming challenges that appear external until you realize the only obstacles are your doubts and fears.
Those of you who know me personally probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that I've struggled with anxiety for my entire life. Usually it's pretty manageable; sometimes it shuts me down completely. And even on my best days, it's still there, present, kinda just thrumming away in the corner. And about three years ago, I decided to dedicate whatever it took to learning how to manage it. That was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
One of the things that helped me the most was, when I was feeling anxious, to learn how to pause for a moment, pull myself out of whatever situation I was in for just a split-second, and identify that: "oh, I'm just feeling anxious." It's such a simple thing, but in doing so, it's no longer hidden or abstracted away. It's there, I see it, and I can then act the way I want to. I can feel better; I can do better.
When climbing the mountain and wracked with anxiety, Theo teaches Madeline to envision a feather floating in the air that's kept aloft by her steady breathing. Throughout Celeste, we're given feathers of all kinds to help us stay focused and not give up on ourselves. The music is encouraging and largely stress-reducing; the levels are challenging but provide generous respawn points and checkpoints to resume from later; and the critical path is always just a bit easier than whatever optional challenges you may be tempted to track down at a later date. Celeste knows it's hard, and it knows you're going to struggle. But it also wants you to understand that this work—these challenges? They're worth it. And you're worthy of them.
Celeste taught me that, even as I grow older, I'm still capable of accomplishing things that amaze me. I'm far more capable of overcoming challenges in my life—not just in games—than I gave myself credit for. And by accepting not just my strengths but embracing my weaknesses, I will always keep climbing. – Nick Cummings
If we take Super Mario Bros. as the launch point for this post-Atari crash era of video games we find ourselves still in, then the platformer genre also comes from that origin point. And while there have been many platformers over the years (including various offshoots of the genre), there are few that have been as challenging as Celeste, and zero that have been as accommodating or encouraging as our Game of the Year for 2018.
Celeste isn’t an easy game. Each of the worlds introduces a new mechanic, and these often take a bit of getting used to in order to fully grasp the utility and usefulness of Madeline’s new ability. But it’s never a punishing game—unlike others I’ve tried in the “splatformer” genre, which seem to revel in masochism.
All of this is well and good. But that themes of encouragement, of grasping beyond your reach, of giving it one more chance are all baked into Celeste’s story and meaning just reinforce the power behind what you, the player, are doing. And considering what those of us in the English-speaking world have lived through in the past few years, encouragement and reminders that it can be done are always welcome.
I haven’t completed Celeste yet, but I will. Not because I’m good at platformers—I am not—but because I’m enjoying the challenge. More games need to strike this balance, all while encouraging you along the way. — Doug Bonham
I'll remember Celeste as the game that gave me back a little bit of hope amidst ongoing darkness.
January 2018 wasn't a great time for me and mine. Things are better now, a bit, but my wife and I were still deep in the middle of various personal crises that began in 2017. And separate from that, I was stressed out by my new job as a contractor (read: few benefits and far less pay) and the daily breaking news spewing from the broken sewage pipe we call the White House. (An administration that, expectedly, hasn't improved at all over the past year.)
I had barely touched a controller in weeks. I couldn't be bothered to turn on a console because none of it mattered. In retrospect, I was depressed.
So there I am a year ago, flailing around inside an emotional maelstrom where video games were my absolute lowest priority. I recall the sunken feeling of trying to start Persona 5 and thinking that it, and all games, were a complete waste of time. My well of joy had run dry.
Considering my state, why did I buy a hardcore platformer from the makers of Towerfall, a game I sucked at and thereby sorta hated? There was no way I'd ever finish Celeste. It looked pretty, but it seemed destined to be deleted from my Switch—just like when I gave up on Super Meat Boy and a half-dozen other difficult platformers over the years.
Then, one weekend morning after it released, I grabbed my Switch, popped in my earbuds, and started a new game. I don't even remember what motivated me to do it.
I beat the first screen, easily. Then I died once or twice on the next few screens. I died again, quite a few more times, on another screen, missing a pretty simple wall jump until I understood what the game was asking of me. It wanted me to be patient and persistent. It wanted me to slow down, focus, and respect myself, even when I inevitably failed.
While I was figuring out the mechanics through trial-and-error, I slowly realized that all the deaths, all those failures, didn't piss me off.
Historically—and I'm embarrassed to admit this—I have a pretty short fuse when it comes to difficult games. It's why, since A Link to the Past, I've gravitated toward RPGs. As a kid, my active imagination soaked up every sword, spell, and dragon from my favorite SNES games. As an adult, I kept indulging in digital role-play to escape from reality, which was (and is) a constant fucking struggle.
(That I'm saying life is hard, as a privileged white male from an upper-middle-class family, is an absurdity that is absolutely not lost on me. But on a general level, we all agree that being an adult is often a shitty experience, yes?)
I didn't want games to challenge me. I wanted them to tell a great story while being surmountable. I never looked at games as a mountain to climb, a metaphor typically reserved for real problems, until I played Celeste.
I could write about its pixel-perfect platforming or its addictive soundtrack, but those were byproducts of the core experience. What Celeste taught me was that I could find a way out of the darkness. I could, if I kept pushing myself, climb that physical mountain as well as the metaphorical one.
Maybe I'm giving the game too much credit. But, coincidentally or not, after I persevered and beat its A-side levels, things in the real world started to improve. My job brought me on as a full-time employee. My wife and I began to navigate our loss and chart a path forward. The president was impeached. (Sigh.)
Or, maybe, Celeste really did teach me something at the exact moment I needed to be taught.
After experiencing the depths of tragedy and despair, a pixelized platformer brought me much-needed joy. Because of Celeste, I was finally ready to climb my own seemingly impossible mountain. — Aaron Thayer