This post contains endgame spoilers for the game Celeste. I encourage everyone to experience it on their platform of choice.
Climbing the mountain was an experience.
At first, I thought that meant the physical mountain; the tall, sweeping challenge that brought the game's heroine, A Canadian woman named Madeline, to its base in order to reach the top. I did indeed climb the mountain(with only a couple thousand deaths to my name), but by the time I was done, I was a different person than when I started.
Celeste is, at its core, a platformer inspired by the likes of Super Meat Boy. You double jump(triple jump once you near the end of the game) over spikes and pits, dodge monsters, and maybe learn a bit about your tolerance of difficulty along the way. But Celeste is different in a way that made me see it through to the end, a way that games in a similar vein did not. Deaths are encouraged as a learning experience, rather than an embarrassment. Yes, you died, but the game still believes you can do it. There are no lives or continues, only your will to carry on. You may have died hundreds of times, but soon, you got the timing down, and you succeeded. Yes, that spike placement seems placed just so in order to frustrate you, but you can got past it.
If I could nail Celeste down to a core theme, it would be, this will be difficult, but I can do this.
The game is hard, but not unbeatable. The challenges are designed very well, across all the stages. For most of them, you can almost immediately pick up what you have to do to get across. The only thing really stopping you is your own ability to do so. I was never 'angry' at Celeste. Yes, I grew frustrated when I couldn't get the right angle to bounce off a wall, or if one of the rare enemies caught up to me, but I never wanted to stop playing because I couldn't progress. Rather, I wanted to keep playing, because I knew it was in my capacity to do so.
It's the same motivation that spurns Madeline forward in the beginning, or so it seems. When people ask her why she stubbornly keeps going, she never directly answers. It isn't until you gradually progress through the game(and learn more about Madeline through her thoughts and her interactions with the sparse souls in the area) that you get the bigger picture: Madeline is...depressed. She has anxiety and she frequently has panic attacks. Those negative emotions manifest into Badeline, a dark purple spirit that antagonizes her throughout her climb.
Madeline- like most people with depression- hates these emotions. She and Badeline frequently argue, and at times Badeline actively tries to harm her. At one point, near the end of the game, Madeline tells her negative self that she has had enough, and to leave her life forever. Of course, Badeline doesn't take too kindly to this and ultimately throws her back down the mountain, effectively nullifying all her hard work, both physically and mentally.
Despite this, Madeline doesn't give up, chasing Badeline down and apologizing for being mean to her. Thanks to the timeworn tactic of 'being nice', we learn the truth about Badeline; she's really just scared. She reacted negatively to being told leave Madeline alone because- just like her- she is afraid of being alone. This time however, Madeline embraces her and the emotions she entails, and together(with a triple jump as a neat gameplay reward, since both girls work together in the final part of the climb), they reach the top of the mountain, accompanied by some of the best music in the game.
I enjoyed every second of Celeste. Not just because of the fun but challenging gameplay. Not just because of the nostalgic music that took me back to my childhood. No, I enjoyed Celeste because it helped me find myself. I started playing a little after I came out as trans to my friends. I was coming to terms with who I was and what was causing my lack of self-esteem; I was living a lie I hated my entire life, one I wasn't fully beginning to understand until I learned more about what being trans meant.
The first question people would tend to ask me is, 'How long have you known?' To be honest, I've 'known' ever since I was a child, but I didn't grow up in an environment that would let me understand those feelings without being chastised. I grew up in a very religious Christian family; that is to say, I have parents with very strong feelings about the concepts of gender and sexuality. Men were men, and women were women, there was no in-between.
The earliest point I felt myself wanting to be someone else was when I six, playing Pokémon Crystal. Professor Elm, for the first time in the series, gives you a choice: Are you a boy, or a girl? I remember, clear as day, confidently selecting 'Girl' and feeling satisfied about the feeling it gave me. It was through video games that I lived out most of my curiosity; keep to myself when I went to school and work, and then 'really' be myself through my video games. If I was given the choice to play as a woman, I would take it every single time. Fallout 3? Girl. MMOs? Girl again. League of Legends? I bought every female champion before I ever bought any of the male ones.
At first, I thought I was non-binary. I knew I didn't want any part of the male spectrum, but I was too afraid to admit I was just wanting to be a woman. In November of last year, I played a game that let me be a trans woman, and it clicked for me. I came out to myself as a trans woman at that moment, long before I came out to my friends and co-workers. When I did come out to them in early January, I was terrified. Where did I even begin? Where did I get hormones? What on earth would I do with my hair? I was myself, but I was also unsure of my future.
Soon after, I bought Celeste after a recommendation from a youtuber and played it for a few hours. I was hooked instantly. I had the one thing I beg for when playing player-driven games; a relatable protagonist. Depression and Anxiety? Oh, I definitely related to that. I related to Madeline more than I did- or do- any other character I've played as in my 20+ years of playing video games. Our adventure was challenging, sometimes frustrating, but it was doable. I could do it. It would be difficult, but I could do it.
That phrase, that understanding, is one I will carry with me as I transition. Yes, it will not be easy to replace my wardrobe or take voice training classes or save for SRS, but I can do it. As long as I kept trying and didn't give up, I could make it to the top of my mountain.
That is why I think Celeste is, in my opinion, one of the greatest games ever made. A relatable protagonist, relatable themes, fantastic music, and challenging gameplay combine to a game I could recommend to anyone and everyone, especially trans folk. Because everyone has their own mountain, but one constant is the same:
This will be difficult, but I can do this.
Celeste can be purchased on PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC/MAC/Linux.