Game of the Year: ‘Celeste’ Beats Out 2018’s Biggest Multimillion Dollar Games

The tiny indie game’s plot focuses on a mountain climber’s mental health, identity and self-care

celeste mobile
Matt Makes Games Studio

In 2018, I defeated Nordic gods in the tremendous God of War, I swung around Stark Tower in the enormously fun Spider-Man and I moseyed my way through a changing West in the jaw-dropping Red Dead Redemption 2. And yet, when considering my Game of the Year selection, it was all too easy to land on a tiny little indie game made by a very small studio.

Celeste came out in January and could have been swept under the rug in the embarrassment of riches that 2018 bestowed on video games. But throughout the torrent of great experiences, I still came back to it again and again and again. I’ve put nearly 100 hours into it, and I know I will gladly put in more. Celeste, made by Matt Makes Games, is definitely my Game of the Year.

Celeste has three things going for it: a genuinely touching story, exceptionally challenging (and rewarding) gameplay and pure polish.

Madeline and the mountain

If you’ve never heard of this game, Celeste is a 2D side-scrolling platformer about a character named Madeline, who is determined to climb Celeste Mountain in 250-stage increments. Celeste’s story continually surprises with its charm, its honesty and its genuine pursuit of connecting the player with Madeline. Celeste is a simple yet frank story about mental illness, identity and self-care, and it succeeds on all those fronts.

You may not learn any big personal lessons, and there won’t be any life-changing twists along the way, but Celeste delivers a memorable story, a small, intimate, relatable story about a girl running away from herself. And I have honestly thought a lot about it over the past year.

Climbing a mountain has never been so hard

Even though the story is a selling point, at its core, Celeste is about gameplay. And man, this gameplay is good. Celeste is a difficult game and it’s supposed to be. The only moves that Madeline has at her disposal as she traverses up the mountain are: a mid-air double jump, which needs to recharge on the ground, and the ability to latch onto walls, which only lasts a short time. That’s really it.

The levels are diverse, featuring helpful assistants and meddlesome obstacles. By the end, the levels are a mishmash of everything shown previously and you can only marvel at how much you’ve learned and how good you have become.

game of the year celeste inarticle
Matt Makes Games Studio

I’m tempted to compare the gameplay to the fantastic (and fantastically difficult) Super Meat Boy. But as I went through my first playthrough, I realized that Celeste offers something different in its difficulty. Super Meat Boy has a twitchy precision and an exactitude that makes you thankful for its speedy respawning as you die over and over again. Celeste does demand a high level of precision, but as it gets harder, I thought of it more as a puzzle game. You’ll die over and over, sure. But way more often than not, that happens in search of the correct combination of moves that allow you to bridge the gap.

It has levels I like more than others. This caused me to curse loudly every now and then, but the gameplay consistently gave an incredibly rewarding experience.

Elbow grease

Matt Thorson, the Matt behind the Matt Makes Games studio, started making games in his teenage years. Even in those early releases, his games came with fleshed-out offerings like stage editors and online multiplayer options. That same care and attention to detail is evident in every part of Celeste.

This game is consistent. Every part of it seems tried and true. Every time I died (and I died literally thousands of times), it was clear to me that the fault was completely on me and not the game. If you set out to make a punishingly difficult game, you must make sure it has an extremely high level of fairness so players can trust that they aren’t being swindled by a shoddy product. From top to bottom, from start menu to credits, Celeste embodies the level of care every game should aspire to provide.

And just when you thought it was all done, and you collected all those just-out-of-reach strawberries, there is so much more. There are more secret areas in the game than there are in the whole of the main story. It’ll take a bit to find everything you need to get the “true” ending in the mountain. Then, you can unlock B-side levels, which are even harder than standard levels. And, heaven help me, there are C-side levels even harder than those.

I will not disagree that 2018 has been an incredibly good year for video games, and I’m thrilled I was able to find the time to play many of them. But as winter approached, and I started thinking about my personal favorite game, my gut immediately said, “Celeste.” Who am I to question that?

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