Well, yeah, of course she is.
November 6, 2020 6:09 AM   Subscribe

"Why couldn’t a cis person relate to a trans person? Modern trans struggle might be unique in its details, but it is definitely not alien to the human condition. We are people." Maddy Thorson writes about the protagonist of Celeste in their blog. (spoilers about the game) posted by simmering octagon (18 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I had a difficult time following this as I had never heard of Celeste, let alone played it. A lot of the article was the author's journey of self-discovery through a character, but the game itself seems to be a 2D platform shooter, not an RPG? There's maybe a loose story line to move along the plot? I assumed that for 2D platform games, a backstory to the character only helped marketing efforts and wasn't central to the experience. This game obviously has a fan base that skews LGBTQ, so it'd be interesting to hear some context here.
posted by geoff. at 6:32 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]

I loved Celeste, played it at launch with my kid. Now it’s years later and some kids are getting a clearer picture of their identity and identifying as queer, and if having played this game helps them have some context for that, then great. Madeline and Celeste showed us how being strong and being willing to accept help and give yourself a break, are all important. That’s a good lesson. I’m grateful for it.
posted by Straw Cab at 6:47 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]

I haven't had a chance to play the full version (I saw a tiny preview of it) but its awesome soundtrack is my current work music.
posted by Jpfed at 6:53 AM on November 6

I was put off from trying Celeste as it's described widely online as yet another "tough-as-nails" 2-D platformer, which is a game category that I will never have enough discipline and desire to finish.

It's widely praised as a great game, but I have never heard about this angle. This makes me want to check it out.
posted by SoberHighland at 7:02 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]

geoff.: the story line in Celeste is a central part of the game, and is extremely well done. Like an RPG, there are numerous cut scenes and plenty of character development. The core part of the game is Maddy’s struggles with herself and overcoming them, with climbing the Celeste mountain as the core metaphor for that.

About the game mechanics, Celeste is a pure platformer with no shooting (by the player character) – Maddy can jump and cling to and climb walls and that’s it. There’s a heavy amount of puzzle solving involved to navigate the various areas of the game, and you’ll need extremely tight timing to pull off moves.

Note that I haven’t played the extra chapter because I haven’t completed the hard extra bits to unlock it...
posted by zsazsa at 7:04 AM on November 6 [1 favorite]

It's widely praised as a great game, but I have never heard about this angle. This makes me want to check it out.

The game has an assist mode that can allow you to make the game as easy as you want. While the game gains a lot by making the player feel Madeline's frustration and difficulties in climbing Celeste mountain, the narrative and the game are good enough to recommend even if you enable every assist mode feature. The game will never judge for it.
posted by simmering octagon at 7:09 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]

I've beaten Celeste, though not the extra chapter, and while I never got into Super Meat Boy and the like I found Celeste very approachable in its challenge. It's difficult, but never unfair, and it's very patient and supportive in its presentation of the challenge. There's accessibility settings that range from slowing the game speed down to giving you infinite jumps and making you invincible, if the challenge as presented is insurmountable for you personally.
posted by NMcCoy at 7:09 AM on November 6

It's a great game, and Thorson's essay is really terrific and quite moving, thanks for the post!
posted by LooseFilter at 7:20 AM on November 6

Trans representation can never be just one thing, and this is a great window into an evolving character. I love reading The Matrix through a trans lens. Star Trek Discovery is bringing in trans and nonbinary plot lines this season. NK Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy has a trans character whose reveal is no big deal. Visibility in fiction is important, but so is clarity that for a lot of trans people being trans is not more important than just being the gender they are, full stop.

My kid plays this game a lot, and he's vehement in his support and defense of trans folx in his online spaces. I'm glad he's growing up now and not when I did.
posted by rikschell at 7:38 AM on November 6

I found Celeste very approachable in its challenge. It's difficult, but never unfair, and it's very patient and supportive in its presentation of the challenge.

I agree with this. I am a very mediocre gamer and avoid difficult games, but the timing in Celeste makes the challenges meditative rather than frustrating, for me. The plot is about struggle and failure, so I don't ever feel like I am playing the game wrong, or poorly, or that the game is not for me as a casual gamer.
posted by tofu_crouton at 7:47 AM on November 6 [2 favorites]

Although it doesn't highlight the trans perspective, I'd endorse this playthrough of Celeste for those who'd prefer to engage with the game that way. It's played by someone with very little experience with 2D platformers, using Celeste's (as noted above) remarkably good assortment of assist mode options, while her more experienced partner encourages her, and they talk a lot both about the impacts of assist mode on the gameplay experience and also about the protagonist's mental struggles and coping strategies. Going into Celeste like geoff. illustrates above, not expecting it to have any significant narrative, is a common experience, and that playthrough has really consistently positive reactions to it.

It's hard to say what the Right Thing To Do is vis-à-vis detailing/confirming fictional characters' queer identities. Before reading this article, and knowing little about Thorson's life, I was slightly bothered by how ambiguous the game made it: when recommending Celeste to someone on the grounds of its having a trans protagonist, I always had to hedge a little about it only being implied and so on, so as not to disappoint the person I was talking to. And I think that would still be a totally fair reaction for a game (or other story) made by a bigger team, whose contents were dictated more by a marketing department. But seeing Thorson's perspective reminds me that some things are created more as careful/personal works of art by individuals, and so their feelings are also important in that, not just the feelings of the people receiving/consuming the art.
posted by one for the books at 8:06 AM on November 6 [6 favorites]

Maddy's tag line has long been that she "makes games" but I think we should probably say that Maddy Makes Art too. Great essay, and thanks for pointing me toward this blog!
posted by dbx at 8:47 AM on November 6

Celeste is one of my favorite games I’ve ever played. I don’t want to be reductive, but I think there’s a universality to it that makes it so compelling. We all struggle with identity; we all struggle with self-doubt and self-acceptance. I’m not a particularly skilled gamer and fighting to the top of Celeste was a huge and rewarding accomplishment for me. It gave me hope that things that feel impossible might actually not be. I have a hard time putting my thoughts in much better order than that but I think it’s wonderful that this story about a trans woman and her struggles has touched so many people, including its own creator.
posted by kjh at 9:28 AM on November 6 [3 favorites]

which is a game category that I will never have enough discipline and desire to finish.

One of the themes of the game that permeates the dialog and cutscenes is coping with failure. The dialog, cutscenes and even the gameplay itself build on that. In one chapter -- perhaps riffing off the Asian Dad meme -- the hotelier Mr. Oshiro is obsessed with overcoming his perceived failures. His hotel is in shambles and has had no guest in ages, and he is so attached to succeeding he is cursed to haunt the hotel in the after life. His story warns players about being too proud to admit to failure or seek help.

Madeline, the playable character, often reflects in dialogs about her past failures, and her belief that she gave up too quickly in the past. Climbing the mountain is a daunting challenge she wants to overcome specifically because she thinks it's hard. Over the course of the game she suffers many setbacks, even accidentally setting loose her own Mr Hyde. Over the course of the game she learns the true challenge is accepting herself (and her alter ego manifestation), and only after forgiving her past self is reaching the summit of Celeste Mountain possible.

The gameplay reinforces the message that failure is a part of success. The player is expected to fail a lot, but there is no meaningful punishment other than to restart the scene and try again, which is very quick. Every screen is an opportunity to practice improve, and eventually succeed. The game is hard, but there is no shame in failing at it, no dog laughing at your failures. The designer allows you to reduce the difficulty and encourages players to do so if it's getting in the way of the story progression (I think there may be some achievements that require players forgo difficulty mods, but none are story related at all).
posted by pwnguin at 3:28 PM on November 6

Maddy Thorson's pronouns are they/them, just as a reminder!
posted by Lurch at 3:38 PM on November 6 [3 favorites]

Incidentally, Celeste was part of the itch.io bundle for racial justice, so if you bought that you already own the game.

I think there may be some achievements that require players forgo difficulty mods

No, not even that. The game never gives you different rewards depending on whether you use assist mode.

I assumed that for 2D platform games, a backstory to the character only helped marketing efforts and wasn't central to the experience.

This varies a lot. Certainly the gameplay experience is more important than the story in one sense: a game with awkward controls or tedious level design will be badly received regardless of whatever other merits it has, but there's no similar minimum standard for story elements. Beyond that, though, platformers can have very different approaches to story. A few examples from games I've played: Spelunky and its sequel have a brief backstory that basically amounts to "explore the caves, try not to die". Hollow Knight has very little story, but there's a fair amount of backstory you can uncover as you explore the game. Shantae and the Pirate's Curse has a storyline but it's not that important, existing mostly to give you a reason to travel around to various different places. Axiom Verge has a fairly serious storyline that's an important part of the game. So while not all 2D platformers treat story as an important element, Celeste is by no means unique in doing so.
posted by Tau Wedel at 12:48 PM on November 7 [1 favorite]

On difficulty:

Celeste isn't an easy game, but part of what gives the particular reputation it has is that if you beat the game and want more, it has a post-game that's even longer than the main game, and keeps ramping up the difficulty. So it caters to and is popular with people who like especially difficult platformers.

The game in general works very hard to feel fair, and I think most people who are comfortable with platformers in general would find the (main) game to be of manageable difficulty, albeit harder. If you don't have much experience with 2D platformers, or find them to be difficult in general, then you'll probably struggle with Celeste. But, as noted, the assist mode is very well thought out if you're interested anyway.

A video playthrough of it that I enjoyed is this one from streamer CarlSagan42. He's... very good at this kind of game, and takes a lot of obvious joy in it, which is something that I always enjoy. He also talks about the themes of anxiety in a meaningful way.

Anyway, Maddy strikes me as a very thoughtful person, I love their game, and I can't wait to see what they make next.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:09 AM on November 8

geoff > I assumed that for 2D platform games, a backstory to the character only helped marketing efforts and wasn't central to the experience.

Story and video games is a complicated beast. Some forms - the visual novel, the JRPG, the interactive fiction - are more prone to having a collection of characters with some dimension and a story with some narrative subtlety. Some are not - most action-focused games tend to have a minimal story that's just a transparent excuse for you to run around performing variants on the core game loop.

But any type of game can have a thoughtful story that's deeply integrated with its gameplay, whose narrative themes grew up alongside the actions you perform in the game, and resonate with each other. Celeste is one of those games; its numerous cut-scenes are meditations on struggle, internal and external, and the game itself is something designed to create a lot of moments of frustration (fuck me I will never finish this screen, I've been trying for the past half hour) and success/relief (yess, I finished that one and blew through the next one, hell yeah, oh dear this one looks pretty tough). Most modern action games have stories that ape the broken English of the NES games their creators grew up with as a way to persuade the player to not give a shit about how thin they are - but they don't have to. Celeste doesn't, Celeste is written by people for whom English is their native language, who use a game built around constant, repeated failure as a place to ponder self-worth, persistence, and growth.

Personally I didn't get a trans read off of Madeline when I played Celeste, though I never bothered with the expansions. It sounds like it's mostly stuff in the later additions that made people wonder?

(I can also point at Supergiant's Hades as a very action-focused game that has a beautifully-crafted story that's woven intimately into its structure as a game of repeated failure; your character is an immortal, with the many, many times you try and fail to get through the game's levels commented upon by everyone in the story. And, like Celeste, it has an Easy Mode that it refuses to punish you for turning on, if you want to enjoy its narrative without getting insanely good at a game designed to repeatedly kick your ass. I'd been slowly working my way through Persona 5, supposedly lauded for its story despite its awkward Japanese translation, and Hades constantly puts a smile on my face for how well-written it is.)
posted by egypturnash at 3:32 PM on November 9 [2 favorites]

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