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A Journey of Depression & Self Acceptance, Through The Videogame ‘Celeste’

By Kavish Bhopal, Legends Report Writer

When beginning a new videogame, book, TV series or any of the other countless forms of media in today's world, what do we often look for? Triple-A companies? Famous names? A-list actors? The unassuming indie game Celeste doesn’t fit the traditional expected route to becoming popular, yet it was a nominee of 2018’s game of the year award and equalled votes among giants such as Epic Games and Ubisoft. How did it achieve this you ask? Well, I'd be glad to discuss that.

Celeste, produced by Maddy Thorson, is not only a charming, fun, and extremely difficult game (my 9463 total deaths can attest to that!) but it manages to tell an ordinary story in an extremely powerful way. I have played through some powerful video games in the past, but none have been as relatable as this seemingly simple 2D platformer. 

The story focuses on the character of Madeline, a young woman, who is determined to climb Celeste Mountain; we learn that she is an imperfect human, just like all of us. She suffers from panic attacks, vivid nightmares, and irrational thoughts throughout the course of the main game, and though applied to a fantastical mountain with supernatural elements, the psyche of Madeline can be applied to all of us. 

The beauty of Celeste is that it presents real relationships, without hiding the individual issues surrounding each of the characters, and in actual fact they are what the game centres itself around. This unique property allows us to see the genuine growth and development of Madeline as the game progresses, a trait which is often overlooked in more generic stories.

The Badeline In The Mirror

'We have met the enemy, and he is us’ - Walt Kelly

Madeline’s biggest struggle throughout the story is tackling her own self-doubts and anxiety; we see this through the character, unofficially named Badeline, who is a gothic manifestation of Madeline. Throughout the game, the pair are in conflict with each other, and it is clear that they are in a lose-lose relationship. One desires safety whilst the other desires freedom, but neither are achievable. It is important to remember that both individuals are intrinsically linked. 

They are one individual, together they make up their own Personal Bank Account, a term coined by Sean Covey in the book the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teenagers, which describes the habits and actions that make up a person's self-esteem. Madeline’s desire to run away from this side of her isn’t feasible, and it is what makes her so unhappy with herself. But being the driver of her life, she believes it’s what she needs and so spends the majority of the game attempting to leave Badeline. 

Both characters express discontent with one another but neither attempts to work together, rather than seeing each other as teammates, they see each other as liabilities. Ultimately, this is what blocks them from progression. I think this whole idea spoke to me quite powerfully because we all experience self-doubt and we think that what we need is to block them out in order to progress. However as Taylor Swift once said:

‘To me, “fearlessness” is not the absence of fear. It’s not being completely unafraid. To me, fearlessness is having fears. Fearlessness is having doubts. Lots of them. To me, fearlessness is living in spite of those things that scare you to death.’

This whole concept teaches us the value of self-respect and valuing our own opinions. We are unable to be completely unafraid because self-doubt, at its core, is a defence mechanism. Our self-doubt is an attempt to protect us from humiliation, pain, and failure but we need to learn to understand the rationale behind our thoughts. Although it is sometimes okay to come to the judgement that you cannot do something, which I would define as realism, if left uncontrolled, it can easily turn into nihilism, apathy and feelings of worthlessness.  As Arnold Bennet beautifully expresses,

‘The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who never in his life braces himself for his one supreme effort–he never stretches to his full capacity, never stands up to his full stature.'

If we allow nihilism to get the best of us, we never make that supreme effort, and we are never truly comfortable because we never make the change we desire to attain. Life is full of risks, and if we don’t commit, we will never find out what could lie in store for us. Unfortunately, though, this is the critical level Madeline, and so many other people are forced to face. They become their own biggest enemy. 

The Public Failure

"Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile.” - Mother Teresa 

As the game progresses, Madeline encounters an individual known as Mr Oshiro, a person with schizophrenic tendencies, who almost begs Madeline to stay at his hotel. In addition, he has disillusioned visions of grandeur and relies on his hotel’s success to provide him with happiness. 

Madeline grudgingly accepts, as she needs to pass through the hotel to continue on her journey, however she doesn’t state her intentions in a way that Mr Oshiro can understand. I phrase this sentence so specifically, because she does tell him that she doesn’t want to stay, but never goes to the measure of causing conflict. 

This inability that Madeline has to convey her true emotions resonated with me because it is something that I have struggled with in the past, instead of offending someone, I would've allowed them to take control over me. However, this chapter displays why this isn’t the solution. 

After reorganising his entire hotel, and being taken to her presidential suite, her negative side comes out. Badeline snaps at Mr Oshiro, belittling him and telling him what Madeline was too scared to say. In this chapter, it is clear that Madeline is procrastinating, by going off her goal of climbing the mountain to help Mr Oshiro puts her own goals aside to try and satisfy him. We learn why this personal disconnect is so damaging in terms of Madeleine's interpersonal leadership, she relies on her ‘negative side’ to tell Mr Oshiro the truth, rather than having the willingness to explain it to him in a more empathetic tone. 

This whole chapter displayed the application of relationships in a more genuine way than I have seen in other forms of media. It is clear that the relationship between Mr Oshiro is one that is lose-win, she organises his entire hotel for no benefit and is still treated as a liability by him. However, it shows the complexity of reality. 

It’s nice to learn about what types of relationships exist, and that the best type of relationship is a win-win one but we aren’t perfect, and it takes a lot of strength and courage to have a no-deal one. 

Most of us are unlikely to have 100% win-win relationships and so this chapter shows the effect and fallout of a lose-win relationship. If we do not base our relationships on our true desires, we are forced to live a lie until it gets exposed. However from what we see unfold, we learn what the other options could be, if Madeline had been proactive initially, she could have avoided this whole diversion or even if she had admitted how she felt before it came out of her in such an explosive manner, built up from all the time she had wasted, she could have had a much easier situation to deal with. 

Furthermore, Madeline’s procrastination also shows another dilemma of reality, is Madeline not doing a noble act? She is helping out Mr Oshiro unconditionally, isn’t she? Although this may be true, she does not have her heart behind her actions, she doesn’t really want to help Mr Oshiro because she has her own mountain to deal with. A lesson of acceptance can definitely be found here, acceptance of what actions are necessary, and organising them in order of importance. She may feel temporary pride in helping Mr Oshiro, but she is off-putting her ultimate goal, and it is, therefore (in the long term) unhealthy.

“Start with the end in mind.” - Stephen R. Covey

Rock Bottom & Rebuilding

“If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control - myself.” - Stephen R. Covey

A little further into the game, after layers of metaphorical representation of Madeline’s fears, an overbearing panic attack, and a deeper discontent being built from endless clashing between her and Badeline, she has a discussion with another character (known as Theo) where she explores her inner self, she speaks about her depression and her anxieties, and believes that she needs to let Badeline go, to separate that part of her from her ‘good’ side. This only leads to an extremely powerful reaction from Badeline where Madeline is literally thrown to the bottom of the mountain, below where she had even begun. 

This signifies the incorrect conclusion she made, we cannot view our self-doubt as another part of us, a part of us there to break us down. We need to learn to work with them, in order to make rational judgements, and this is exactly what Madeline decides to do. Rather than give up, thinking it's too late and letting the mountain overcome her. She faces this inner conflict, she chases this part of herself down, and she doesn’t destroy it but rather reconciles with it. 

This is a powerful idea because it doesn’t try to paint a reality where we are all running from our issues until they eventually catch up with us, it tells us to find inner peace and improve our own personal wellbeing. Madeline cannot achieve this without the help of Badeline, just as we cannot achieve our own goals to the best of our abilities without having our whole heart set on it. 

As explorer Sir Edmund Hillary once said,

It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves’.

The final chapter commences, and the unified pair climb the entire mountain within a single day, a metaphor for how our challenges become much easier once we believe in them. More importantly, however, the pair talk to each other whilst the level progresses, they reflect on their previous actions and genuinely apologise for what they had done to each other, 

Madeline says during this chapter ‘I’m just glad we are trying’ and values that above the importance of climbing the mountain. She has conquered her own internal mountain and realised that’s what truly matters to her.

The View From The Top Of The Mountain 

As a whole, Celeste is truly a game about endurance, reflection and self-understanding. The main story of the game centres itself around the internal emotions of Madeline, but there are so many lessons that we can learn and apply through her journey. From managing ourselves, dealing with difficult people, and having genuine discussions about how we truly feel. 

Many of us don’t take the time to self-reflect and work with ourselves. We view our negatives as just that, negatives, but life is so much more complicated. The world isn’t black or white, we often stand on blurred lines of morality because to an extent, it is subjective. Morality is a perception, a paradigm unique to each individual. Badeline, from Madeline’s perspective, is the worst version of herself, but the game objectively doesn’t make her a normal antagonist, because, after the self-realisation that Madeline has, she becomes partners with Madeline, but this is so much more impactful because they are, effectively, the same person. The game as a whole shows the dilemma of imperfection; how imperfection is almost certainly probable, so where do we draw the line of satisfaction? 

Well I would argue that is internal happiness, because after all the best view comes after the hardest climb, and for many of us, this is our internal struggle. 

If you would value talking to a mentor, coach or counsellor in relation to your mental health or depression, please contact us below... 

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