Celeste, an indie platformer hit about a young woman named Madeline climbing a mountain, is a game that I feel like everyone has said their piece on. Since its release in early 2018, there have been countless video essays, thinkpieces and dissections of the game’s plot and themes, revolving largely around a metaphor for struggling with mental illness. But there is a good reason for that. The narrative that Celeste crafts is very different from most of the ones we see in the media revolving around this subject, and the simplicity of its metaphor is extremely effective and hits hard.
But, even with so much already said about Celeste, I feel the need to toss my hat into the ring in the year 2022, because, even though I am extremely late to the party, Celeste is a piece of media that has had a profound effect on me, my life, and how I view my struggles with my mental disorders. So, here is how Celeste taught me to be kind to myself.
If you came into this not knowing about Celeste, I am basically going to be spoiling the entire plot, so, if you want to experience the game blind (which I 100% recommend), now’s your chance to dip out. But, if you don’t care about spoilers, or you just need a refresher on the game’s plot, I’ll lay it all out for you.
Celeste is a game following Madeline, who is climbing Celeste Mountain; partially because she doesn’t have anything else to do at this point in her life, and partially to prove to herself that it’s something that she is able to do. Along the way, she meets a few quirky characters, with the most relevant being a fellow traveler and a photographer named Theo. With his help, she tries to reach the summit of this notoriously-dangerous and mysterious mountain.
We learn very early on in the story, via a call to her mom, that Madeline is someone who suffers from panic attacks, and this becomes relevant when Madeline and Theo later ride a gondola to ride over a gap in the mountain, only for it to shut down and stop working mid-ride. After this happens, the screen goes darker, and what appears to be enemies appear in all corners of the screen, and the player prepares for a fight…! Only to realize that Theo isn’t reacting. He isn’t seeing what we and Madeline are seeing. Madeline is having a panic attack.
Theo takes the time to help Madeline calm down, which he knows how to do thanks to his own sister’s struggles with them, as we learn later. We, as the player, help Madeline do as Theo says; imagine that her breathing is being used to suspend a feather in the air. After doing this, Madeline calms down, and the background returns to normal.
But that wasn’t all. A purple-haired girl appeared at the top of the gondola, just before Madeline began to panic. This is Part of Madeline, as she is referred to-in game. In the internal files, she is referred to as Badeline (because who doesn’t love a good pun?), so, for the sake of simplicity, I will be calling her that, although I will share my thoughts on this nickname versus her in-game name as Part of Madeline later on. Badeline is a physical representation of Madeline’s negativity, stress, anxiety, and other such things, brought to life by the powers of Celeste Mountain. As a physical representation of Madeline’s mental illnesses and mental struggles, Badeline is the main ‘antagonist’ of the game, as, throughout it, she tries to stop and hinder Madeline’s journey up the mountain, because she believes that Madeline can’t do it.
After Madeline and Theo successfully cross the gap, they have a talk about Madeline’s mental issues. This conversation helps Madeline feel a lot better, and she eventually comes to the conclusion that Badeline is the manifestation of everything in her that she needs to leave behind, and that she needs to destroy this Part of Her, out of fear that it will destroy her first if she doesn’t.
Madeline feels really good about this decision. She feels calm and confident, and she feels certain that she will be able to tackle her dark side. And, when she goes to confront Badeline, she describes this process, not as abandoning her, like Badeline interpreted it, but as setting Badeline free. It sounds as good as you could possibly imagine, and this, in so many different pieces of media, would be where the story ends, with Madeline confronting and letting go of her problems.
But Celeste doesn’t do that. Because Celeste is better than that. Celeste knows better than to claim that you can simply cure your mental illness with the power of positive thinking and confidence. So, Badeline calls Madeline stupid for thinking that she can just get rid of her. And, when Madeline goes to think of the feather, Badeline slices the feather up; saying, no, you can’t win this. You can’t get rid of me. You don’t have the power that you thought you did over me. And so, Madeline is thrown back down the mountain by Badeline. Down, down, down…
All the way back to the bottom of the mountain. Back to where she began. And when she wakes up, she feels like a failure. She couldn’t climb the mountain, just like Badeline said she couldn’t. She couldn’t overcome her demons, like she thought she could.
However, after pushing forward a bit, she meets up with the old woman who lives on the mountain, who provides a bit of an alternative perspective. That Badeline is scared. And that Madeline needs to talk to her again, to figure out why she’s so scared. And Madeline realizes that maybe this Part of Her isn’t something she should be working to get rid of, but working together with.
Once Madeline is able to talk to Badeline again, Badeline, after running away and being caught, doesn’t know what else to do. She says that if Madeline wants her to go away, she can try. But Madeline says no. That’s not what she wants, and she knows that won’t work. She wants to work with Badeline, and she believes that she can climb Celeste Mountain if she and Badeline work together. Badeline is sceptical, and she’s afraid, but she decides to try it, and join up with Madeline, accepting the hug that she offers. And, when you decide to work together, how you play the game changes. Previously, Madeline could dash in the air one time, but, now that she’s working together with Badeline, she can dash twice. And it’s only with the utilization of this new power that she escapes the hole she was thrown down into, and then reach the peak of Celeste Mountain.
This was an incredible perspective to have. That your mental issues are just your mind trying its best to keep you alive. And you can’t get rid of it, not really; and if you try, you’ll end up worse off then you were before. But, if you try to work with your issues instead of fighting against and antagonizing your mental illnesses, and are kind, patient, and understanding to yourself, you can accomplish so much more.
I’m someone who has never really resonated with the mainstream media approach of confronting your issues in one big, dramatic moment, and then being able to move on. If I was able to do that, there would have been at least 6 different points where it would have happened for me by now. But this humanization of mental illness as something to work with and accommodate has helped me. And that’s why I think that Badeline, while a convenient way to refer to Part of Madeline, sort of goes against this. She’s not ‘bad Madeline’. She’s exactly what she says she is; a part of Madeline, a part that she can’t just let go of. A part that’s not inherently bad. A part that needs to be taken care of, and seen, and helped, instead of repressed.
When I first played Celeste, it gave me a lot to think about, in regards to how I view my own mental struggles. I’ve always beaten myself up for my inability to do certain things. Whenever I was unable to leave my room for days, or unable to get high grades or make friends, I mentally berated myself for not being able to do better. I used to be so angry that I just couldn’t accomplish what other people could.
But, after finishing Celeste, it lingered in the back of my mind for a long while. A few times, just for fun, I visualized Badeline affecting me in all of the ways that my mental illnesses affected me. And, somehow, I couldn’t stay angry at myself when imagining it like that.
I found myself working with my own Part of Me. When I had issues getting myself to brush my teeth, instead of berating myself for being so gross, I would compromise with myself, and instead brush my teeth for a minute instead of two. When I found myself getting angry at myself for not being able to do better in school, I instead began to refer to that Part of Me as another person. A scared person, who needed understanding. He did the best that he could. She was overwhelmed by school, and she put herself through as much mental strain as she could handle.
After applying Celeste's message to my everyday life, I have found myself conquering more and more things that I never thought I could, just through the power of being simply kind to myself. And I have Celeste to thank for that. Celeste taught me that fighting your mental illness every step of the way only makes things worse for yourself, and hinders your progress. And that, just like all other parts of yourself, your mental issues deserve compassion and understanding. If you can work with and accommodate yourself, rather than villainizing yourself, you can accomplish so much more than you ever thought you could.
And you can double-jump. And that’s pretty rad, too.