Mountain Out Of A Molehill: The portrayal of mental health issues in video games (Celeste)

In my last post I spoke about how I struggled with challenging platformers and that I didn't really like to play them that much. So naturally of course I decided that this week I should play/write about a very challenging platformer. Makes sense, no? The difference with Celeste however is that I wanted to explore the deeper meaning and story behind it. I knew very little about this game going in, only that it's about a young woman climbing a dangerous mountain in order to escape her inner demons. Now, the phrase 'inner demons' tends to conjure up this superfluous image of a damaged past filled with anything from murderous rampages to crying that one time, but what if instead it was focused for once on more of an inner narrative? The kind that's dictated by an evil little voice telling us we're no good and never will be.

After playing Celeste for a short while, I suddenly realised that this game was actually about a young woman that is struggling with her mental health issues - specifically depression and panic disorder.

So as I said Celeste is a difficult platformer set within the fictional mountain range of western Canada. Our main female character, Madeline, is determined to climb Mt. Celeste in order to feel accomplished in herself and attempt to escape the rut she has gotten herself stuck in. Along the way she meets other characters, such as a crazy old woman that lives at the base, and fellow traveller, Theo, that befriends you along the way. Each chapter is fairly lengthy (if you are to include how many times you die along the way) and in each one you discover and experience new, creepy areas of the mountain. Celeste is a particularly notorious mountain however - many have perished on the climb, due to the fact that the mountain seems to possess the ability to personify ones inner turmoil and "true self." Of course we see this in action along the way as Madeline is forced to face her own 'evil Madeline,' a manifestation of all her negative thoughts and emotions into one, purple-haired, red-eyed clone. 'Evil Madeline' constantly pops up throughout the game wreaking havoc and fuelling Madeline's inner hatred of herself. They try to fight it out, to no prevail, so the final solution is for the two of them to work together. With this, Madeline is able to complete her climb to the summit of Celeste and finally come to terms with the feelings inside of her.

This game didn't take me too long to complete on a whole, though I did receive some help along the way. The game is designed to really challenge you, so you can feel immersed in Madeline's journey, but they also offer a handy assist mode (which I used a fair few times!) This means if you feel like you've been stuck on a particular level for an eternity then you can flip a switch and you're able to get out of that hole a little easier. The game does suggest that on your first play through you try not to use this mode, but for someone who is significantly less skilled when it comes to platformers, this came as a welcomed relief.

Now, onto Madeline herself.

I love her as a protagonist. Honestly, she might be one of my favourite female characters that I've encountered this year, which seems strange for a platformer as you wouldn't think the characters would be as well developed. She's smart, determined and very sarcastic and a lot of these traits I'm able to see in myself. The ability to relate to her heightens as the game goes on however, as her darker side begins to show. As well as all of those other things she is also riddled with self doubt and at times feels very closed off from the world. At the beginning of the game her goal is simple - climb mountain = be happy - but as we progress through it with her, alongside the encounters with 'evil Madeline,' we see that her path was never going to be a straight one.

One of the main points that stuck out to me is when Madeline and Theo are on a ski lift and 'evil Madeline' fiddles with the controls, breaking it and leaving them suspended in mid air. Here is the first instance we see Madeline experiencing a full-on panic attack, lashing out at Theo and curling into herself in tears. I have never in my life seen something like this in a game (or even really a movie/tv for that matter) that portrays how it really feels to have a panic attack. As someone who has had a few in her life, as well as living with someone that often suffers from them, you realise that it's not always rocking backwards and forwards and feeling like the walls are closing in on you. Sometimes all you can do is be small and try to attack anyone who comes close to you. Everything feels hopeless with no way out, until Theo comes to the rescue with a technique he was taught as a child - picture a feather floating in front of you, your steady breathing is keeping it afloat. With this, Madeline eventually begins to calm down and the two of them are able to get off of the ski lift. The thing that got me so much with this tiny cut scene is that it wasn't over-egged, it wasn't super dramatic, it was just very real. For a game that gives you amazing jumping powers to climb up an imaginary mountain, it sure knows how to portray the real stuff.

Another moment like that is just after this one, where Madeline and Theo are sat around a fire talking about their pasts and where they come from. Now, never once did I see them say the word 'depression,' but in the way they talk about things it's very heavily implied. They talk about being stuck in a rut, hating their jobs, feeling like nothing they do is worth while. These are all incredibly, incredibly relatable things to say and definitely not something I was planning to have to deal with in what looked like a fun little game about mountain climbing. Their discussion is deep and lengthy, with both of them coming to terms with the fact that they have something deep inside of them that they despise and want to be rid of. Honestly this part got me a little choked up because I have often felt the same way - in those darkest moments it's easy to feel like you are the worst person on the face of the earth and that everything that goes wrong is your fault. So you try to escape those thoughts, run and hide from them or push them so far down that you hope they'll never resurface. But often they can, and sometimes in ways that hurt us more than if we had dealt with them in the first place - again, take a look at 'evil Madeline.'

I want to see more games handle mental health issues the way that Celeste has done. It's clear that the team behind this have put a lot of effort into learning how to approach these kind of subjects and it would be great to see more of a representation across, not just games, but all platforms. I also like that it's not the 'be all and end all' scenario, where it's basically saying here's the best and only way to cure yourself. It simply teaches you acceptance in yourself and finding the best way to do that. Whether it be today, tomorrow, or after climbing a giant, mystical mountain, there is always some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.

In terms of gameplay, Celeste frustrated the hell out of me, but in terms of story I truly, truly loved it. I still wouldn't consider myself a decent plaformer, but I have certainly learned a lot from playing this. The nicest thing of all though is knowing that whenever I need this game, for whatever reason be it good, bad or sad, it'll always be there for me to give me the kind of message I need.

#NintendoSwitch #IndieGaming #Platformer #Mentalhealth