Saturday, February 3, 2018

Game Diary - Oh Inconstant Man.

Say what you will, but I have earned this through years of abstinence from memery. 

I don't often write about my crippling depression, but one aspect of it is loathing everything about myself.  For example, I'll go write on my blog and talk on the podcast about Iconoclasts and how seductive and exciting I found its opening ninety minutes, convincing Chamberlain to actually part with money and purchase a game (a rare event, like a snow-white bison calf born under a blood moon), and within the next week my enthusiasm for the game will just kinda' peter out and I can't even bring myself to finish it.

I feel super-guilty about that.  I shouldn't... I don't think I should, anyway - and yet I do.  Eh.  Depression.  Being hyped about a game and then losing interest is simply further evidence that I have no redeeming qualities and am unworthy of human affection - obviously. 'Cause who does that, man?  Chamberlain beat the game, in the mean time, and scored it a solid 7.5 - no worse than anything else he plays as a general rule.

I mention depression because while I was trying to convince myself to play Iconoclasts, I was side-eyeing Celeste's availability on the Switch.  It got some ridonkulous reviews upon release, and said reviews insisted the game had everything Iconoclasts lacks - razor-sharp controls, constantly-pleasing platforming challenge and evolving mechanics that are easy to intuit and grow ever-more complicated...

That sounds awesome, to me.  So I bought it (and Night in the Woods) on Switch, and started it up on Thursday night.  Turns out, in addition to being a razor-sharp pixel-art platformer with perfect controls and thoughtful, involving gameplay, Celeste is a game about coming to terms with depression, and anxiety.

Oh, also, did you know that the only two ways it seems you can export a captured video clip from your Switch is to post it directly to a Facebook or Twitter account from the Switch itself?  That's stupid!

I tore through this game.  What was the last game I actually finished, before Celeste?  South Park: TFBW?  Mario Odyssey, maybe?  It's hard for a game to keep my attention, these days, but I found myself drawn back to Celeste these last two nights just via the thought of how it felt to play it.  I'd have a few good rounds of Overwatch (I've been flexing - got a Junkrat PotG and a Zen PotG so far), and I'd wonder what I wanted to do next, and the answer would be to stretch out on the couch with Celeste on my Switch and Michael Che's or Dave Chappelle's standup on the TV.

That's always the terminus of any discussion about a game, for me.  Is it pleasurable to just play?  Like Mario Odyssey or Mark of the Ninja or Dying Light or Galak-Z, is it fun just to fling myself around this world?

Celeste is fun to play, and it's also a lot of other really nice things.

Each chapter brings new mechanics, and in later levels the rules of the platforming itself get little nudges in the form of powerful winds, but its mechanical simplicity brings to mind Shovel Knight in that you, yourself, only have three buttons at your disposal.  One button jumps, one button air-dashes, and one button grabs walls to hold, or climb.  Your ability to air-dash only resets when you stand on solid ground, or hit a jump pad or grab a refresh gem in midair.  That, and and a kind-of-stunning wealth of cleverly designed rooms is all Celeste needs to keep things fun and fresh and engaging for 12+ hours.  It just keeps giving little twists on its demands, and each new chapter introduces new hazards and things to bounce off of, keeping it constantly-fresh. 

The thing is, Celeste's challenge is spoken of as if it's something in the vein of N+ or Super Meat Boy or Dustforce.   That's kind of a turn-off for me, as those are also razor-sharp pixel-art platformers, also critically-acclaimed, but definitely games I could not get in to (or in Dustforce's case, could not finish).  There's a nice amount of narrative and heart to Celeste that I found genuinely moving - a lot more context than you'll get in the above games - but Celeste is also an unapologetically hardcore platformer in which I never looked at what the game was asking of me and said "okay, fuck this."

'Cause that's the crux, man.  That's where N+ and Dustforce lost me, when I either couldn't perceive how their mechanics were supposed to allow me progress, or understood what they were asking of me and said "yeah, no, that's not physically possible, for me."   That moment never came, in Celeste

Instead, Celeste is a game that's reliably just demanding enough to keep things interesting, just challenging enough to constantly drip-feed you a sense of accomplishment for clearing each room, and never perfunctory.  When Madeline arrives on the mountain and announces her intention to scale it, her professed motive is simply to challenge herself, but we clearly understand she's also running from something - some failure she never explains. 

Over the course of Celeste, we come to...

Well, I admonished Chamberlain for suggesting he may spoil Iconoclasts' (rather impressive!) narrative for me, so I suppose I should limit myself, in turn - but let me say as someone who has been in a thirty-year love-hate relationship with his own failings, Celeste is very affecting. 

Just for a game to entice me into finishing it is a noteworthy accomplishment, so Celeste has already effectively joined luminaries of the past year like Horizon: Zero Dawn, Sundered and Mario Odyssey, and unlike South Park: The Fractured But Whole, I feel like it deserves to be in that company. 

While it maintains a lovely escalation of mechanics and challenge throughout, it also feels pretty generous in terms of optional content.  A lot of rooms hold a floating strawberry that you can ignore, if you wish - they're only there for you to see if you can get 'em - and they often just require a few more precious seconds, a perfect leap or two more as you race against whatever tricks you're trying to overcome. 

Push off the beaten path even a little, and you'll find countless whole optional rooms - existing only to provide a new little mountain to climb, a new little challenge to overcome that continues to riff on its chapter's mechanics, just for the sake of testing yourself against them.  And when you do, again, these are perfect controls, this is excellent platforming - Celeste is as good as it gets.

10/10, would betray my fellowship again.