In a manner that continues to feel frighteningly familiar, the summer of 2018 was a muddled time in my life, a chapter that lacked direction. Yet, it was also during those listless weeks, when I was sweating the days away in a small apartment above a shopping mall in the south of Jakarta, that I first played Celeste. I felt certain that I was in for something special as I commenced my climb to the summit. But I could not have known just how personal of an experience it would turn out to be.
A few months later — and I already knew it at the time — I would move to British Columbia myself, fairly close to where the real, and much more mundane, Mount Celeste is located. This occasion marked another major transition for me, but one during which I felt little hope as I had grown painfully aware of how I had begun to go through the motions, disillusioned yet superficially committed to my long-lasting educational journey by starting a PhD. It seemed like the only thing I could possibly do with my life. Just like for Madeline in the moment when she first arrived at the foot of the mountain, there was no simple way for me to explain my actions anymore. Getting to the top, whether as part of a magical outing or while traipsing around the suffocating halls of academia, had become the sole objective — and everything that may follow unknowable and, frankly, of little relevance.
Originally, when Celeste ended with its eighth chapter, it did so on a hopeful, nostalgic, and warm note. It felt as if, for a moment at least, Madeline had truly found what she had been looking for. Encouraged and more ‘complete’ than ever, she was ready to move on, to tackle the challenges in her life with a newly forged sense of self, an inner strength that I admire. But even though I had seen in my own past how powerful the changes following big steps can be, I continued to lack her optimism on the other side of the screen as I was contemplating my own situation — and this was long before the pandemic arrived to uproot everything. It is perhaps for this reason that Chapter 9, when it was released more than a year later and I was already living close to the mountain, resonated so strongly with me. In the end, Madeline had not found a happy ending that magically fixed everything. Her struggle continued. And the most difficult lesson she had to learn was that hardships so profound are cyclical in nature, never truly overcome or left behind. Beyond the peak of every mountain, there lies another valley.
Of course I had wished for Madeline to find peace, but I do appreciate the honesty, the lack of rosy platitudes, in what has since then become such an important videogame to me. It is what makes Madeline’s story so relatable. Celeste is not meant to be a hopeless work of fiction, but its central narrative makes perfect sense in the eyes of a player who often feels that way. There is something undeniably beautiful and soothing on the mountain, an elusive safety that forms its very core. But, even as close to its summit as I am today, the shape of Mount Celeste and its promise are often very hard to make out in the distance…