More Thoughts on Celeste and Environmental Storytelling

Celeste’s Debug Mode

First off I wanted to make an addendum to the last time I wrote about Celeste. In the title of that piece I used the term “ludonarrative dissonance”, but perhaps deployed it somewhat uncritically. After it was brought back into the zeitgeist last year, I endeavoured to read where the term originated from — a blog post about Bioshock by writer and designer Clint Hocking — and found it to be almost comically bad. What struck me most is that Hocking just sort of throws out this term as if it’s a given, and doesn’t attempt to define it (or really even directly use it) whatsoever. Plus ludonarrative dissonance is actually two terms for the price of one, as to my knowledge the word “ludonarrative” by itself was not used before, although it implies Hocking had at least some awareness of game studies and the idea of ludology vs. narratology. So here’s my quick thoughts on 3 possible ways to interpret this phrase.

  1. Ludonarrative can mean “the story as told through play”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that elements such as cutscenes/text/dialogue are not part of this narrative — only that they are merely another stepping stone on the player’s path from beginning to end. This wasn’t a new concept in 2007 either: designers Harvey Smith, Warren Spector et al have talked about player-drivenness since the early 2000’s, and in 2003 a former prof of mine wrote her master’s thesis on the “Player as author”. Slightly more recently Gordon Calleja coined the term “alterbiography” to describe such anecdotal ludonarratives.
  2. However, something happens when you put the word “ludonarrative” next to “dissonance” — it becomes “ludo-narrative”. In this usage gameplay elements and story elements are seen as dyadic; the Yin and Yang that comprises a videogame’s whole. This is the sense that Hocking, myself and many others have used and is the most commonly accepted way of describing dissonance, including the inverse quality of ludonarrative consonance/harmony/resonance/consistency.
  3. Another way one could look at ludonarrative is as a series of lenses — somewhat similar to the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework. Here both the ludological and narratological viewpoints are not in contention but are equally valid readings, and “ludonarrativity” occurs at the intersection of these. In fact, if you view videogames as metagames, we can come to the conclusion that game rules themselves are a narrative collectively defined by designers, publishers and marketers, and players may divine their own emergent ludonarratives which contradict or lay outside these.

Reflecting on this I thought of one other speedrun-specific instance in which Celeste’s ludonarrative tends to break down: cutscene skip warps. There are only two of these in the game which are of any use to runners: one in the mirror room of Old Site and one in the first Theo room in Mirror Temple. What allows for these is that when skipping a cutscene Madeline’s x-axis coordinate value is set to what her position would have been if the cutscene had played out, but her y-axis value is not. So by vertically positioning her in line with something above where the cutscene takes place (a dream block and platform with a button respectively) while colliding with the cutscene trigger, the player not only skips the cutscene but is “warped” to an advantageous spot that saves a small amount of time. This is perhaps not so much a dissonance as it is a neutralization of narrative; it’s not like fast forwarding past the cutscene as if it still happened, but rather redefining how events unfolded spatially. Of the two skip warps the Theo warp is substantially harder to pull off, but the Old Site warp is so relatively easy and the room and dream blocks are designed in such a way that I believe it may have been discovered during development and left in intentionally.

ON LINEARITY

One of the most off-base criticisms I saw of Celeste pre-release was that it looked like a “generic indie Metroidvania with cutesy retro pixel art” or alternatively like a ten year old Flash game. And while Thorson has made Flash games such as Give Up, Robot, MoneySeize and Jumper Three (in fact the diamond-shaped gems/crystals which refill Madeline’s dash are a direct descendent of ideas from Jumper), the art direction in Celeste is simply exquisite. It combines a pixel art base with high res character portraits and UI and a low-poly 3D map screen, none of which feels like an attempt at a throwback and is actually quite contemporary in style, which also applies to the gameplay. The strawberry collectibles are inspired by the stars/medals in Rayman Origins and Super Mario 3D Land/World, plus there’s frequent checkpoints and no lives system or health bars; everything is communicated through Madeline’s colouration whether its her hair indicating whether she can dash or a pulse of red to indicate low stamina — no slowly depleting green wheels required! The tech art visual effects are meticulously detailed and indeed juicy, from the lighting (especially in Resort, Temple and Core) to the water to the subtle warping of Madeline’s sprite when dashing, feathering or getting injured and also the squash-and-stretch of ducking, jumping and fast-falling.

There’s some classic game references no doubt, notably Super Mario Bros. 3 and Megaman, but it’s the Metroidvania comparison that irks me the most, and I even see it from those who do appreciate the game and its level design. Partly I think this preconceived notion was due to the game being released two days after Konjak’s long-awaited Iconoclasts, which is very Metroidian in nature. Also Celeste presents many situations — especially early on — where rooms are the size of a single screen, and the player transitions from one to the next simply by passing the border between them as the camera flip scrolls anew. In this way the game follows in the exploration platformer tradition that stretches from Pitfall! to Gato Roboto, and includes some of Maddy Thorson’s own work. However Celeste also strategically uses medium and large-sized rooms with multi-axis scrolling to modulate the difficulty and/or general feel, such as punctuating sections and chapters with sizable challenges.

The thing is Celeste is for the most part capital “L” Linear. Sure sometimes the player is presented with two or more ways to go that are either pick-a-path like in Chapters 1, 4, 6 and 7 or can be done in different orders such as 3 and 5, as well as diversions like fetching a key to unlock a door or activating a new game object where the level loops back around on itself like in Chapters 2, 3, 5 and 8. However because of the frequent use of back-gating there is always a sense of forward momentum to the proceedings, and if players wish to retreat for collectibles they may have missed along the way they can access specific checkpoints from the map screen menu.

It’s also well-documented that the designers borrowed from real-life rock-climbing to allow for myriad approaches to a single room, from beginner to speedrun strats, and neither is more or less correct. Yet none of this makes the game nonlinear (or even multi-linear), no more than Super Mario Bros. is for allowing Mario to jump over or run under a series of blocks. In fact you could argue SMB1 is even less linear than Celeste because of the Warp Zone (Celeste also allows skipping levels with Assist Mode but they still unlock in sequential order). Celeste’s level design is less like a branching Metroid maze and more like a limb-and-stem hierarchy, with lots of optional content at its margins but one overall arc to each chapter.

ON CONTOUR

Previously I wrote that “very little story is actually conveyed in the speedrun” of Celeste, but as I’ve continued to play I actually realized this isn’t entirely true. For I now see that many of the game’s narrative beats are actually embedded in the level design itself, and to use another two-word game design discourse chestnut, this could be considered a form of environmental storytelling. Akin to ludonarrative dissonance, the term environmental storytelling has become somewhat of a meme due to the fact that videogames’ infatuation with violence and murder have associated it with things like corpses positioned in such a way as to suggest cause-of-death and/or messages written in blood scrawled on walls to either establish an apocalyptic tone or provide tutorial.

But these examples are little more than set-dressing and do not encompass broader narratological concepts such as pacing or dramatic tension. The main idea I want to talk about is how each chapter uses contour so that the wayfinding and leading lines of their environments both reflect and enhance the narrative — not just aesthetically but in how they are structured and sequenced. So let’s run through them.

Chapter 1: Forsaken City’s contour is that of a staircase, combining the conventional left-to-right movement of most 2D platformers with the upward thrust of the game’s mountain-climbing theme, as well as mirroring the diagonality of Madeline’s dash. However in one instance the designers cleverly use the path of least resistance so that most players will come across the introductory encounter with Theo.

Chapter 2: I’ve written about Old Site before so I’ll try to not repeat myself but basically: it’s calm, it goes up, it goes down, then it’s calm again. The contour not only fits perfectly with the theme and layout of a fortified tower, but also represents a spike in the engagement curve, and the music helps tremendously to sell this. We also get our first taste of the mountain’s magical realism, and when Madeline awakens all but the base of the tower has vanished. And yes if you look closely there technically is a skeleton in this level in the cliched environmental storytelling sense.

Chapter 3: Celestial Resort is perhaps my favourite chapter, even though it presents a not insignificant nuisance to newcomers with its cycle-based obstacles. Its contour is S-shaped, as Madeline runs back and forth through the floors of a derelict hotel and eventually to the roof attempting to escape while assisting its emotionally-unstable concierge Mr. Oshiro along the way. While there are story beats throughout the first two straightforward segments, the level uses the terminal ends of each of these to change up the ludonarrative. For instance the modular removal of barriers in the Huge Mess ingeniously creates ramping difficulty regardless of the chosen route, and the chapter culminates in a chase sequence with a monstrously angered Oshiro.

Chapter 4: Looking at contour can also reveal why Golden Ridge is less successful than the other chapters, as it’s a rehash of Forsaken City’s staircase (albeit with much larger “steps”) with Celestial Resort’s straightaway finale. It also splays out in the middle similar to Mirror Temple, however exploration of these various loops and dead ends is nonrequired. While the presence, absence and increased strength of the wind makes for its own sort of pacing, the meat of the chapter’s narrative is its bookended cutscenes. And who exactly is throwing those damn snowballs?!

Chapter 5: Mirror Temple is similar to Celestial Resort but much more drawn out and winding, and also uses the same signal that a change in directionality from horizontal to vertical or vice versa indicates a ludonarrative shift, whether it’s entering into the mirror and the introduction of seekers, searching for a set of keys in the dark or throwing around Theo in crystalline form.

Chapter 6: Reflection is a unique chapter because the game’s designers purposefully omitted strawberries because they wanted it to be more story-driven (it was also going to be a water level at one point). The contour here is like a misshapen letter N, where Madeline must pick herself up after a massive literal and figurative fall from grace, then delve deeper into the bowels of the cavern to confront Badeline. This has been likened to the katabatic “Descent into the underworld” from the Leeming interpretation of the monomyth, which was most famously adapted via level design by thatgamecompany’s Journey. To say this is the low point of the narrative however is a bit of a trite observation, as the actual lowest point of the chapter is the site of Madeline’s reconciliation with Badeline, after which Madeline “levels up” and can double dash herself literally and figuratively out of a rut.

Chapter 7: The Summit’s contour is disjointed as a result of being made up of several individual unconnected segments, as well as hiding lots of secret items. Probably the most interesting thing introduced in the massive late-game flag rooms is the concept of underhang, or small C shapes, which are used as some of the final hurdles in Madeline’s ascent. But the most clever thing about the chapter is how it uses its narrative framing of re-climbing the mountain to reintroduce game objects with the added complexity of the double dash; it fondly reminds us of past environments in a (say it with me) literal and figurative new light. It’s easily the hardest chapter the first time through as its the longest— but rightly so — as the added freedom of movement and recoverability factor afforded by the double dash make it exhilarating despite the challenge.

FURTHER WATCHING

The Magic of Celeste’s Farewell DLC by yakkocmn