Some Thoughts on Celeste and Ludonarrative Dissonance

For the past year I have almost exclusively been playing a single game and that is Celeste. From my first playthrough I knew the game had a significant impact on me and I wanted to write about it but couldn’t quite find a unique angle. Things like the game’s generous assist mode or its charming narrative about facing a generalized anxiety seemed well-covered by other outlets. Then I began to speedrun the game, starting with the first level and a modest goal to best Tim Rogers’ publicized time, and the way I viewed the game radically changed.

Celeste is not just a good platformer with a cute story — it has been skillfully designed from the ground up to be the greatest (and most accessible) speed game of all time. Once you start to dissect the levels room by room you realize that nothing is arbitrary and every ledge and cranny is carefully placed to maximize Madeline’s manoeuverability. To speedrun Celeste is a fine marriage of exquisite level design and simple yet combinatorially deep movement that is nothing short of transformational.

Take for example the game’s second chapter Old Site, which is broken up into three sections: an intro that sets up the level’s main gimmick, a chase sequence with Madeline’s evil doppleganger, and a safe section which is essentially done twice. In a casual playthrough the meat of the chapter is the chase sequence with the other two deescalating the tension and allowing for greater exploration. But when speedrunning this difficulty curve is entirely inverted, as the chase sequence has fairly straight-forward “grooves” compared to the uneven terrain of the final segment, which must be dealt with not once but twice. Getting two entirely different experiences from a single level is the genius of Matt Thorson’s design.

However, this new perspective on Celeste also gave me pause to think about what exactly was at the core of the experience, and if the casual-friendly side of the game completely gelled with the high intensity of its speedrunning scene. For if I were to extrapolate out a consistently musical terminology, I would say that the game is extremely ludonarratively consonant; its something you can actually hear in the form of the stellar soundtrack. Celeste is about overcoming obstacles through trial and error and the narrative reflects that. Yet, the speedrun of the game calls into question just how compatible these two halves are.

With one exception every cutscene in Celeste is skippable, meaning very little story is actually conveyed in the speedrun. In fact, skipping cutscenes becomes sort of a quick-time event since the designers made it so that the in-game timer is always running. What I find particular about this approach is that it codifies what does and does not “count” as gameplay. There are at least two segments, a dialogue tree which fills in some backstory and another memorable moment where Madeline imagines a floating feather in order to de-stress on a cable car ride, that are skipped over entirely in the speedrun. Ultimately this is the right decision to make for speedrunners, but it suggests that there is still some incongruity at play, however subtle. Celeste wants to be all things to all people, and it just about succeeds.

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada