Welcome to January, dear reader. A month where humanity seems unable to rise from a miasmic fugue state, brought on by perhaps failed ambitions in the previous year, overindulgence over the festive break, or merely by the worry and anxiety that fills one up as one contemplates that a new year is the “start of something”, to say nothing of the new decade.
This month, I played Gris (released in 2019) and Celeste (released in 2018) pretty much back to back; two excellent video games developed by Nomada Studio and Matt Makes Games. These are both 2D side-scrollers, with a heavy emphasis on storytelling, visuals and mental illness (!?). Like all things, these games came to me at the time I needed them most. A calm before the storm, a moment of reflection before the fit hits the shan.
Gris passed me by during its release in August 2019. I had been quite ill over the summer, and came back after a trip to Remedy’s Control, which took up most of my free time. I’m glad I waited, to be honest. During the January blues, I could really soak up Gris’ slow beauty.
Gris, on a superficial level, is a really beautifully hand-drawn 2D platformer where one takes control of the titular protagonist, who has lost her voice. At the start, you are surrounded in a sullen grey-scape. As you scroll from left to right, Gris’ movements are lethargic, slow and melancholy. Through pure visual storytelling, you understand the loss that this person is going through. As you dig deeper into Gris, you quickly realise that what you are in fact playing is something as emotive and weighty as 2012’s Journey. Through symmetrical and very simple platforming and puzzling, you are taken on a narrative journey (sorry) whereby Gris returns colour to the world. There is plenty of thematic interpretation going on here, if you want to delve. It’s almost like going through the stages of grief. I could see anger, fear and depression, all wrapped up in this richly water-color detailed, subtle and transportive game. A review in Polygon puts it better than me: “Gris is a game that wants to teach us something about these fears we hold inside”.
I played Gris in those quiet, fleeting moments you have when your child is asleep, when you’re waiting for someone, or in my car, alone, during lunch. Gris was a cure to my loneliness. Its narrative about finding the power within yourself to come back to the world, and live, after something terrible happens, hit me pretty hard. Your strength comes from within, as well as your fears and anxieties. It is about not giving into your fears, but accepting them, and overcoming them not by warring, but by talking to yourself.
When I finished Gris, after about 4 hours, I didn’t feel hollow. I felt like something had filled me up, something like an acceptance of my fears. Sometimes we define ourselves by the things we have, or the things we can do, or what we like, or by other people. And if we lose those things, it feels like part of you has been stolen, destroyed, ripped apart; but it’s not true. Gris made me feel like when something like that happens, you don’t break, you just change. You are still you. When you overcome your pain, your loss, you only become stronger, like a healed broken leg. It’s not done overnight, but through a process, that’s personal to you. And it’s painful. But afterwards, the colour will come back.
After finishing Gris, I saw that Celeste was on sale. I vaguely recalled reading about Celeste back in 2018 where it was critically acclaimed, however, it became lost in my personal backlog-maelstrom of God of War, Spider-Man and AC:Odyssey. Much like Gris, I’m glad I came to it now, as I could give it the time it deserves.
The first thing I should say about Celeste is that it is very, very hard. The controls are simple: there is a jump, a dash and a climb button. The masterful level design takes these elements and transforms them into a perfectly balanced platformer. Honestly, Celeste is a perfect game. It’s utterly flawless in its game design. I should also make it clear that I hate dying in video games, and yet my final save screen was upwards of 2000 deaths. It’s down to the brilliant development team that kept me addicted to this game. For reference, I have never got past the first level of Nioh, Bloodborne or any souls-like games.
Several things about Celeste kept me going. For one, while very difficult, requiring high dexterity and short reaction times to perfect your jumps and landings, it is forgiving. Checkpointing is truly excellent and every inch of progress I made was noticed by the game, pushing me forward step by step. Another is the ridiculously contemporary, clever and relevant story. To me, Celeste is about dealing with depression. While Gris was very much a voyeuristic view into dealing with loss, with little challenge, Celeste demands your input. It is extremely challenging, but it kept wanting me to try harder and it made me want to overcome my own self-doubt, to channel Madeline’s journey of believing that she is more than just her flaws.
There is a lot of interpretability here, with each chapter subtly opening up my own thoughts about my mental state. The theme that affected me most was the physical embodiment of Madeline’s self-doubt and fear, “Badeline”, aptly referred to as “Part of Me” in the game. The journey both of them go through, from fighting each other to their final acceptance and working together is exactly how I feel about my own “darkness”. It’s easy to feel like that’s all of you, and you’re nothing but an empty shell filled with darkness, but no, Celeste shows us that you are more than that. You can move past anything and everything, be it a climbing a physical mountain just to prove to yourself that you can achieve something or even just for the fact that you tried.
I often think about my favourite games, why I enjoy them. It all comes down to why I enjoy art or any entertainment for that matter. Is it to distract myself from the world? Is it to develop myself, to learn something new? There are many reasons why, and none are mutually exclusive. Celeste is a piercing game, subtle and sometimes overt in its dialogue. At one point, a character straight-up asks Madeline about her depression. There is a whole bit about having a panic attack. I guess I look to art to explore something about myself, something I can relate to. To help me find some unknown corners of my soul, in the deepest, darkest recesses of my mind. Celeste did this so well, it hurts.
I spent a lot of last year playing long, massive AAA video-games, and when I think back, very little has actually affected me, or my state of mind. I don’t feel changed. I guess I feel that if the years go by and I don’t change in any way, then it’s kind of like staying still, being static, gathering dust until the inevitable darkness collects us all. I fear the void of death but I’m also lazy. I want to feel like I’ve done something in this life, even if it’s just learning more about myself. After playing both these short games, hauntingly beautiful in their own different ways, I feel changed. I feel that their messages will stay with me.
These games were like therapy for me. If you are at all interested in them, I urge you to explore them.
Thank you for reading 🙂
- I played through the main story of Gris in about 4-5 hours. I should also say that Gris is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, if not the most.
- Celeste took me about 8 hours, collecting very few strawberries (haha), and I’ve currently not started Chapter 8, as I need to go through and up my collectables! DLC for Celeste was released in September 2019, called “Farewell” and adds new music and new levels, as well as a narrative epilogue. Additionally, Celeste has an assist mode for those wanting an easier challenge, to experience the story, which I extremely appreciate for wider accessibility.
- The music in both Gris and Celeste are jaw-droppingly excellent. Celeste mixes synth with Mario–esque chip tune, along with beautifully subtle piano riffs, while the ethereal string motifs in Gris are soothing lullabies for the mind.
- The feather breathing technique has helped me a lot since I played Celeste. I suffer from panic attacks myself, and I commend Celeste for taking such an awesome look at it in this art form.
- Both games are available on PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch, with Celeste also available on Xbox One.