A few days ago, the game designer Matt Thorson was watching me idly jump around one of the many comically challenging rooms in Celeste, his new game that is on the verge of release. “Wow, it’s nice to just watch someone play the game,” he said, his voice brimming with sincerity.
When a game is ready to release, developers have to endure a Niagara Falls of bureaucracy. I’ve launched a game on multiple consoles before, so I know first hand that the end of development is a whole buffet table of fiddly nonsense wherein you check boxes on platform backends and hope for the best. You start to forget your game is a game, much less a good game, much less a fantastic game.
I don’t think Thorson forgot that his game is great, because, I mean, how could he? Though just in case he did, hey Matt Thorson: Celeste is one of the more technically rewarding games in recent memory. Also, its narrative is surprisingly emotional. The game is generous and huge. I love it.
Thorson’s previous game, the competitive local multiplayer Towerfall, is home to a lot of deliciously complex movement controls. In their new game, Celeste, Thorson and his team build on their love of deeply nuanced character movement in a singleplayer platform game. I had invited Thorson to watch me play it. He skyped in from Vancouver while I began a run through the first chapter. The idea was that Thorson would coach me through the collection of all 20 optional hidden strawberries in that first chapter, many of which are hidden far off the main level path.
Celeste is a hardcore platform game about climbing a mountain. You have three actions: jump, dash, and climb. These three actions weave a monstrously complex tapestry.
As I played, we talked.
We talked about how tough it is. Each chapter consists of dozens of challenging rooms for you to traverse. You will die many times as you try to figure out the best strategies for traversal. Thorson says that speedrunners are a significant percentage of their target audience, and this thinking is evident in the brutally precise geometry of the level design. After you’ve taken time to master it, playing a chapter of Celeste for speed is exhilarating.
We talked about why Donkey Kong Country is not as good as Donkey Kong Country 2. (Hint: it’s the camera, and also a lot of other stuff.)
Also, at some point, I’ll pop The Boiling Question: “What is your game the Dark Souls of?” Thorson’s answer may or may not surprise you. One of the reasons it may not surprise you is, well, it’s a stupid question, so why would the answer evoke any emotional response in you at all? Well, at least I had fun asking.
We talked for an hour and a half as I played this marvelous game. You can watch me play and listen to Thorson and you can play the game yourself when it launches on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam on January 25.
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