Masocore games are designed to frustrate. Loosely speaking, they’re part of a sub-genre of the platformer requiring quick reflexes, quick thinking, and a whole lot of patience. Super Meat Boy is a prime example, one that celebrates players’ failures by splattering a level in meat-boy gore.
Celeste does things a little differently. It shares the pixel-perfect jumps and hazards of its predecessors, but despite all that, it’s kinder. Gentler. It doesn’t fixate on whether you’re hardcore enough to succeed. In fact, it offers a full menu of assistive options.
Celeste's "Assist Mode" is such a clever way of making a difficult game accessible to a wider audience. It's framed perfectly too – not insulting, not condescending, just accepting. pic.twitter.com/errjcE5TcQ
— Matt Rowlabo (@matt_roly) January 25, 2018
In a recent Reddit AMA, Celeste’s creators at Matt Makes Games explained why their game handles failure differently. Creator Matt Thorson offered up the game’s death counter as one way it differs:
“We really wanted the death counter to represent the work you put in to reach the summit. So when you do reach the top (or beat a chapter), looking back on your death counter underscores the effort you put in to get to that point and makes it that much more satisfying.
We know that most games use death counters in a more cynical/mocking way and some people will see it that way here too. We’re hoping to reframe difficulty and failure in a more positive light in Celeste because that gels with the general philosophy of the game much better.”
Of course, all masocore games reward perseverence. No one would throw themselves into a seemingly-impossible platformer level over and over without the promise of a satisfying success. But by framing failure as an important part of progression, Celeste shifts the tone dramatically.
“I think we wanted to make something that felt more wholesome and encouraging,” added co-creator Noel Berry. “There’s a lot of media that isn’t, and we’re all just of the mindset and place in our lives where we want to see more encouraging and good feeling art, even if it deals with challenging themes.”
It’s important that perseverance be rewarding, because that’s part of what Celeste is all about. The mountain is a metaphor for protagonist Madeline’s troubles. From moment one, it’s clear she’s dealing with anxiety, and she later expands on her mental health struggles. Climbing that mountain — working hard despite adversity and endless failure — is central to the game’s themes.
Creator Matt Thorson shared his own reasons for exploring themes of mental health, first opening up about lifelong experiences with anxiety and depression. He explained that he didn’t set out to make a game about mental health, or about his own experience with mental health issues. It was during development that those themes started to emerge.
“Those themes worked their way in as we searched for what the game meant to us. Looking back, it couldn’t have been about anything else, but it’s always a process to discover that meaning at the core of your work and draw it out.”
For Thorson, the game was a healing journey.
“During the process of creating this game, I got a lot better at taking care of myself and working with my own anxiety, and that’s where a lot of Madeline’s journey came from. I don’t think the reception has really helped so much as the process of creating the game has. Obviously the reception is incredible and fulfilling in its own way, but the healing for me was found through the creation of the game.”
Masocore games are frustrating, but no matter how many times you fail, you know there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Celeste turns that light into a promise: with perseverance, there’s hope to be had.