Breaking Down Level Design in Celeste – Video Transcript:
I was apprehensive at first to jump into Celeste, the new 2D platformer created by Matt Thorson, as my Switch library has been inundated with platformers since early 2017. Games like GoNNER, Snake Pass, & Super Mario Odyssey offered loads of artistic charm & mechanical challenge; and while Matt’s commitment to quality was evident in his previous release, Towerfall Ascension, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to spend time with another platformer so soon.
However, I reluctantly purchased Celeste (mostly because I have zero self control) & loaded the title’s first chapter, the Forsaken City. Underneath the game’s familiar pixel art & chiptune-inspired soundtrack lied intense challenge, a soberingly relatable story, and most importantly – and what we’ll be discussing in this video – well conceived level design.
Celeste introduces its essential mechanics and overall goal – which is to climb upwards – within the first few minutes of the game, and everything after that serves to make those two pillars more interesting or difficult to execute. The essential mechanics are comprised of a floaty jump, a one-time use air dash that replenishes itself upon the player touching the ground or a green crystal, and finally, the ability to grab and climb onto non-hostile surfaces for a short period of time.
Celeste then fleshes out a basic yet consistent rule set throughout its beginning levels, first being the fact that the behavior of most objects and enemies in the game are altered or triggered by the player’s presence and interaction. This is demonstrated to users within the first 20 seconds of the game, wherein a giant ice block falls from its place as soon as Madeline, the player-controlled character, passes beneath it. Secondly, since the hostile presence of spikes and pits has been inferred through several decades of gaming, Celeste doesn’t have to spend much time communicating this danger to the player. Regardless, Madeline’s extremely low damage threshold paired with Celeste’s incredibly generous respawn and checkpoint system allow new gamers to learn this lesson – albeit in a much shorter amount of time. Once these rules have been established and players understand them, they then have the tools and freedom needed to fully explore the secrets of each level.
Like most platformers, Celeste’s individual levels are designed around a specific theme and a subgroup of mechanics. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s Horn Top Hop, for example, is a level built around the idea of horns & pressurized air spouts; and in it players have to propel themselves forward with giant horns, platform across falling leaves, or navigate through sets of leaves that are being propelled by giant horns. For more on that, check out Mark Brown’s video on Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze’s awesome level design.
Celeste is no stranger to this approach of level design. Most chapters of the game pick a distinct theme, some of which are directly informed by the game’s story while others seem to have been chosen for the way they inspire interesting mechanics. On the Golden Ridge, players have to bounce from cloud to cloud while fighting against the violent gusts produced by the mountain. In order to open up new pathways that allow further progress through the level, the Mirror Temple requires us to solve puzzles by manipulating a system of switches, and this is made much more difficult when the level later introduces a set of enemies that home in on the player’s location.
I want to take a closer look at the game’s first couple of levels, namely the Forsaken City and the Old Site, as I think Celeste uses these chapters to teach the player two important lessons that are crucial to understanding the overall level design of the entire game.
The first chapter of the game starts with Madeline arriving at Celeste Mountain’s base camp, where the surrounding environment immediately guides players in an upward direction. In case there’s any confusion as to which direction we need to venture towards, a bird flies into the scene and presents players with their first action prompt, which is to climb upwards.
The next few scenes give players the chance to jump and climb about in a relatively hazard-free environment. Next, after speaking with the game’s first non-player character, who’s an elderly woman living on Celeste Mountain, we’re tasked with crossing a bridge, a bridge that starts collapsing after we’re only a few steps onto it. Instantly, we feel the urge to escape and survive, so naturally, we as players start running towards the opposite side of the screen. At the last second, however, the bridge collapses in front of us, thus requiring two well-timed jumps in order to span the gap. Players who properly utilized their running start to propel themselves into the air will land to the next platform safely, however there’s a second and final jump required to make it to safety, and there’s no feasible way for new players to jump far enough. At this moment Celeste introduces players to the air dash, which is the final tool that rounds out the game’s essential move set.
The bridge sequence not only introduces an essential tool to the player, but it also requires them to successfully execute previously developed skills and reinforces the inherent danger of falling. Furthermore, this sequence introduces the game’s first major theme to the player, which is momentum.
Throughout the Forsaken City, players will be presented with puzzles and challenges that need to be solved using the principle of momentum. Rigged platforms can be triggered and utilized to fling the player character across massive gaps, green crystals are used to continue the player’s movement chain in order to avoid death, and stone platforms crumble beneath Madeline’s feet if players don’t jump off of them in time.
Later in the game’s second chapter, this idea of momentum is further expanded on by reinforcing the need for precision when executing skills from the movement set. The level is inhabited by giant celestial space rectangles that swiftly propel the player in whichever direction they enter. If the player jumps into the space bars at the wrong angle, they’ll be smooshed into a neighboring wall or spike pit. At the end of the chapter, the game spawns evil clones of Madeline who chase after her in order to end her life. Since these clones follow the exact path as the player, it’s eventually learned that a fluid and well-thought out movement path will eventually lead the player to safety.
While these mechanics and ideas aren’t necessarily new to platformers, Matt Thorson has utilized them to create varied level designs that are incredibly fun to traverse. The ghostly theme behind the Celestial Resort requires a much more methodical playstyle than one adopted in the Forsaken City, as players have to maneuver through ectoplasmic goo that’s constantly shifting; A later chapter, titled Reflection, requires mastery over the game pad’s analog sticks since it requires players to move a feather through spike-covered tunnels.
Celeste’s intense challenge is juxtaposed by a generous checkpoint system that allows us to make mistakes and immediately employ the new strategies that we learned from them – which is exactly why the game has been so quickly embraced by the speed-running community. Celeste’s gorgeous packaging, surprisingly relatable story, and consistent mechanics make for a platforming experience that I’d recommend to anyone, however, it’s really the game’s brilliant level design that makes it so unforgettable. I’ve racked up over 1,500 deaths in my first eight hours of the game, and honestly, I can’t wait for the next thousand. Celeste provides challenge and reward unlike most other games that have released in the past year, and you absolutely owe it to yourself to try it.