Why The Very Hard 'Celeste' is Perfectly Fine With You Breaking Its Rules
After the release of 'Cuphead,' designer Matt Thorson wondered if there was a way to make his challenging game more accessible.
Image courtesy of Matt Makes Games
Celeste is nice, pleasant, and often wants to give you a hug, but at its core, Celeste is a hardcore platformer where you’re meant to die, learn from mistakes, and eventually succeed. It was crafted that way for a reason; it’s what designer Matt Thorson wanted to make. But what if one jump puzzle is too much for your fingers? Do you just give up and move on, defeated? Most of the time, that’s the only course of action. In Celeste, however, there’s Assist Mode, which you can change various game rules—game speed, stamina, the number of air dashes, even your ability to die—and shape the game.
Here’s how the game pitches you on Assist Mode:
“Celeste was designed to be a challenging, but accessible game. We believe that its difficulty is essential to the experience. We recommend playing without Assist Mode your first time. However, we understand that every player is different.”
“In Celeste, we try to gently push the player to do things that they thought was impossible for them,” said Thorsen during a recent email exchange. “We also accept that every player is different, and that people come into the game at many different skill levels. So systems like the strawberries, b-sides, and assist mode are all there to help players find the challenge level that's right for them. We want people to come out of this game feeling capable and powerful, so that means we have to teach them, challenge them, and support them through the failures along the way.”
In a sense, Celeste does give players control over the difficulty, but in one direction: harder. The game’s collectibles, strawberries, are tucked behind optional platforming tasks, and each world has “b-side” levels that up the ante. And if you think those are bad, good luck with the secret “heart” stages. They’re meant to break your spirit.
Assist Mode wasn’t always part of Celeste. The release of Cuphead changed things. One of the big conversations around Cuphead, another difficult game, was what to do about people who wanted to play the game (and appreciate the art), but were put off by the challenge. Cuphead's “simple” mode tried to serve that purpose, but instead of tweaking the player's health or making the enemies easier to take down, it stripped out mechanics from bosses, or deleted stages from the game entirely. It wasn’t great.
Thorson was paying close attention to the conversations around Cuphead, and wondered if there was a way to give players more control over their Celeste experience. In Thorson’s previous game, the multiplayer action game TowerFall, players could create multiplayer modes through the “variants” system, by altering game rules.
Assist Mode was originally “Cheat Mode,” but Thorson thought it felt “judgmental.”
“That judgmental feeling really was what drove us to continue workshopping the name,” he said. “The team had a few discussions about this and we eventually landed on Assist Mode. Mario Odyssey came out soon after we finalized the name, and they also named their accessibility option ‘Assist Mode.’ That made us feel good arriving at the same name.”
That desire to avoid judging players was always on their mind, but it’s a notion ingrained in games forever. Why are difficulty modes labeled easy, medium, and hard? Language matters, and it’s why the text for Assist Mode went through many iterations, as Thorson sought the best way to communicate its ultimate purpose.
Celeste is “meant to be hard,” and Assist Mode is an option, not the default. The default is the game Thorson and his team carefully put together over several years, the one that boots up when you start the game without touching anything. That's pure Celeste.
“From my perspective as the game's designer,” he said, “Assist Mode breaks the game. I spent many hours fine-tuning the difficulty of Celeste, so it's easy for me to feel precious about my designs. But ultimately, we want to empower the player and give them a good experience, and sometimes that means letting go.”
This notion of what defines a game experience comes up all the time, especially when a tough game becomes popular. Just do a Google search for “Dark Souls easy mode” and you’ll find plenty of think pieces—including ones by yours truly—about the subject. The trend right now seems to be moving in the direction of more choice. If it doesn’t impact the designer-preferred method of playing the game, who's it harm?
"We want people to come out of this game feeling capable and powerful, so that means we have to teach them, challenge them, and support them through the failures along the way."
The question is intent. What does the designer intend for you to experience, to feel, to do? What say does the player have in that process? How much can they change? Does the fact that Celeste allows players to unlock all the achievements, even if they use the game’s Assist Mode, matter? Are you earning these achievements for yourself?
Thorson isn’t sure if Assist Mode will show up in his future games—it may have been uniquely suited to Celeste—but doesn’t believe it ruins authorial intent.
“The goal is a fluid experience where players are safe to float around between loosely-defined difficulty levels as suits them,” said Thorson, “without judgement or implication that they aren't playing the game ‘as intended.’ Hopefully players feel safe enough to experiment, connect with the story, and express themselves through the game systems.”
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