How Celeste Nurtures Player Skill

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Over the past decade the games industry has seen a resurgence of what one might call the “tough as nails” genre. From indie platformers like Super Meat Boy and Cuphead, to AAA action titles like Fromsoftware’s Souls games, games are even marketed under this banner: Miyazaki’s melancholy exploration of myth and failed heroism in Dark Souls was sold under the tagline “Prepare To Die!” There’s a certain mindset that goes with it, too, wherein some of the audience for these games conflate difficulty with fun, or think if the experience is punishing it must also be rewarding.

It’s easy to trace this mentality back to gaming’s formative years. Games in the arcade, which of course heavily influenced the 8-bit and 16-bit era, were designed under the principle that more deaths meant more coins - so the only way to see the later levels was to, ahem, ‘git gud’ or pay up. Developers were working in a different setting from the home; coins had to be teased from pockets, and players had to get something from it - even if that was only bragging rights.

Many of us started playing games during this era, and have a soft spot for games of that nature. Especially when you’re a kid, there’s all the time in the world to bash your head against a level over and over, and it made difficult games feel like value for money in some odd way. And repetition, when something’s worth repeating, is plain fun.

The less positive side of such designs, in the modern age, is the hardening of the ‘git gud’ mentality into something a little bit meaner, and exclusionary. Yes, as technology has improved we’ve seen a wider variety of genres hit the market, some of which are more centred on choice, flash and style than difficulty or complexity - and more games than ever before now have a range of difficulty options to allow more players to enjoy the experience.

This is a great thing for obvious reasons: everyone should be able to enjoy games. No less a director than Hideki Kamiya, a master of hardcore hack-and-slash action titles, has gone to enormous pains over the last decade to make games like Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101 playable by anyone - even if they can scale to ridiculous heights.

This new attitude has run up against the silliest kind of reactionary opposition. Some pockets of Souls fans scream that if a future game had an easy difficulty, the series would be ruined. Some Cuphead fans moan that anyone who doesn’t like the game must have sucked at it and isn’t truly worthy of exploring games as a hobby. There were even Super Mario Odyssey players opining that, by having an assist mode option, future generations of children will grow up not knowing how to game properly.

These attitudes are exclusionary, and scare people away from games. Not to mention they’re just daft: shouting 'GIT GUD' at a Dark Souls player because they died on a livestream while fighting a boss helps nobody improve. So when it comes to difficult games, I wish more developers would learn lessons from Celeste.

Celeste is a puzzle platformer released back in January for PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, which handles its own difficulty in a far more caring manner. As you play through the game’s early levels, you’ll see unusual loading screen tips that encourage experimentation, to push players to keep fighting against tough challenges, and to let them know it’s okay to fail on their way.

Be proud of your Death Count! The more you die, the more you’re learning. Keep going!

This is the attitude Celeste has towards ‘failure’, and it’s one I wish more gamers would take to heart. Difficult games should be rewarding not because completion makes you superior to other gamers, but because the growth, improvement and skill gain along the way show you overcame, struggled, pushed on, and won.

No gamer ever picked up a controller for the first time and started speedrunning a game at record pace - much less a Souls game. We all start off failing. We make mistakes, we miss jumps, we die to new enemies and, as long as we don’t stop playing, we get better.

Failure in games is something we think of in the wrong way. The whole point of a retry, after all, is that you eventually succeed. Games now rarely limit how many attempts a player can make, but some still do. Too many still force players to needlessly replay sections just to get back to the tough bit they’re learning to progress past. Celeste sees you die and lets you get right back to trying again, tells players it’s okay to die, and reminds them that each death brings them a little closer to success.

Some games are built around death and defeat, such as the Dark Souls series which uses repetition to make players feel desolate and alone. That doesn’t mean the players of those games have to follow suit. When I streamed Dark Souls, and died a lot, the chat was a sewer of ‘git gud’ toxicity that only served to, eventually, turn me off playing any more. Sure, in Dark Souls it’s you versus the world - but there’s no reason Souls fans can’t praise players who stick with it and keep trying, even though they struggle.

Sure, Cuphead is about overcoming insurmountable odds to escape a literal deal with the devil, but trying to have a nuanced conversation about why I personally disliked the way it did difficulty, led to me being front and centre in a video by Youtube’s largest gaming creator Pewdiepie mocking me for “being bad at the game”. I completed Cuphead, but nope, being critical of its difficulty meant I was clearly not a good gamer. That video racked up over five million views.

An attitude of nurturing and supporting players who fail at tough games is how we encourage the next generation of gamers to push themselves, something thematically dissected by Celeste’s narrative themes. Sometimes challenges are tough, and we struggle, and we fail - but that’s okay. Instead of focusing on failure, we should be proud of persevering, pushing through, and keeping on going.

Let’s have less of telling people to 'git gud', and instead praise them when they die. If you’re afraid to fail, you’ll never reach the point where you succeed.