Celeste‘s story, like all good ones, is one about personal growth. Madeline deals with severe anxiety, constantly struggling to get a hold of all her negative emotions. She wants, no, she needs to prove herself that climbing a mountain top is feasible; accomplishing a goal just so she could exercise some control over her life. That’s the keyword of Stoicism: control. Incidentally, that’s also what Madeline strives for. Let’s take a small dive into the principles and values which can be drawn from one of the best indies of the last decade.
Our hero gets overwhelmed pretty quick by emotions. She wants to suppress them, to silence all the bad thoughts that make her feel scared and lonely. For a while, that’s a reasonable aim, but this game is no fairy tale. Madeline, like all of us, has a Jungian shadow. Although ours doesn’t literally chase us around and shoots beams of dark energy, we can still relate to mixing all our bad habits, unethical and/or selfish decisions, guilty pleasures and so on as one amorphous mass of evil. The main problem arises when we distinguish ourselves from it, trying to eliminate our dark side from our being.
That’s exactly how Madeline fails the first time to understand Badeline — as her bad twin-self is commonly known in the game’s community. Stoics never talk about erasing our bad side and rebuilding on that, but controlling it. By practising temperance of emotions, learning to take a step back and detaching ourselves from a stressful situation, reason takes place of instinctive feelings, therefore we get a much better chance at managing the whole affair.
Stoics not only use the virtue of temperance as a means to keep in place fight-or-flight responses, but also to treat the ones that spark joy as objective as possible. The thinking is that Madeline should take each step — or level — towards the mountain peak as true as it is, avoiding the frustration of slippery slopes like Mr. Oshiro’s insecurities, but also not overly celebrating small victories.
A common critique of Stoicism is that it’s a philosophy that teaches you to be stone cold, but that’s far from the actual case. Madeline would be advised to enjoy each and every one of her emotions, the key only lying in exercising her volition towards self-control and not letting any mood or feeling take over reason — or, if in so doing, being a conscious choice, not a byproduct of external sources.
As philosopher (albeit he doesn’t like that label) and scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it in his book Antifragile:
Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions.
There’s one touching moment in Celeste which I’m sure a lot of people miss out on its origin. Madeline and Theo are riding a gondola while all of a sudden they’re being attacked by Badeline, causing the cable car to stop and wiggle. Madeline, of course, lives out a full-blown panic attack, but luckily Theo has an ace up his sleeve: a meditation technique. This involves picturing a floating feather and controlling it with breaths — inhaling pushes it upwards, while exhaling does nothing but let the leaf dance in the arms of gravity.
As I mentioned, this trick is a meditative one, drawing its essence from both Stoicism and Buddhism. Plenty of modern Stoics, like Massimo Piggliuci for example, practice reflection in the morning and before bedtime i.e. meditating on what the day which lies ahead holds and, at its end, how did it actually unfold. While these aren’t exactly facsimiles of the floaty feather, all of these exercises have in common projecting an image in your mind and focusing your whole attention on it. I too began meditating by regulating my breath while visualising a yellow pencil surrounded by darkness. Even though I have a long way to go until I’ll have organized a full-fledged Stoic morning routine, my little pointy friend helped immensely.
Wisdom and temperance go hand in hand. Madeline tends to be unwise at various points in the game, and that’s clear from the very start when she meets Granny. While the old woman is a little rude towards the protagonist, her demeanour is in good faith; trying to warn Madeline about the mountain’s terrifying powers. Mads, of course, becomes irritated by this apparent abrasive stranger, so she hastily returns a mild insult.
A Stoic practitioner wouldn’t immediately judge his interlocutor by behaviour only, but rather try to be as impervious as possible. The wisdom of this lies in taking a second glance at the one with who you’re communicating, seeing your conversation partner(s) as rational, complex beings, rather than old hags, as Madeline did. Luckily, our rash teenager lives out a full-blown redemption arc for Granny — especially in the DLC Chapter 9: Farwell.
Crash course platforming
Celeste‘s difficulty curve is both notoriously known for being gosh darn hard, but also permissive of new players through the Assist Mode. Just for the record, I’ll only talk about the “main” difficulty, the way the game was meant by Matt Makes Games to be played.
There’s a strong connection between the player and Madeline because the gameplay affects both in the same way. Mads is reminded throughout her dangerous hike that her endeavour is on a different definition of “hard”, but no one tells her, except herself, that it’s impossible. Outside of the screen, we cheer for Madeline to fight and go on, to never give up; we can feel that her goal is almost sacred, that mountain peak is the best thing she could strive for at this moment of her life.
So we confront each section, learning new techniques of how to manipulate the environmental hazards and platforming elements in the best way possible. But, is it enough? At times, I felt Celeste was almost mocking me with its difficulty. To be honest, I was so fatigued by certain game sessions that I had to take brakes which lasted from 2 to 4 weeks. At the same time, I was so mesmerized by the state of flow in which I was floating during Celeste‘s most difficult levels (Courtney from Screen Therapy does a splendid analysis of this psychological phenomenon in the video below), that I couldn’t wait to get right back into it. So, how does this relate to Stoicism?
Doing any kind of sports as a way of life involves cycles: you work out, you rest (and eat accordingly), and you go out there again to tear your newly formed muscle tissues. While training, it’s very important to avoid doing it for all the wrong reasons (benching to look good so that others may envy you, or to channel all your accumulated stress and rage into dosed outbursts), but rather have virtuous resolutions (cultivating a vigorous life, better understanding of your body, building focus etc.).
Many athletes develop Stoic practises without even knowing, like meditating while running, enjoying nature, planning and monitoring workouts or, most importantly, exposing themselves to pain and accepting it as a beneficial input. Likewise, Celeste taught me all of that too.
By upping the challenge just enough to keep me underprepared, the game offered a clear objective: keep practising and master this section/level; all I had to do was focus. Madeline always controls like second nature, each action registers instantly, leaving no room for “technical errors” and, in turn, that makes the game a fair judge. Also, by having the elements of a level well organized, visual information is conveyed clearly, facilitating progress monitoring. Lastly, let’s talk about pain.
Dr. Abraham Twerski makes a quasi-popular analogy about stress: when the lobster grows, its shell doesn’t, it remains as stiff as the first day it was made. The lobster feels uncomfortable, the now small armour hurts him, so it goes under a rock to cast off the shell and produce a brand new one. At times of stress, one should embrace the adversity that comes with it and build on that.
Celeste and Stoicism go to show that discomfort can be a good opportunity to exercise control, to take a closer look at our behaviours and to face adversity head-on, using it as a means for personal growth rather than an enemy that causes fear exclusively. This is called eustress, or, in simple terms, good stress (the opposite being distress) and it’s the phenomenon that occurs when pain stimulates development.
All I’m trying to reiterate is that Madeline’s personal growth extends towards you as well, as the climb continues. On one hand, Celeste improves reaction times, reflexes, the ability to focus, spatial awareness, all these physical good attributes, but it also enhances the most important tenet of Stoicism: Control your emotions, or your emotions control you.
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. – Marcus Aurelius
Disclaimer: Psychology is not philosophy, take it with a grain of salt. Some problems, inclinations, reluctances or other preferences may be due to actual mental problems, which are not so simply resolved by will. If you think that may be the case, please seek professional help; philosophy doesn’t concern itself with material afflictions.