Full spoilers for Celeste lie ahead.
According to Tibetan legend, the great yogi Milarepa went out one day to fetch some firewood, but when he returned he found his cave infested with demons. Thinking himself wise, he sat upon a raised seat and tried teaching them the dharma, but his demons were unmoved by his sweeping, cosmic knowledge. So Milarapa lost his patience. He ran at his demons and tried to cast them out with force, but they only laughed at his efforts. Exhausted, Milarepa sat among his demons and said, “Fine. We shall live here together.” All but one of the demons got up and left. This final demon was particularly stubborn so Milarepa climbed into its jaws and said, “Devour me.” So too did the final demon vanish.
I came across this story while following up on some of the ideas explored in Matt Thorson and friends’ lovingly brutal 2D platformer Celeste. It comes from Pema Chödrön’s Start Where You and neatly illustrates the philosophy that transforms Celeste from a simple hero’s quest into something far more profound: a critique of the idea that we can brute-force our way out of despair.
Madeline, our endearingly low-res mountaineer, is stuck in a rut: whatever life has thrown at her has left her depressed and suffering from panic attacks, and she is hoping that the grand gesture of literally climbing a mountain will restore her self-esteem.
At the end of her first day climbing Mount Celeste, Madeline makes camp beneath a physically imposing memorial “dedicated to those/ Who perished on the climb.” This brief reminder of her frailty immediately precedes the personality crisis that will dominate the rest of her climb.
Madeline falls asleep by the campfire and, in her dreams, comes face to face with a shadow image of herself. The doppelgänger hovers above the bones of a doomed fellow-traveller. Madeline asks,
This short exchange tells us two important things about the nature of Madeline’s doppelgänger: she is worried for Madeline’s safety, and she has a fixed idea of what Madeline is or can become.
First, the fear. Madeline’s doppelgänger is rightfully scared: people have died climbing this mountain. The solution here could be reassurance, or perhaps agreeing to make better preparations. Madeline could say, “Don’t worry, I’ve planned the route,” or, “You know, you’re right. I haven’t thought this through. Maybe I should take some lessons and come back next year.”
But Madeline is in willpower mode. She responds to her fears with contempt:
In The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), Williams et al explain that
when we react negatively- with aversion- to our own negative emotions, treating them as enemies to overcome, eradicated, and defeated, we get into trouble. We run into problems because the unhappiness we are feeling now triggers old, extraordinarily unhelpful patterns of thinking from the past.
The distress Madeline is feeling in the present moment is fear (this mountain might kill me), but the distress she responds to is routed in unhelpful thinking patterns from her past (I’m weak. I’m lazy.) This is what psychologists call rumination:
Madeline is caught in an infinite regression of what went wrongs, an involuntary montage of past traumas that never quite turns the corner into pragmatism. Following Madeline’s initial rejection of her doppelgänger, there is a sequence in which the doppelgänger multiplies, and each clone retraces the steps of the last one, so that we are quite literally watching Madeline run away from a part of herself that is repeatedly going over the same events over and over again.
As mentioned earlier, the fixedness of her doppelgänger’s worldview is another obstacle Madeline has to contend with.
This is an example of what is sometimes referred to as a fixed mindset. Such a mindset is characterised by the belief that a person’s intelligence and abilities are innate, hence the definitive you are not a mountain climber. Fixed-mindedness is a theme elaborated upon by Madeline’s fireside companion, Theo, who describes his sister’s talents in similarly fixed terms:
Here the word “just” is used to erase effort from Alex’s accomplishments, while “amazing at everything” is such an unrealistic generalisation we get the impression Theo is turning her into some kind of superhuman in an attempt to excuse his own perceived shortcomings. His obsession with creating the perfect selfie may also betray a preoccupation with product over process. He believes that truly talented people like Alex don’t require process (they’re simply perfect at everything the first time) and so, to satisfy his own ego, he busies himself with trying to appear to others as Alex appears to him:
What impact will feeding on this illusion have on Theo’s followers? Will they be enriched by it, or will it trigger in them the same self-loathing Theo is running away from?
Nevertheless, it is thanks to Theo that Madeline makes her first breakthrough by helping her to break the rumination cycle. Madeline has already developed her own technique-
-but Theo has one better. He teaches her a breathing exercise that involves picturing a feather then using her breathing to keep it aloft.
Mindfulness allows Madeline to part the clouds, it lifts her out of rumination. It does not, however, prevent her from framing her relationship to her doppelgänger in adversarial terms:
Madeline’s false epiphany about her doppelgänger-
-ends up triggering a calamity. Here she is Milarepa, raising himself above his demons, lecturing them about the nature of the cosmos.
Madeline’s patronising, dismissive tone has disastrous consequences: she is cast down from the mountainside.
And so Madeline requires a second, final breakthrough. It comes courtesy of the Old Woman, the game’s arch representative of the growth mindset. She has developed a positive relationship with aversion:
Following the Old Woman’s advice, Madeline talks to her doppelgänger and instead of chastising her, Madeline validates her concerns:
She is finally giving her doppelgänger the reassurance it needed back at the foot of the mountain. Madeline is finally willing to accept that maybe she’s bitten off more than she can chew. She is Milarepa, sitting among his demons, accepting them, making room for them in his home. And in her moment of surrender, the most beautiful thing happens.
Madeline levels up.
This is the paradox of self-acceptance: surrendering to our limitations puts us on the path to self-improvement.
Celeste is a game that stops you in your tracks. Each screen is an assault course you must navigate with failures, cobbling together a safe route of passage from the dozens of botched attempts that went before it. In this way, Celeste turns failure into a currency: it is something you buy your victories with. In fact, Celeste might be encouraging us to do away failure altogether by simply reframing it as practice. Once we master one screen, we are onto the next and must start the process again. As Pema Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart,
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
And that is precisely what Madeline finds on Mount Celeste: room for grief, and room for joy.