It Is, In Fact, Possible To Get Too Good At A Video Game
4:20 PM EDT on September 24, 2023
The first time I beat Celeste in full, it took approximately 43 hours and 12 thousand deaths. Though I haven't exactly taken a survey, I believe this is a very acceptable amount of time and deaths on your first ever 100-percent completion of the game. Celeste can be brutally difficult; it's also the hardest game that anyone of any skill level can beat, as long as they have patience. Like in most great platformers, dying is a necessity, and Celeste lists your death count right next to your achievements. Each time you fail, you learn something new for the next time, and eventually you succeed.
Failure also fits in thematically: You're playing as a young woman, Madeline, who decides to climb a fictional version of Celeste Mountain out of a need to accomplish something. She gets laughed at by a somewhat batty old woman, fights with the physical manifestation of her anxiety (dubbed "Badeline"), encounters a ghost hotelier, and, after all of it, eventually makes it to the summit. It's a wonderful story about anxiety and depression—and also mountain climbing—with seamless gameplay and a genuinely banging soundtrack that's able to bear that story's weight. Even just describing the game makes me want to play it again. There are are no clunky tutorials to handhold you through the game's mechanics. You learn by doing; if you die, you try again.
For years, Celeste has been my comfort game. If I was feeling particularly stressed or nervy, I'd boot up Celeste and immediately calm down, no matter my death count. Dying in Celeste rarely feels bad. I died nearly 3,700 times the first time I tried Farewell, the brutally difficult bonus level, and the only time I started to get even mildly upset was on the final screen. I've been informed by friends that this is not a universal sentiment, but Celeste's movement is so precise and often generous in all the right ways—in technical terms, it feels good to play—that it's difficult to feel rage while playing it because it's never really the game's fault if you fail.
At the beginning, I would only replay the game's first couple of levels, before the first difficulty spike in the third chapter. One day, I chanced playing through the third and fourth chapters too and found that they were way easier than I remembered, and I incorporated them into my replay ritual as well. That's one of the slow-building pleasures of Celeste: You always surprise yourself with how much better at the game you've gotten simply by virtue of playing it again. And as much as the experience is numeric—you can watch both your time and death count drop—it's just as satisfying physically. Movement tricks that took ten times to pull off at first slowly get folded into your normal repertoire. Routes and timings for certain screens become muscle memory.
Eventually I decided to try to fully complete the game again, and on my second-ever 100-percent attempt, I had cut my time down to just over 13 hours and died only around 3,600 times total. The four-level replay became a 100-percent one at around the same time that my junior year fall finals started rolling around. Slowly, I cut my time down from 13 hours to eight, then to six, then to five, all on poor machinery (my Macbook Air and its keyboard). I hit my peak around this point, in part because I stopped playing so much afterwards, and in part because I think my procrastinating college brain was just in form, not unlike a professional athlete in their prime. I finished the game in 4 hours and 18 minutes, with 516 deaths.
Immediately after that I ran into a problem: I got too good. I started to get annoyed whenever I died, but I wasn't reliably good enough to avoid dying. My best time is perfectly fine for a casual player, but on the scale of speedrunners, it's laughable—TGH, a top speedrunner, once 100-percented the game and then additionally beat every single level again, this time without dying, within 3 hours and 32 minutes. I am not quite good enough to coast away merrily, and no longer bad enough to respond to deaths with a blissful "aw, shucks." If I die more than four times on the first chapter, I immediately restart. Sometimes my game lags if I have too many other programs running on my laptop—again, Macbook Air—and that's worse than anything else because it's outside of my control. None of this makes for a very peaceful gaming experience!
I suppose this is a drawback of relentlessly replaying a game you love, kind of like listening to a song on repeat until you get sick of it, except a little less extreme: Eventually you just don't feel what you originally had. I bring this up now because after almost a year's hiatus, I've picked up Celeste again, and I. Cannot. Stop. Dying. I lodged a decent time only forty minutes longer than my best, but I died nearly 400 times more. During my best run I died on the third chapter a grand total of six times. And it's only in the later levels that I can still find that moment when I'm at peace with my own demise.
To a certain extent, I think it would be nice to go back to when I was a little less good. Not to the start when I was terrible, mind you, just to when I was a little less intense about the whole thing—back when I knew I was going to fail and could accept it with aplomb. But I would never actually make that choice. I got this good by pouring way too many hours into this game and dying literally tens of thousands of times. Even if I'm annoyed at my death count, I'm booting the game right up again and starting a new save—to relax, yes, because at this point the soundtrack of the initial levels has a therapeutic effect, but also just because I might be able to shave off some time. That's the the sick and wonderful thing about Celeste: Once you reach that point, you may as well as just keep going.