Into the demon's jaws with 'Celeste'

Full spoilers for ‘Celeste’ lie ahead.

According to Tibetan legend, the great yogi Milarepa went out one day to fetch some firewood and came home to find his cave infested with demons. Thinking himself wise, he sat upon a raised seat and tried teaching them the dharma. However, his demons were unmoved by such cosmic knowledge, and soon 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. She hopes 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 a 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 as Madeline asks, “Are you me?”

And the doppelgänger replies:

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! Madeline could respond with reassurance, or perhaps agree to make better preparations. She 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:

Rumination has caused an infinite regression of what-went-wrongs, an involuntary montage of past traumas that never quite turns the corner into something useful. 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 repeating 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 (“You are many things, darling, but you are not a mountain climber.”) 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 and immutable, 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 clearly an unrealistic exaggeration. The idea that other people are effortlessly omni-talented is a stick many of us use to beat ourselves with and Theo’s obsession with his social media image should come as no surprise to us.

At one point, Theo literally finds himself imprisoned inside a crystal while a dozen eyes emerge from the walls to stare at him:

Despite Theo’s own personal crisis, it is actually thanks to him that Madeline enjoys her first serious breakthrough in the fight against rumination. Madeline has already developed her own technique-

-but Theo has a better idea. He teaches her a breathing exercise that involves visualising a feather kept aloft by her breathing.

Mindfulness allows Madeline to part the clouds, it lifts her out of rumination. It does not, however, prevent her from framing her relationship with 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, back to the very beginning.

And so Madeline requires a second, final breakthrough. It comes courtesy of the Old Woman, the game’s arch representative of the growth mindset i.e. the belief that our intelligence and abilities can always be improved upon. The Old Woman 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 navigated by failure, the cobbling together of safe passage from dozens of disasters. 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 the notion of failure altogether, simply reframing it as practice. Since each moment of mastery is immediately followed by one of obliviousness, we are persuaded against thinking our demons can ever be finally vanquished. 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 the mountain: room for grief, and room for joy.


Recommended reading!

Celeste creator Maddy Thorson has recently published a fascinating, complex and candid essay on Madeline's gender identity available here.