What makes a game bad?
That is a boring question. But when I finish a game and my first thought is “Fuck this game.” I have to wonder why I bothered. I know why I put Celeste on my Steam wishlist. People said good things. But why did I finish it? All I have to show for it is a sore thumb and a few extra yen from selling the Steam trading cards.
Here's the thing. I finished Celeste and I have yet to finish games I like. Final Fantasy XV. Lost Sphere. Octopath Traveler. I could have played those games. But I didn’t.
I guess when people praise something game so much I get curious. When my own feelings don't match others I get even more curious. What do people see? Celeste is a pretty game. Its soundtrack is unoffensive. These are good things. It's opening levels are acceptable, if not trite. But then it begins to expand on a story and this is, well, a problem.
I won't pretend I know the people who made this game or made the story. But I have a reckon. Someone either suffers from or knows someone who suffers from anxiety and/or depression. They wanted to express this in the form of a challenging video game. Challenging oneself. Inner conflict. Self doubt. But... It felt… Hollow. Cheap. Ineffective.
It also led to frustrations.
So many game developers seem to think their own game is not enough, and add some sort of nonsense to it. Some of my beloved games do this. I didn't buy Final Fantasy 7 to snowboard. I didn't play Celeste for a “breathing simulator” where I have to balance a feather... with my breath? What?
See, there's a panic attack scene. One of the NPCs says to imagine keeping a feather afloat with your breath. Okay? Then the player sees a feather on-screen and there's this box that moves up and down. So. What do you do?
Well, I pressed the jump button. It felt like I was keeping the feather afloat, but nothing was happening. The box kept moving up and down. It glowed when the feather was in it, but the feather also didn't seem affected. Confusion struck me. Then I realized that the joystick could move the feather and that keeping it in the box was my “goal”. I'm not sure what they expected me to get out of this. It did not calm me down.
About this point the game shifted from a mediocre VVVVVV or Super Meat Boy and into more of a mess. The next area featured what I could best describe as a “even shittier than usual escort mission”. An NPC was stuck in a crystal because feelings. You have to chuck his crystalized body around while dodging this annoying enemy. It would sometimes be bop-able like in Mario Bros. or sometimes just slam you dead. It wasn't particularly fun.
Then you finish it and it gets emotional. Earlier in the game the main character comes across a window and a “part of her” escapes. You first think it's her evil side, but it's actually her fears and doubt, etc. And then is this long stage which culminates in a “boss” battle. The main character realizes she needs to be whole. Yet, the “other part” thinks she wants to get rid of her. So you have to “beat” the boss by touching the “other part”. An interesting idea. Gameplay-wise it goes on for about twenty more screens than necessary. It just kept going on and on and on and on and on and on and on. Fuck.
Finally things work out, yada, yada. Our main character begins her final ascent. First you there is a “boss rush” of the previous chapters. All the stage gimmicks (and I don'tmean that in a nice way) appear again only made harder. The last climb that required lots of precise jumping and maneuvering. Not particularly challenging. Just hard. I tried enough and I succeeded.
See, the thing is I never felt like I was getting better at the game. I felt like I was getting lucky and succeeding. And that sums up my feelings. I didn't feel any sense of accomplishment. I just won it because I pressed buttons enough times. An eighth chapter unlocked that requires some hidden items to access. (So it didn't unlock after all?) I don't think I’ll go back through the stages to find the hidden things necessary for me to play it.
An “old computer” hidden in the game features a simpler, more “retro” version of Celeste. I liked that more. It was less frustrating, felt snappier and didn't have any nonsense. I would have paid for that alone.
But in the end I finished Celeste. I wouldn't say don't play it, as you'll see many people say good things about it. I don't particularly agree.
My thumb still hurts.