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It's Hard Playing Difficult Games After Celeste

Celeste has been widely celebrated as an achievement in gaming. Its beautiful art and music, incredible game and level design, and moving plot place it ahead of many other AAA and indie games. It’s won awards and sold extremely well.

I beat Celeste a few months ago and it was one of the hardest - and most genuinely enjoyable - gaming experiences I’ve ever had. One thing that has been mentioned a lot, but can not be understated, is the forgiving nature of Celeste. Respawning after death is nearly instantaneous, every new screen the game saves AND creates a respawn point, levels seem meticulously designed to always save at exactly the right point to decrease frustration. Forgiveness is built into the very fabric of the game. It’s a primary theme in the plot and is such a huge part of the actual gameplay it’s almost easy to forget...until you play another difficult game.

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Over the past week I’ve been gorging myself on The Messenger and while I ultimately loved the game I found myself getting very frustrated at particular parts. A lot of that frustration stems from my Celeste experience.

Power Seals - located in the bottom left corner - can be collected in secret areas throughout the game to unlock an extra item.

The Messenger started off relatively easy with a fun and low level amount of challenge - something I actually enjoyed after playing a slew of (admittedly amazing) difficult platformers and metroidvanias over the past couple years. As the game continued - particularly after it’s famous mid-game genre twist - I found some parts to be lacking the nuance of design present in Celeste. Whether it was a few particular rooms with Power Seals or just a really tough platforming section, I deeply missed the autosaving and save placement of Celeste. There is a thing in these types of games where designers, for some reason, put the hardest part between two save points closer to the second save point. This creates a dynamic where you play through the same earlier and easier sections dozens and dozens of times, often dying on them out of sheer repetition exhaustion. I would die on stupid parts I’d already gotten past 20 times in a row just because I was angry I had to go through them AGAIN and tried to rush. Celeste actively works against this as part of its game design.

There was one room in the final zone of The Messenger that wasn’t even super difficult - it was a series of raising and lowering walls over a pit that you need to jump across. However, because your character automatically grips onto everything he touches (another great design choice in Celeste is that this wall grip is a button press) I was constantly falling by accident and dying due to accidental gripping....only to have to go through a few moderately challenging rooms before it over and over again to get back to that point. It probably took me about 40 deaths to get through this section - around a quarter of which were dying accidentally prior to the actual room I was trying to beat.

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This experience in The Messenger made me think about Hollow Knight, which I now consider (alongside Celeste) to be one of my favorite games. If I replayed Hollow Knight after the incredibly well designed forgiveness of Celeste would I also be more frustrated? There are certainly times in the game where I’d wished benches were placed differently. With a second Hollow Knight coming out I’m actually worried I may not enjoy it as much in a post-Celeste world.

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And all these thoughts beg the question...where’s the line between difficulty and annoyance? Should every game save every screen? Is it ever really fun repeating something over and over and over in a game just to reach the one spot you ACTUALLY need to get through? I feel like it isn’t. But where’s the line? There’s no one single definitive rule that we can make and point at and say “there should be a save point HERE” because games are wildly different in size, scope, and level/world design. All I know is that Celeste has set an incredibly high bar. I hope game developers who make hard games all take a cue from Celeste - difficulty can be paired with forgiveness.

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