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Celeste: How one video game made me take better care of my mental health

When the pandemic began, like most people, I found myself with more time on my hands than I knew what to do with. Then, I remembered my backlog of video games!

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I began to play Celeste. I knew I was in a dark place and I needed an escape from bad thoughts.

I’m not even sure why this game called out to me. At the time, I felt like I was terrible at video games, and I had heard Celeste was especially difficult. Besides, this was a genre of game I’d tried and failed at, more than once.

I guess I was challenging myself, but when I picked up the controller and set off up the magical Celeste mountain, truly I didn’t expect to get far.

Then the story came into focus. Madeline, the main character, was challenging herself too. She set off to do something difficult – something she’d never done before – to prove to herself that she could.

Suddenly, this fictional stranger and I shared a goal. We both needed to get up this mountain! As the player, I felt immensely responsible for her reaching the summit, and that meant I had to go with her.

As we climbed, I saw myself in Madeline. We shared so much. We both experienced anxiety and depression. We both wanted to bury a part of ourselves, or leave it behind entirely. We were both trying to escape the bad thoughts.

The more I learned about this character, the stronger I believed in our mission. Never before had I been so invested in any character from anything, and here I was crying through cut scenes, screaming at the TV, and punching the air at every milestone.

It was like looking in a mirror. Madeline was me, and the Part of Her she wanted to leave behind was the Part of Me I wanted to destroy too. But destroying Part of Us can hurt us.

“The way I see it, the Mountain can’t bring out anything that isn’t already in you.”

This journey showed me what was already in me, something impossible to destroy because it is me. This story of self-acceptance taught me that I wasn’t giving my whole self the love I deserved. I was choosing to ignore a part of me that needed caring for, and by seeing that reflected so perfectly in the character I was helping, it allowed me to see clearly the harm I was doing to myself.

By learning that I couldn’t simply cut out a Part of Me, I found other strategies to help me feel better about myself: finding a job at a company with values I could really invest in, giving myself smaller and more manageable goals, listening to and challenging the bad thoughts with logic and compassion.

I unpacked all the internalised ableism I’d been carrying for so long. I can’t stop being autistic, I can’t destroy the possibility of burnout – this is part of me. Celeste taught me that I could still reach my summit, but I had to work with what I had, and not try to be someone I wasn’t. That meant working with my neurodivergence, not against it.

The game also helped me accept my queer identity. I am only answerable to myself, I don’t need to justify my existence to anyone. Every single part of me is valid. I don’t have to fit inside a box. Accepting every part of me is how I reach my summit.

The game even expanded my toolkit for managing my anxiety, by giving me a visual calming exercise to control my breathing during panic attacks.

Think of the feather.

Celeste gave me more in one video game experience than I’d received from any therapy. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s value in therapy. But talk therapy for me always had one fundamental flaw, I was not entirely honest. I had a filter. I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable with a stranger.

With Madeline, I was vulnerable. She was vulnerable. We were the same person, on the same path, reaching for the same goal – and to reach it, we had to be entirely honest with ourselves. And for that reason, Celeste changed my life.

Written by Emrys Aspinall