I’ve learned so much catching up on on this thread!
There’s too much to engage with here… I think the points raised about who makes games and why are fascinating, especially in contrast to other mediums like film and photography, two other technology based artistic mediums.
I agree big time that Nintendo has gotten its flowers and then some. As a company they get away with a lot that other large game making companies have semi-regular PR disasters over. Certainly there’s a lack of criticality applied to them, both as a company and their games. Part of what I’m trying to say is that I have applied that criticism and come out the other side still valuing certain aspects of the types of experience they provide.
Ok, let’s talk Celeste. I find Celeste a beautiful and affecting game. Not only does it feel good to play by virtue of well-tuned platforming mechanics and thoughtful level design, but those mechanics play directly into the themes brought up through the narrative. The narrative by itself isn’t special or exemplary - it’s YA flavored self-realization, competently structured with a dash of surprising depth. In comparison to narrative as it functions in literature, it’s cliche. Madeline is climbing a literal mountain after all. Celeste elevates how its own narrative lands by thematically tying it together with its mechanics. And through the magic that is video games mechanics become story and story becomes mechanics. They seamlessly fuse into one sensory-aesthetic experience that makes me feel all kinds of emotions.
There’s this idea in film that audio and visual aspects of the film are not experienced separately. Something happens in our brains when we hear sound and see moving images at the same time that fuses them into a singular perception, “audio-vision.” Even when sounds are not synced directly with the action of the moving images, our brains will perceive a cause-effect relationship. That’s just one of the many dimensions of this phenomenon.
In video games, I think a similar thing happens with game mechanics and narrative. This happens whether intended by the developer or not. This is why the way the player interfaces with the game world is usually mentioned in criticism, it’s an inherent factor in how humans experience these things. It’s fundamental, but still, I think, little understood.
The developers of Celeste clearly thought deeply about this phenomenon. In many games, the phenomenon is exploited for things like, “the narrative has escalating stakes, so the challenge presented to the player also increases.” Celeste goes way beyond this, though admittedly takes a similar shape. Madeline learns a strategy for dealing with her anxiety attacks is to break things down into smaller tasks; the platforming challenges are single-screen, and failing restarts you at the beginning of the screen. Mr. Oshiro is an NPC/Boss whose anxiety has completely taken over his life; his level is labyrinthine and easy to get lost in, in comparison to the straight forward A to B platforming levels that came before. The mountain is naturally supernatural and physically embodies Madeline’s anxiety/negative self. Entire levels are designed around out running “Badeline,” but the climax of the game you have to work together to overcome the final challenges.
Now, whether the narrative is “worthwhile” or has something “important” to say is highly subjective. While I’ve experienced plenty of narratives like it in other mediums, something different happens when I experience it in a game. This unique mechanical/narrative magic happens, and I experience these familiar things not necessarily “more deeply,” but from a totally different sensory-perspective. It not only feels different, the whole experience is fundamentally changed from digesting a similar theme in a different medium. That’s so freakin’ cool!!
Since I’ve started hanging around IC, I’ve been exposed to many more games that go even further in exploring and intentionally shaping this phenomenon. These are usually real small games by a single developer, I’ve found, which is interesting. This is where things get really exciting. I can actually start to imagine a game with a narrative completely unique to games, if that’s even possible, or close to it. My appreciation for these games does not diminish my appreciation for games like Celeste, however. I see them more or less all of a piece.