Celeste Level Design Case Study

An analysis of the first twenty minutes of the video game Celeste, written for my Game Design II Class.

For a video demonstration of the levels shown, click here

The first thing we see in Celeste is the title screen, showing an icy mountain in front of a black background, with frozen letters and falling snowflakes. A soft, calm piano piece plays in the background. Right away we are introduced to this mountain, which the entire game is focused on climbing. The triangular shape of the mountain with the text below draws the eyes upward, climbing just as we will in the game.

After a few menu screens, the prologue starts up. We see text over images of snow blowing in the wind, and hear the sound of a car door closing, telling us the player just arrived at the base of the mountain. Text, presumably the player character talking to herself, appears on the screen, saying This is it, Madeline. Just breathe. Why are you so nervous? This helps set up the story of anxiety that will become more prevalent later in the game.

This is the first screen in the game. Sad piano music plays in the background. The background is dark and blurry, providing contrast against the much brighter objects in the foreground. Small flakes of snow, really just blue and white dots, flow in the wind, a fantastic piece of polish. The lack of information given to the player raises questions. Why is Madeline climbing a mountain, at night, when it is so cold, completely alone? The background music establishes this feeling of loneliness and despair in the player.

The level geometry is made up of a mix of rocks and ice, telling us that things will become colder, and thus more treacherous, as we climb. A broken road(a) sign can be seen in front of the player; abandoned areas will become common as the game progresses. The player character, Madeline(b), has striking red hair, which sticks out against the black and green of the background and the brown, blue, and white platforms. There is a short hop onto a ledge(c) before the first pit, giving the player a place to safely learn the jump physics before any danger. Notice the overhang(d). Part of it is covered in a strip of ice. This draws the player’s attention and makes it look like part of the overhang is separate from the rest.

As the player reaches the edge of the center platform, part of the overhang will break off, almost crushing the player. Fortunately, it rumbles before falling, giving the player a warning and more than enough time to jump out of the way. This introduces the fact that the game will feature dangerous obstacles that require quick reflexes. The next screen acts as a tutorial for climbing, explained by a bird with a speech bubble above its head, and the third screen advances the story, as Madeline runs into an old woman who warns her of the mountain’s dangers.

As the player comes to the bridge, they will right away notice that it doesn’t look especially sturdy, with partially broken support beams. Sure enough, as soon as the player starts walking on the bridge, it crumbles behind them. The bridge crumbles slowly enough that you can outrun it by walking; still, the crumbling bridge ratchets up the tension and gives the player a sense of urgency. As the player crosses the bridge, the will come across gaps in the bridge they can jump across. One of these gaps appears at the very end of the bridge. However, as the player is about to land on the last bridge section, it crumbles, and the player begins to fall into a pit.

The player stops falling. The snowflakes hang midair, showing that time is stopped. The bird that explained climbing controls appears again, now saying to dash by pressing x. The player, naturally, presses x, presumably with the diagonal input shown by the bird. As they do this, time suddenly resumes and Madeline rockets upward, safely landing on the ledge. The camera pans up to the snowy sky as the words You can do this appear.

As soon as the first proper level starts up, the player will naturally try to use their dash ability again. With a little experimentation, the player will learn that the dash button quickly shoots them in the direction they steer. The visuals on the dash are excellently polished; Madeline’s hair turns a bright blue, contrasting her normal red hair(a). In addition, she leaves a trail of after images and a white streak(b), conveying speed. Playing around with dashing, the player will quickly learn they can use it to jump farther. The first two pits in the room do not require dashing, but the third(c) does. This gives the player time to experiment with dashing before putting it to the test.

Notably, the slow music from the title screen and tutorial level is gone, replaced by a faster, more upbeat theme. This, combined with the newfound abilities, helps the player feel stronger and in control.

The first thing the player’s eyes are drawn to on the next screen is the bright red strawberry(b) floating above them. Its contrast from the level makes it the center of attention, and the fact that its something nice like a berry makes it seem good. The sign pointing upwards also encourages the player to jump for the strawberry(b). Jumping, and even jumping then dashing, doesn’t give enough height to reach the berry. The player will also notice a strange brown rectangle on the floor(c). Stepping on it will launch the player into the air, where they can then dash to the strawberry. This room introduces strawberries, the game’s main collectible, and springs, a vital exploration mechanic. It also introduces how Celeste works; you don’t beat Celeste levels by platforming skillfully, you beat them by platforming smartly. Each screen in Celeste is its own puzzle, using platforming elements in creative ways to force the player to think.

Getting to the next room forces the player to bounce off the spring then dash over the spikes(d). Collecting the strawberry safely teaches the player to dash after springs, before requiring it to get over the spikes.

Getting the strawberry in this next room forces the player to drop down the right side of the screen, then air dash to a wall to climb back up. This section teaches players they sometimes need to use air dashes to switch what direction their momentum is going.

This room features a new mechanic, these floating platforms with traffic lights on them. Looking at them, the player can pick up a few details. They’re obviously mechanical, they are attached to a mechanism with a track and gears, and they have red traffic lights on them. When the player first jumps on this traffic block, the light turns green and it moves along the track. This section introduces traffic blocks by leading the player to step on one, showing how they work.

This next room features a new item, a strawberry with wings. The player’s first instinct will be to airdash up to it, despite the signs next to it implying that airdashing doesn’t work. When the player dashes towards the strawberry, it flies away, forcing them to restart the room. By placing a raised area below the berry, the game tricks the player into learning that they can’t dash into winged berries.

Also of note is the brick platforms used to climb this level. Look familiar? Bricks of this type appeared in the tutorial level. Players, remembering the crumbling bridge, won’t be suprised when these platforms give out from underneath them.

This section features a traffic block that raises you up. Players, generally impatient, will try to jump as soon as the block reaches the top of the section. Much to their surprise, this will give them a much higher jump than normal. By placing the block like this, players learn they can use traffic blocks to fling themselves.

Also of note is the light coming from the path to the left, which tells players they can go there to find an extra challenge room, and the cracks on the block in the bottom right, which tells players they can dash into it to destroy it for a hidden strawberry.

Something the player will realize while playing Celeste is that Madeline’s hair turns red again when she lands on the ground. Players will also realize from a bit of playing that you can only air dash once before needing to land. Putting these two things together, players will realize that Madeline’s hair tells them when they can airdash. Various mechanics encountered in later levels (red orbs, feathers, dream blocks), replenish Madeline’s dash, and this visual cue teaches that to players.

In this section players encounter a green diamond floating midair. Players will naturally jump for it, coming up short, and use their air dash to get over the spikes. But, that leaves them over a spikepit without an airdash to clear it, which would normally But, when they touch the green diamond, Madeline’s hair turns red again, and they can safely air dash over the spikes. This room introduces recharge diamond, a key mechanic in Celeste, by forcing the player to need one.

Notice the brown wall in the bottom right. Like the cracked block in the previous room, it can be broken with an airdash to find a hidden berry. Its odd coloration makes it stand out, encouraging players to interact with it.

Skipping ahead a bit, we reach this room with snow covered platforms. The player, remembering the ice block that fell on them in the tutorial level, realizes that these blocks fall when you touch them.

One of the last rooms in this level features this massive gap you need to jump over using a traffic block. If players first encountered the traffic blocks here, or hadn’t been introduced to using them for extra height, they wouldn’t think to launch themselves using the traffic block. By introducing mechanics in simple ways before using them in more difficult, complex ways, Celeste keeps players from feeling lost.

At the end of the level, the player reaches this large grave and is given a moment to breathe. Ending on reaching something like this, instead of ending by just reaching the end of a series of rooms, helps the player feel a sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, the massive grave dedicated to those who died on the climb is unnerving, sending chills down the player’s spine, and reminding them that Celeste will get much, much more difficult.

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