Celeste has recently been nominated for The Game Awards - Game of the Year for 2018 and Ben got a chance to ask Matt Thorson a few questions regarding the creation of Celeste including his design decisions for gameplay and his inspirations for the story.
What was the story inspiration for Celeste?
My original inspiration for approaching it as a modern, slice-of-life tale was the movie Whisper of the Heart (1995), which is one of my favorite films. The actual content of the story began with personal experiences, and as the characters began to take on a life of their own we tried to let them drive the story.
Did you approach Nintendo, or did Nintendo approach you about having the game on Nintendo Switch?
Nintendo visited our booth at PAX and the process was very smooth from there (even though we delayed the game a few times).
Even though Madeline is female, is her design meant to be androgynous so that any player can connect with her?
Our character artist Amora designed Madeline to fit the setting and her personality. Our goal was actually to make Madeline feel like a rounded person and not a blank slate, so that wasn't so much a consideration for us.
With the amount of the indie hits currently on the platform, what is one aspect in Celeste's design that you would say separates it from other retro style games?
Celeste is a very difficult game, which draws comparisons to retro games and modern games aping the retro style. But I think that Celeste's design is compassionate to the player where most retro games are not, which results in a lot less frustration compared to other games of similar difficulty. It's a hard game, but it wants you to win and it's on your side.
When did the idea making an assist mode come to fruition?
I was originally against the idea, but I think it was Noel, Amora, and Gabby from the team who work shopped the idea and it started making sense late in development. We allocated a few days to implementing it in the last month, and I'm super glad we did. We've gotten a lot of messages from people who are thankful they were able to experience the game because of assist mode, and I think it's consistent with the message of the game.
How did you find that perfect balance in telling a deep compelling story, while making sure that the story doesn’t interfere with Celeste’s gameplay?
I think the key here is to make sure the gameplay is telling the story as much as possible. A lot of emotional shifts can happen during gameplay with clever level design. Taking control away from the player has impact too, but it should be used sparingly or it becomes annoying.
The title screen is very foreboding. What was the thought process behind this making the player feel this way?
We wanted to set the tone right away that this is a quieter, more introspective game than, say, our last project TowerFall. By contrast, TowerFall's menu tries to pump you up to laugh with your friends. We want people to be in a more thoughtful headspace when they play Celeste. And if you think about where Madeline's headspace is when she's driving to the mountain to start her climb, I think the tone of the menu makes sense.
Instead of giving Madeline new abilities as the game progressed, the game goes with unique stages that challenge the player in a different way, while still maintaining Madeline's core move set. What was the thought process of making Celeste with this style of gameplay?
A central design goal of Celeste was to make character growth walk in step with player growth,so that as Madeline is growing and improving the player is too. Giving you new abilities is a way to fake player growth, but real player growth in this genre comes from mastery and
understanding, so that's what we designed for. And this is a spoiler, but we obviously break this rule for the final chapter when Madeline does gain a new ability, but this exception to the rule only has impact because you never get new abilities anywhere else in the game.