Kit’s Controller Corner: Climbing the mountain — Celeste and the difficulty in gender identity realization

A drawing of a mountain from Celeste with clouds behind it colored in blue, white, and pink — the colors of the trans flag.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

Video games are one of the few forms of media that allow direct interaction with the topics and themes explored within the games. With this level of involvement comes the consideration of how an individual’s identity may cause them to empathize with and seek out certain themes within video games. Transgender individuals, despite making up a small percentage of the population, have a huge footprint in creating and consuming media of all types; therefore, it is important to understand what motivates the creation and consumption of media involving trans people, particularly video games.

Released in 2018 for various consoles and PC platforms, “Celeste” is an action platformer developed by Maddy Makes Games and Extremely OK Games. It explores the journey of Madeline as she encounters external, internal, physical and psychological obstacles in climbing a mountain. Aside from proving a point to herself, her motivations for doing so are markedly unclear within the game.

The game was created by Maddy Thorson, a Canadian video game developer and creator. Thorson is a trans woman and has stated that Madeline is canonically also a trans woman. She also stated that her identity factored into Madeline’s initially unclear gender identity and history, given that Thorson’s journey developing the game helped solidify and understand her gender identity.

“Celeste” is a game ostensibly about the creator’s journey to realizing their gender identity, explored through the narrative of Madeline climbing the mountain. Thorson began developing the game while she believed herself to be a cisgender man, but was grappling with gender ennui. That sense of confusion is demonstrated within Madeline’s journey. Madeline states clearly that climbing the mountain is a self-imposed challenge with no motivation behind it other than to gain confidence and affirm her actions. This sense of confusion feeds back into the player’s experience — you’re not entirely sure why you feel this sense of unease, nor are you sure why you’re forcing yourself to bash your head against the obstacles in your way.

Throughout the game, Madeline grapples with Part of You (referred to by the game’s community as Badeline), a part of Madeline that haunts, harasses and hinders her throughout the story. While a supernatural entity in the game, the concept of a part of oneself that exists purely to prey on your anxieties and insecurities resonated with many transgender people. Gender identity is no sure journey; many people are made to feel unsure if they’re making the right choice and question themselves at every step. As the game progresses, you try to conquer Badeline before realizing that she, just like Madeline, is also riddled with the fear of uncertainty. To reach the summit of the mountain, the two of you join forces and work together as a cohesive whole.

“Many trans people struggle with the process of realizing their gender identity and reject it out of fear. This parallels Madeline’s battle with Part of You, as she rejects it at every turn, but it continues to shadow her.”

“Celeste” is a game that teaches that every part of oneself is valid and worthy of respect. While you shouldn’t discount personal growth and a change in identity, it is important to realize that even if you reject a part of yourself, it doesn’t cease to be a Part of You. Many trans people struggle with the process of realizing their gender identity and reject it out of fear. This parallels Madeline’s battle with Part of You, as she rejects it at every turn, but it continues to shadow her. This sentiment resonates with many trans people, not just because a trans woman wrote it, but because it demonstrates how unsure trans people feel while exploring their gender identity. Furthermore, it shows how realizing and presenting yourself in a way that is congruent with how you feel as a person is a fundamentally difficult challenge — especially when you don’t have all the answers about who you are and, more importantly, who you want to be.

Being trans takes courage, not simply because of the societal perception of trans people and associated difficulties in realizing one’s gender identity, but because it is an unclear journey. You’re not sure why you started the journey or where you’ll end up, nor are you aware of every step on the way. “Celeste” is a game about making meaning out of uncertainty and learning to become comfortable with yourself as a constantly changing and evolving person.

Many trans people reflect that although the beginning of their gender identity journey is often underpinned by fear, over time, they begin to realize who they are as a person. The victory of climbing the mountain in “Celeste” is analogous to the satisfaction trans people gain from an increased sense of comfort in their gender identity and presentation. It’s never an easy journey, and the setbacks along the way may frustrate and dishearten you, but you will ultimately overcome them. In time, you may even begin to relish the satisfaction of conquering what was once an insurmountable obstacle. Ultimately, it’s funny how we get attached to the struggle.

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