Warning: This article contains spoilers for Celeste.
I remember the first time I ever perfectly completed a song in Guitar Hero 3. I had spent weeks playing through the tracklist, and finally found a few songs I enjoyed playing over and over again, eventually to the point of perfection. When it was said and done, I had five golden stars in the song selection menu to signify that I had perfected a song, practicing hammer-ons, pull-offs, and other tricky patterns in order to hit every note. Looking back though, it's impossible to say how much of a struggle it was to actually perfect a song - the only thing an outside observer might notice was that I took all five spots in the high score screen, but it didn't convey the challenge or the journey, or the countless failed attempts beforehand. I initially saw that positively, it didn't matter that I'd failed dozens of times before, only that I finally accomplished what I set out to do, but looking back, it seems like a moment in a painting. I'd captured the most "important" aspect of my challenge, but in the way that a video can tell a better story than a photo, so too do my failures better represent my success.
Starting Celeste, the game quickly evolves from a simple platformer with simpler mechanics, into a gauntlet of mental and occasionally physical challenges, with each chapter raising the bar and death count. When I finished the first world, I noticed I had failed to collect all the strawberries or the mix tape hidden within, and I resolved to return to collect everything I'd missed. I also realized the game counts every death in a chapter, and I might have winced when it passed 200 in the first world. With a mindset similar to Guitar Hero, I thought I'd return to beat the level again with zero deaths, so I'd have a proud mark in addition to gaining all the collectibles.
Imagine my surprise when I beat the level, collecting all the strawberries and dying only a few times, only to have my deaths simply added to the previous death count. The idea that I would no longer be able to "hide" my failures really bothered me. Sure I could get all the strawberries, mix tapes, and other collectibles, but my death count would always be there like a lingering shadow. In fact, I felt much like Celeste must have, we both had a challenging task ahead of us, although my "mountain" was a platinum trophy. We also shared the negative reminders, my constantly rising death count while I gathered every little extra item, and Celeste's more dangerous, more real dark side. Even if I got close to my goal, I could no longer pretend that I had mastered a chapter, in fact by the time I finished chapter 3, I had accumulated almost 500 deaths!
In my goal to complete everything about the game, I finally attempted a B-side. These remix levels were unlike anything else in the game, and the familiarity of the corresponding chapter's mechanics was replaced with a different kind of familiarity. Once again, I felt like I was at square one, some of the rooms seemed immediately impossible, and even piecing together the solution was an ordeal, let alone actually pulling it off. Again and again I threw myself at these expert rooms, failing again and again. I'd master the first section, fail the vital part, and a careless mistake would throw off my rhythm, resulting in tens of pointless deaths. Frustration quickly built up and I wound up using the Save & Quit option many times, at one point even leaving to the chapter select, not realizing it wouldn't save my exact progress. Anger, relief, exasperation, and despair all became intimately familiar to me, and what's worse is knowing that each chapter of the game was absolutely solvable, and minor twitch motions were causing me to feel so bad every time I died. Celeste is a beautiful game in every aspect, the story, music, and aesthetic all beg to be appreciated, but all I could see was how difficult the worlds were. Eventually though, I found the crystal heart that resides at the end of each remix, and that changed everything for me.
After crashing through the finish line of the first remix, I collected my mcguffin and went back to the chapter select menu, expecting again to cringe at how many lives the crystal heart had cost me. The number quickly tallied up, and at first I was down about it, but the higher the number got, the less it bothered me. By the time it stopped, I wasn't upset at all, and I felt silly for being annoyed at that reminder. I felt proud for the first time at the triple digit number showing my failures. Somehow, it clicked in me that despite my 500+ deaths in a single level, I didn't let it stop me from finishing the level. Each death was a lesson, each failure a reminder and a suggestion as to how to actually complete the levels. If you were to look at my save file years later, you would see that, yes, I was able to complete each level, collect every strawberry, and find every hidden gem (literal and figurative), and while I may have died thousands of times in the process, I also never let that stop me. If anything, those deaths only served as a larger platform upon which to display my triumph. Much like Celeste, I learned that the dark or shameful part of my victories didn't need to be separate, but only served to make them stronger.