How The Celeste Speedrunning Community Became Queer As Hell

How The Celeste Speedrunning Community Became Queer As Hell

Queerness has always existed in the gaming world, even if it hasn’t always been out in the open. But more and more, we’re seeing new and existing gaming communities embrace and even centre their queer members. One such community is the vast, rapidly growing subculture around speedrunning, a specialised way to play games as quickly as possible to set personal bests and establish world records. In fact, queer people have become so prevalent in speedrunning that crossovers between speedrun-ready games and titles with queer themes are happening more than ever. This convergence is perhaps best embodied in Celeste, a difficult platformer that’s one of the most popular speed games out there. It’s also attracted an audience that’s undeniably queer.

Celeste, released in 2018, casts you as Madeline, a young woman who sets out to climb the treacherous mountain from which the game takes its name, coming to terms with her own inner darkness in the process. The game has garnered a reputation for being extremely difficult to clear while remaining eminently possible to conquer, thanks to its plethora of options that let you customise its difficulty.

It’s this tough-but-fair dynamic that appeals to many speedrunners. For frozenflygone, who runs a wide variety of categories as well as serving as a mod on the board for Celeste, overcoming the struggle is why they keep persevering: “Speedrunning Celeste ties directly into the themes of the game — it’s going to be a challenge, each day will be a struggle and take time, but reaching the summit is a feeling like nothing else. The game motivates me to learn from my deaths, be kind to myself, and achieve things I never thought I could do.”

Carrarium, a Celeste speedrunner who describes themself as “categorically polygamous” in their specialisations, loves how Celeste feels to play. “There’s this really great thread by [Celeste creator] Maddy Thorson on Twitter where she goes over many aspects of Celeste’s ‘game-feel,’ from ‘coyote time’ to input buffering, to momentum storage, gravity, corner correction, and a lot more,” explains carrarium. “[Thorson’s label] Extremely OK Games did a lot to make sure that Celeste felt good to play despite its difficulty curve, and it shows! I can’t think of many speedruns out there right now where momentum is baked into the gameplay like it is with Celeste. You definitely FEEL like you’re going fast in Celeste.”

This approach to movement design is vital in attracting speedrunners, and only possible in large part because the developer embraces the scene. “It helps, of course, that the dev team is a fan of our efforts,” says carrarium. “As with any game, we speedrunners find ways to sequence break, find uncapped speed, and many other ways to ‘break’ games that developers couldn’t have predicted during development. But rather than patch things out [which developers often do with exploits that speedrunners discover], Extremely OK Games had many discussions with multiple kinds of Celeste players (challenge runners, speedrunners, casual players) to implement long-term quality-of-life additions to the recent patch.”

For her part, Maddy Thorson confirms that speedrunners have played a huge part in Celeste’s development. “From the start, we were inspired by [charity speedrunning marathon] Games Done Quick and the way speedrunners play games, and we wanted the game to continue to be fun even as you started deconstructing and analysing the nuts and bolts of how it works,” explains Maddy. “Kevin, our sound designer, deserves credit here — he’s a speedrunner himself and helped a lot with playtesting and making a lot of great suggestions. We all took care to consider this playstyle in both Madeline’s core moveset, the level design, and even things like UI and sprite work. We’ve made a lot of post-launch updates targeted specifically at keeping the speedrun fun and interesting, both to play and to spectate, as the meta evolves.”

As the development of the game progressed, Maddy also discovered her own queerness, thanks to both the process of making the game and the queer community’s reception of its story about overcoming past trauma and accepting all the different parts of yourself. “When we made Celeste, I wasn’t out to myself. We had queer and poly developers on the team, and we like to let everyone’s voices shine through in our games as much as possible, but for my part as the writer and designer of the game I wasn’t really focused on making something about the queer experience at all,” says Maddy.

“But! I was very much in the process of discovering my queerness while making it, and it very much helped me discover that side of me. So I think that’s how my contributions ended up speaking to the queer experience. I also want to say that the game’s wide interpretation as a queer story post-release helped me along in that personal exploration which obviously didn’t end when the game was out, and probably won’t ever end — an example of how the conversation between artist and audience is a two-way street.” This reading of queerness in Celeste was codified when Maddy wrote an article clearly establishing main character Madeline as trans.

Screenshot: Extremely OK Games
Screenshot: Extremely OK Games

It’s clear that this confirmation from the game’s creator had an impact. Many prominent Celeste runners and fans are queer and visible. Frozenflygone is non-binary, and Celeste helped them discover this fact about themself: “Many people have discovered their own gender and sexuality through reflection on this game — I’m one of them. I came out as nonbinary a few months ago empowered by this community.” Carrarium is trans, and the fact that so much representation is encompassed not just in the game itself with Madeline being trans, but in the developers as well, makes a big difference. “Maddy themselves, [composer] Lena Raine, and a few of the B-Side remixers (Christa Lee, ILWAG, to name those I’m aware of) — even though Celeste wasn’t originally intended to be a ‘trans story,’ it was built with the love and care of queer individuals, and that still carries over with us.”

Direct references to queerness like pride flags on Madeline’s desk aren’t the only aspects of Celeste that speak to the queer community. For Blobbity21, a trans runner who specialises in the any% and True Ending categories, some of the more universal themes of self-acceptance also speak to her queer journey. “I feel like Celeste resonates with the queer community for a few reasons, but primarily because of how it handles the topic of mental health through its story,” says Blobbity. Midway through the game, Madeline has a panic attack, which manifests in vivid, dark manifestations and undulations in the world of the mountain. “A lot of us in the queer community have our own struggles with mental health, and so the story can really hit close to home. Madeline being canonically trans definitely contributes to the resonance as well.”

Perhaps the biggest connection of all is the lesson of resilience that Celeste communicates to players. As she makes her way up the mountain, Madeline is tormented by a mirror image of herself — often called Badeline by players — who seems to represent all of her fears, doubts, and insecurities. “Celeste speaks to me mainly on the level of like, having the struggle of actually confronting your inner demons and getting stronger by moving past them instead of just running away from them — that’s something I’ve struggled with in the past, so a lot of the way that was conveyed hit close to home for me,” Blobbity says. Frozenflygone also felt empowered by the game’s message: “Celeste teaches me to believe in myself. When I am about to give up, I think about how I’ve always overcome hard times and pushed through, like Madeline. I can’t give up. I can do this! I just have to breathe.”

It helps that the community at large is rising to the challenge of being welcoming and caring. Streamer lmjacks is just one example of a figure in the community insisting on keeping his streams a safe and welcoming place: “It’s extremely important for me to foster a welcoming community, both as a streamer and a moderator for the Celeste Discord and pages. One of my primary goals is to create an environment that allows people to be and express themselves as they wish, since that’s not something everyone can do in day-to-day life. In my stream and Discord server, I make it very clear that bigotry of any kind will not be tolerated — both in the rules and in any moderation actions that are required. While simple, a clear rule banning bigotry makes it clear to people that their safety and comfort in your spaces matter to you, and I think that goes a long way.”

The Celeste community has grown leaps and bounds, to the point where people are creating custom maps for the game. Aside from being a runner, frozenflygone created a well-received custom map for Celeste called Quickie Mountain 2, a tribute to a popular Super Mario World kaizo hack. Queer custom map creator marshall_h is the maker of another beloved map, Glyph, which started as a way to express his love for the game and turned into a career in game creation. “For years I had dabbled in making video games and video game music but lacked a lot of knowledge around game design and dynamic music production for video games,” explains marshall_h. “Being in this position, Celeste modding felt like a natural step in learning about the ins and outs of game design and development.”

“An added bonus to this is that the Celeste devs have been incredibly gracious in their support of modding,” he continued. “For example, the [sound design tool] FMOD Studio project for Celeste was made available by the team (with notes by Kevin Regamey, the game’s sound designer, included), which made creating a dynamic soundtrack for the mod possible in the first place. I’m now currently working on my own game (built using the same framework that was used for Celeste) and to this day I am benefitting from the wealth of knowledge that the Celeste devs have provided to the community and game development world.” Now the likes of Glyph and Quickie Mountain 2 are featured speedrun games at GDQ in their own right, complete with leaderboards and their own communities.

Celeste’s creator wasn’t expecting it to grow into new games entirely. “Being featured at GDQ was something we were hoping for but the popularity of modding caught us completely off-guard,” says Maddy. “I love the Super Mario World modding scene, but while we were making Celeste I felt that it wouldn’t lend itself as well to that kind of play. As a result we didn’t do much to encourage or facilitate it. It turned out that I was very wrong. A lot of the custom maps are just incredible to play — Glyph and Quickie Mountain 2 are great examples. There’s also the massive Spring Collab project, Into the Jungle, Monika’s D-Sides…the list goes on. It’s amazing to see people using Celeste as a tool to express themselves, and even using it as a springboard to transition into making their own stand-alone games. And I’m not surprised that those custom maps have made their way to GDQ — they’re a lot of fun to play and to watch.”

That sentiment of expressing oneself might be the key to how Celeste has endured as a community with such a large queer contingent. “Celeste is a game about the process of understanding who you are, and in turn the process of learning to be empathetic to yourself. That process can, in a lot of cases, be extraordinarily difficult, painful work for queer people. I know it was for me,” marshall_h says. Much of this can be attributed to the interplay between the community and the developers. As Maddy explains:

Developers, critics, and players don’t exist in separate universes, the relationship between them is complicated. Celeste is in conversation with the long history of platformers and queer games before it, and that conversation gets much more interesting post-release when people are playing the game. And it takes shape over a long time — by-and-large, we weren’t looking at Celeste through a queer lens in the first months after release. I’ve really appreciated the process of Celeste becoming more well-understood (by critics, players, and us on the dev team) slowly in the months and years post-launch. Being a part of that has helped me grow a lot as an artist and as a person.

For the players’ part, frozenflygone’s sentiment is pretty much universally echoed: “Celeste will always be a part of my life. Even if I stop speedrunning, the people I’ve met have changed my life forever. I want to give back to this community that has brought me so much, so I aim to be a leader in the speedrunning and modding scenes as a welcome and kind face.” And for the Celeste community, that means an inseparable link between queerness and facing challenges, story and speedrunning, player and developer.

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