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How ‘Celeste’ Found Success in Embracing Speedrunners Who Broke The Game

Few games from the past few years are as much of a joy to control as Celeste, a thoughtful story about climbing a mountain and living with mental illness, that’s simultaneously a brutal platformer. It’s little surprise, then, that Celeste has also developed a dedicated following since its release, including a healthy speedrunning community. But Celeste has a unique relationship with speedrunners. Unlike most other games, where speedrunners often feel like friendly antagonists trying to break a game apart, Celeste‘s developers have worked hand-in-hand with the speedrunning community to aid them in breaking the game apart.

“We try to use a light touch for these kinds of changes,” said designer Maddy Thorson. “It’s been a while since our last meaningful patch targeting the speedrun, and we’re hoping that this will be our final one. Our goal isn’t to make the game faster or slower for speedrunners per se but more fun for them, since speedrunning was always a mode of play that we considered as a part of the game’s design.”

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Celeste came out in 2018, and while the developers have largely moved on, they have continued to tweak the game. For the game’s upcoming third anniversary, designer Maddy Thorson tweeted about some changes coming to Celeste, many of which will make zero sense to anyone who doesn’t play Celeste at a high-level. For example, it’s now possible to bind a crouch dash (or “demodash,” as it’s referred to by the community) to a single button.

A crouch dash is extremely hard to pull off. Per the game’s Fandom wiki:

“A demodash (named after its discoverer, DemoJameson) is performed by dashing down, then immediately (within 4 frames or 0.066 seconds, 0.068 seconds of in-game time) releasing the down key. This causes Madeline to dash horizontally while keeping a crouched state at the same time.”

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0.066 seconds!

Previously, speedrunners had been using an extremal piece of software, Joy2Key, to make that key binding possible and their speedrunning live easier. Now, it’s built into the game.

“Usually we just try to remove unnecessary friction,” said Thorson.

A number of speedrunning techniques were actually built into the game by design and weren’t exploits, partially because the game’s sound designer, Kevin Regamey, is a speedrunner himself. There’s a reason Celeste has a built-in level timer—they hoped (and anticipated) play like this. The crouch dash, however, was something the fans discovered.

The patch will also canonize another advanced (and controversial) technique called “pause buffering,” where, in layman’s terms, you’re exploiting pausing to pull off moves that might physically be impossible (or at best, extremely hard and inconsistent) with human hands.

The goal, according to Thorson, is to give the best Celeste players new ways to optimize their runs, while also giving less skilled players opportunities to play with those tricks, too.

“These changes can be pretty fun for me to work on,” said Thorson, “because a lot of these players understand the game’s movement system, which I programmed, better than I do.”

The funniest part about all of this, however, is that Thorson and the team working on Celeste are frequently trying to implement and alter discoveries they cannot pull off themselves. Just because Thorson conceived Celeste does not suddenly make Thorson a speedrunner, too.

Much of the joy of speedrunning is how it often runs counter to what the designers “wanted.” This has led to instances where Thorson has to actually cheat and modify Celeste‘s game code in order to make sure they can execute the high-level technique they’re playing with.

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“I find myself doing weird stuff,” they said. “Like sometimes I need to test a trick where the player dashes down into the ground, jumps within a certain frame window after landing, and repeats that for a distance to gain a ton of speed. That wasn’t really an intended thing and I can’t do it consistently, so when I really need to see how it behaves I go in and change the code so that Madeline auto-jumps on the correct frame when she lands.”

But it’s one thing to develop a game with speedrunners in mind, and another to stay involved once the game is released. Games are living objects these days, but eventually, all games are left behind, and part of what speedrunners do is carefully pull apart all those pieces.

“I think in the grand scheme of things, having a close relationship with the devs of the game has been a blessing,” said Celeste speedrunner buhbai, who currently holds the fastest run. “It has allowed us to make changes to the game that [have] been hugely beneficial and only for the purpose of QoL [quality of life] for the most part to the speedrun experience.”

Buhbai praised how the Celeste developers have been selective in what they “fix” in the game, largely staying out of the way, and not treating speedrunners like free bug testers.

“It is very easy for developers to fall down this hole for other games, like Team Cherry and Hollow Knight or Gears for Breakfast and A Hat in Time,” said buhbai, “where they intentionally patch out skips/tech/glitches that wouldn’t affect the casual experience in any way, only the speedrunning one.”

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In the case of Hollow Knight, there are actually instructions for speedrunners to downgrade copies of their game so they can continue to make use of exploits that have been removed.

One way Celeste avoids these issues: there’s a beta branch of the game people can readily download and give feedback on, which has prevented such issues in the past. Because game code is so funky and unpredictable, even the most careful re-calibration can have unintended consequences. In one instance, a patch broke a move players called the “super wall jump,” a speedrun move that Celeste actually teaches players in-game. Fans caught the bug, which would have impacted speedruns, and it never made it into the “official” game.

Celeste isn’t solely ‘ours’ to change however we want anymore,” said Thorson, “it also belongs in some part to the people who’ve built fan communities around it. We’re trying our best to facilitate accessibility and longevity without overreaching. At some point we want the speedrun to be a static thing, in the sense that the game itself is no longer changing. We believe that’s an important stage for Celeste to reach, and we hope that after these last changes it will settle in a positive place.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is [email protected], and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

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