Hey, Cadets! :)

How’s it going? Life never seems to slow down these days.

It's a busy time for all of us here at EXOK HQ. Exciting times, too! The contrast of our currently-fortunate circumstances with the dire state of the world can be difficult to reconcile, but we’re trying to make the most of the opportunity and privilege we have here, in the constructive ways we know.

Since wrapping up Celeste’s 9th and final chapter, we’ve been hard at work on something entirely new. It’s been a whole thing, and we’re all pretty submerged in it already, solving problems and feeling out what it’ll be. It’s pretty different from Celeste, which is interesting. Like I said, exciting times!

Due to all this excitement, I put off finishing this article. Buuuut we really want to make an effort to document our process for you folks, so right now I’m away from EXOK HQ, sequestered from the team and our prototype, until I finish writing something about Chapter 9.

Writing is the hardest part of my job. Sometimes I have to force myself to do it.

Spoiler Alert!
Don’t read any further unless you’re ready for spoilers about Chapter 9’s story, gameplay, and general structure.

The Beginning

Chapter 9 wasn’t supposed to have any explicit story. The original plan was to make just 30-50 new screens of super-difficult junk that remixed all the main game’s objects in interesting new combinations. A big inspiration, which stayed with us the whole way through, was the Special Zone from Super Mario World. I designed a lot of levels in this style. Most of them ended up comprising one section of Farewell, after Madeline catches the bird for the first time (they’re easy to spot). The new cassette block rooms were originally going to mark the end of the chapter. I thought of it as another B-Side that could slot in after the C-Sides.

We flip-flopped on whether to go all-in on narrative - new cutscenes, dialog, and portraits - for a while. We were pretty eager to start our next project, so we were inclined to keep the scope of this chapter small. But as work continued, we got the sense that it just wouldn’t feel whole unless it took Madeline somewhere new narratively as well as mechanically.

Also of relevance was our plan to form EXOK. Because we were in the process of formally hiring our Brazilian teammates and helping them navigate the pointless maze of bureaucracy that is immigration in 2019, we found ourselves in a transition period. A lot of “business-y” work was happening behind-the-scenes. Stuff that we did not love, but stuff that had to be done to lay the foundations for EXOK. When we began to seriously evaluate the cost (in time, money, and labor) of building out a more “complete” Chapter 9, this transition period began to feel like a convenient Farewell-sized gap in our schedule.

Of course, we went way over-schedule. Oh well. Towards the end we were splitting our efforts between Farewell and our new thing.

Some Middle Bits

Once we decided to make this a whole chapter, and not just a collection of hardcore levels, the question of how it fit into the difficulty progression of the game became a tough one to answer.

We knew we liked the levels we had, and we liked the idea of pairing end-game content with new story. It just feels generous and surprising for the last, most difficult stretch of Celeste’s post-game to contribute to the canon. Amora was eager to dive into the big animated cutscene to cap it all off, and that pushed me to design a climactic build-up and ending to make that feel appropriate.

In the meantime, I prototyped some new mechanics, and they meshed well with the story ideas we had vaguely discussed - themes of grief and letting go. These new mechanics (the jellyfish and puffer fish) lent themselves well to adding easier stages, which became the earlier parts of the chapter. They also helped Pedro nail down the underwater visual motif.

At this point, it felt like we were making two separate chapters, but we wanted to unify them into a singular story experience. Eventually, we had the idea to partition the difficulty spike with a heart gate. The idea for the fake-out heart ending followed from there. We loved the idea of Madeline going beyond the natural bounds of the chapter, into a glitchy area where she shouldn’t be. It reminded us again of bonus areas like the Special Zone in SMW.

One thing Celeste has done from the start, is take tried-and-true platformer concepts and morph them into metaphors for Madeline’s emotional journey. The idea of a bonus world beyond the natural bounds of the game world is common in the genre, and was fertile ground for those kinds of metaphors. Our task was to find what emotional context worked for Celeste’s take on a bonus world.

The End

I feel a bit weird calling the last screen of Chapter 9 a screen. It’s very long. It’s the longest sequence of challenges in the game without a checkpoint, edging out the infamous finale of 7-C. But where 7-C is brutally precise, this little guy is actually pretty forgiving (for a Celeste level). The hardest part is at the very start, and the rest is all stuff that, in isolation, should be pretty easy to execute for any player who has reached this point.

Much of the level is spent floating in mid-air, clutching a jellyfish, rising or falling as the wind shifts. Once you reach the central “updraft” section, the pacing of the stage becomes very slow and methodical. You make painstaking manoeuvres through threatening passages. Then you are asked to throw away your parachute to trigger a switch, and plunge back into the fray, finishing the stage with a fast-paced series of sweeping, dramatic motions.

There’s a lot of feeling in Maddy’s movements here, for me. As usual for her character, there’s that feeling of stubborn determination. But this sequence in particular carries something else for me. Grasping onto that jellyfish for dear life, then throwing it and diving down into the danger below, alone. Long dashes around obstacles, and that breathless rebound off a puffer fish to reach for a feather…

In Celeste’s main story, Madeline struggles with acceptance. In Chapter 9 she has to let go. Throughout Chapter 9, there’s a sense and feeling of desperation to Madeline’s movements and words. She doesn’t want to let go. Throwing that jellyfish is the most desperate moment, the decision to give in and face reality. After that, she has no choice but to ride the momentum of that decision. She has to continue until she finds some kind of hope that allows her to move forward. We did our best to bring these feelings to a boiling point in this final challenge.

After breaking the power source, disabling the last of the ~space electricity~, and being carried upward by the bird and Part of You in tandem, you’re given a feather. All you have to do now is hold up, and dash at the very last moment to meet Badeline for that final launch. This stage starts at its hardest and ends at its easiest. That final dash is such a simple action, but it’s a breakthrough. That moment couldn’t exist, for Maddy or the player, without everything leading up to it.

Thanks for Reading!

Whew, I’m glad I finally got around to writing this. I hope it was an enjoyable read, and if you have any questions about Celeste development, feel free to send them to fanclub@exok.com. If we get a few interesting ones, maybe we’ll do a follow-up post to address them?

Good luck out there,

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