Dead every 14 seconds

It was late 2019 when I turned over a new leaf. After an odyssey of doctor visits with no results, I decided to leave my full-time job. A secure job, not really my dream, with far too long of a commute, but my work and I were greatly appreciated.

Having reached my health low point, however, I saw only one solution: rearrange life and create structures in which I could get healthy. This included quitting my job, as work framed the majority of my day. It was a decision I made with trepidation. Financially, it wasn’t smart, I had no alternatives, and I didn’t know how quickly I would even recover. It felt like giving up, failing, and failing. Questions plagued my nights: How naïve am I, really? Is it even possible to make thoughtful decisions under great pressure of suffering – when all you do is think from day to day, not understanding why it’s all happening?

And then I bought the indie gem Celeste at a sale and sat in front of my Switch. For a long time, I’d heard nothing but good things about the 2D platform ‘n’ run. Celeste was supposed to impress both in terms of gameplay and story. That’s all I knew. A rare gift in this day and age full of teasers, trailers and Let’s Plays.

I pressed start and met young Madeline. She was planning a deadly climb to the top of Celeste Mountain. Together, we set out on our journey. We jumped, dashed and walljumped over chasms, spikes and other hazards. The slightest misstep meant screen death.

The timing had to be precise and the game was tough as hell, at least for a mediocre gamer like me. It wasn’t unfair at any point, though; all mistakes were mine. On the way up, I got to know Madeline better. She was struggling with her insecurities and even panic attacks.

Her inner demons personified themselves in her reflection and became her antagonist. As if the climb itself wasn’t hard enough. Madeline was now not only the heroine, but also the nemesis. Fortunately, there was the wanderer Theo, whom she met from time to time. He talked to her optimistically, strengthened her and captured her mental development in silly selfies.

For 10 hours and 52 minutes I struggled against the mountain and Madeline’s fears. I died 2,823 times. Every 14 seconds, I was dead. Yes, it was frustrating. But the gameplay is just too motivating, the sense of accomplishment too enticing. The desire to get Madeline through the obstacles and finally see the top grew.

But for me, one thing was much more significant: I got used to failing. I failed so often that it didn’t matter. At first I was annoyed by my inability. But it became much more important to try again. The fact that I died on average every 14 seconds also meant: I get the opportunity to do better every 14 seconds. Every mistake was necessary to move forward. Without the 2,823 deaths, I would not have reached the summit.

Surprised by reducing my fear of failure with a video game, I researched the connection between failure and success. I learned that only through failure can a transformation take place and thus set the course for success. My usual actions were not enough to meet the challenge, and with the reset, I had the opportunity to adjust my actions. I would call it a typical game over and restart situation.

Until then, I had never written and published a text, but I wanted to talk about my findings.  I started a blog to talk about the potential of video games. Two months later, I was already selling my first article for an online magazine, for real money. Never would I have expected that. I wrote about a research project that would use a video game to prepare professional responders and civilians for disasters.

I had my first interview with a scientist from the Bundeswehr University in Munich. My impostor syndrome had never been greater. I had only been working intensively with the mechanisms of games for a few months, had zero journalistic experience and had never written a text until eight weeks ago. I almost fainted from panic and nervousness.

And there it was again, Celeste Mountain. It loomed before me and comforted me at the same time. If things go wrong, it’s not the end of the world. The mountain doesn’t disappear and I find a new way to climb it. In addition, like Madeline, I also had a Theo by my side. My girlfriend was an additional rock in my troubled surf.

And now, a year later, I’m sitting in front of the PC and reviewing the situation. I am now self-employed. Something I had never really considered because of the lack of a safety net. One year in, it’s been a pure roller coaster ride. Relentless joy over successes alternates with staggering anxiety over financial insecurity.

But I no longer stand in my own way. If I find something interesting and want to realize it, I try it. Worst case scenario, I start over. And even the restarts are fun if you enjoy playing every level of this game.

I’m aware that it doesn’t always work out that way. It’s a snapshot in time. I come from a privileged situation, I have an academic degree and a family environment that supports me. I could perhaps allow myself to make this decision more easily than others. But I’m still a little in disbelief that a year and a half after my health bottomed out, I’m able to make a living from journalistic content and video games. The road is still long, but I owe it to a video game to see mistakes in a different light.

Now whenever I face a big challenge, I consciously think of Celeste, Madeline and the mountain. Then I breathe a little easier and know: game over isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning.

Celeste was released in 2018 by indie developer Matt Makes Games Inc. The game is a classic 2D platformer with charming characters and a story about fears and inner demons. The controls are fairly simple, but reveal depth and finesse when you delve a little deeper. It is therefore a popular game in speedrunner circles. The current best time in the Any% category was set by user buhba from England with 26 minutes and 29 seconds.

This post is also available in: German