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Celeste's creator's silence on their trans protagonist isn't great representation
One of my favorite video games of the last couple of years, as well as probably the most critically acclaimed indie game released in 2018, was a tough platformer called Celeste. The game tells the story of Madeline, a young woman with anxiety and depression, climbing a difficult and dangerous mountain. The game was very challenging to complete, with precise jumps required to progress, but it also encouraged repeated attempts, not giving up, and going easier on yourself when needed. Celeste did a great job of using its gameplay to draw parallels to Madeline's emotional journey trying to overcome her anxiety and prove to herself what she was capable of, and tackled its mental health themes rather beautifully.
While Celeste quickly became one of my all-time favorite video games when it released, what I want to talk in more depth about is a recent free update to the game, which has caused a split in the game's audience, and that I personally wish the creative team would directly address.
Celeste: Chapter 9: Farewell is an end game set of story-based levels, designed for players who have not only beaten the main game, but also the game's difficult bonus challenge levels. You play as Madeline, chasing after a bird who she is convinced is the spirit of a deceased friend whose death she hasn't yet accepted.
After completing the story, players are treated to a short epilogue scene, where Madeleine is at home, and we get to see a little of where she lives. Most notably, on her computer desk, by her keyboard, she has both a rainbow flag, as well as a transgender pride flag, signaling to many players that Madeline is both gay and transgender.
Now, as a transgender woman myself, I was absolutely delighted to see this. Madeline is the protagonist of one of my favorite ever games, a game that has been huge popularity for its difficult gameplay in pockets of gaming fandom that might not traditionally play a game with a trans protagonist. She's competent, she can do amazing things, and she has the emotional strength to be introspective and work through her mental health conditions. She's a great character, and in a world with so few playable trans protagonists I was so ready to embrace her with open arms.
However, I quickly realized, the way Madeline's trans reveal was handled was going to cause debate and discussion. Put simply, there's a lot of people out there who don't like transgender people existing, and they will find any excuse to deny the existence of a trans character.
Moderators on the Celeste Wiki quickly took a firm stance against Madeline being a trans character. Their stance was that she might just have those flags to be an ally to gay and trans people. She never says she's trans with words, and the creator has remained radio silent on her trans status when asked about it, so many refuse to accept it as canon.
After that, people like me who thought she was trans looked for other evidence, pointing out a picture of her younger self where she appears less traditionally feminine, as well as a medication bottle which could be for hormone replacement therapy pills, but could just as easily be for anxiety medication.
In the weeks since, general consensus has become that Madeline is probably meant to be a trans character, as you don't just put a trans flag next to a character's computer without that being a conscious choice. But, any time I or other trans people try to excitedly talk about what that fact means for us, we get swarmed with people telling us we are wrong, and to stop trying to force characters into being trans. It really makes it hard to get excited about such a great character having something in common with us.
Multiple people, myself included, have reached out to the development team of the game asking for a firm answer about Madeline's potential trans status. Prior to publication of this piece, I contacted the game's creator Matt Thorson but received no response. That lack of response and the development team's apparent decision to maintain silence is a disappointment.
Including an LGBT character in your narrative whose LGBT status is casually dropped in is great; it makes that aspect of who they are not a huge deal. But as a creator, if you don't confirm what you were implying, be it inside or outside that piece of media, you will basically just give ammo for a bunch of your players to pretend the representation doesn't exist, and make it harder for those who that representation matters most to.
Now, to be clear, I'm not opposed to queer creators including ambiguous queer characters in their narratives. I think there is certainly room for characters who are never explicitly stated as trans, where it's up to the player to make their own judgement calls based on given evidence in the narrative, and ambiguous queer narratives can be handled well. However, in my personal opinion, any creator that's aiming to pull off ambiguous representation in fiction ideally needs to layer hints and clues about their character's identity throughout the narrative, so that reading the character as queer adds something new to readings of the plot. Celeste never at any point during its narrative so much as hints at Madeline being a trans character, and dropping a flag at the end of the game with no other context gives nothing for players to look back to and view as evidence with hindsight. That may well be a factor in why this particular game's silence feels like such a disservice to that reading character.
I can't say any creator's motives for certain, but often other developers do things like this as a way to walk the line between throwing a bone to those who want representation, without angering bigots who might play their game. It's the same reason characters like Tracer in Overwatch are confirmed gay in comic books rather than flashy cinematics. The more plausibly deniable the canon of the reveal, the easier it is to add an LGBT character to your narrative without angering those who would oppose it.
With that said, no matter the reason, the creator's silence still has the same end result, a character whose trans status is loosely hinted at the last moment, and is easily deniable.
Making a character's trans status ambiguous means your trans fans can't fully get excited about representation, and empowers those who would rather not face the fact they might have played as a trans person in a game they like. It puts all the power in the hands of those seeking to deny our existence, and is not proper representation. Without evidence throughout the bulk of the main game, it's hard to see this as a good example of a character intended to be read as Trans.
I want to see the creative team say one way or the other, so I can either get excited that Madeleine is canonically trans, or stop getting excited about that fact if it wasn't the intended reading. I'm convinced it's the case, not only because of the in-game signs, but also the fact the game's development team includes both a non-binary person and a trans person. Still, author silence always falls in favor of the status quo.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.