Omar Shehata

Playing Celeste is like learning the piano

From Omar's notebook.

I first had this thought while playing Celeste, but I started thinking about it again while playing Hollow Knight. Playing these games feels just like learning to play an instrument. I think it feels rewarding in the same way, and that it requires the same type of skill, and the same type of practice.

Here are the ways I think they are very similar.

Once you get it, you get it

The only song I ever really learned on the piano is Joy to The World. I remember the first section of it felt incredibly difficult. I kept stumbling on it, having to stop and think about which key goes next.

Even when I knew what the keys were, it just seemed very difficult to press them all with the right rhythm. To move my hands in the right way.

But eventually, once I got it right once, and then did that a couple times, it was all so easy. I didn't have to think about it anymore. It felt very comfortable to play that section. I could even do it without looking!

This is actually how it feels to get past a difficult section in Celeste. This magical feeling that it's effortless.

You need to string together difficult sections

One difficulty I had with the piano was I'd learn how to play one section, then the next. When it came time to play the whole song, I stumbled on switching from one section to the next. The only way to get over that was to practice playing the whole thing together, or just change up where I start so I always know what's next.

I saw the same thing in Celeste too. You'd have one area that requires careful jumping around spikes, and then you fall right into another one that required skillful wall jumping. I had to learn to do each well, but even when I could, I still had to practice transitioning seamlessly from one section to the next. That was a challenge of its own.

It requires practicing rhythm

The hardest thing about learning the piano for me was not just knowing which keys to press, but pressing them with the right timing. This is also what makes Celeste a challenging game. Knowing how to get through an area is one challenge, that you need to jump here, dash there, slide down here. But correctly executing it requires pressing the right buttons at the right time.

Wait too long to dash, and you've fallen into a pit of spikes. Dash too soon, and you miss the moving platform.

Or, in other words, you're off-beat.

Both the piano and Celeste are incredibly satisfying once mastered. Playing Celeste does feel like performing to me. Playing songs you already know on the piano isn't very challenging, but it's fun, especially when you do hit all the notes just right, everything flows together, and the result is a beautiful melody.

Playing Celeste, it does feel equally satisfying to hit all those beats, to see your character just barely reach that platform, or dash off a wall within inches of hitting the spikes. It feels kind of meditative almost. You're not thinking too hard about it, so you can still think about other things. But it still takes some kind of focus, so your mind doesn't wander too far or get easily distracted.

I wonder in what other ways we can draw parallels. It is common in jazz to improvise. Do we see this too in Celeste? There's definitely wiggle room in how you get across the level. Does that feel the same way? I don't know, I've never played jazz.

What would it look like to map piano keys to Celeste? Could you find a song whose beats match the jumps and the dashes close enough that you could complete the level by playing the song?

What does this tell us about how we can make learning instruments more accessible or more fun? It is obvious to me when I fall into spikes that I jumped too soon, or that this whole approach is wrong. Do we have the same for the piano? Is that the same as just having a trained ear? Or some kind of guitar-hero-esque learning app?

But that somehow feels a lot more rigid than the game. So I'm not sure what the answer is, but this feels like a useful lens. I'm curious if anyone can relate or see other interesting connections!