Gaming Trend Podcast: Behind the music of Celeste — Lena Raine interview

Our special guest, composer Lena Raine, starts off our show to talk about the original soundtrack of Celeste, and how it reflects the game’s themes of anxiety, inner conflict, and mountain climbing. After that, Mike Pearce returns to host the show, as we discuss the fall of a popular RTS series, criminal charges against a CS:GO figurehead, and other stories.

To hear more of Lena’s work, check out her bandcamp page or her website.

Here are some of the highlights from our interview with Lena:

At what stage in Celeste’s development were you brought on to write the music?

It was very early, which is what I prefer. It was about six months into development at that point. The first couple of areas in the game had been pretty much finished from a design standpoint, and Matt had actually written some temp music that was in there, just to get some ideas going for what the game would sound like.

I got the chance for the rest of development to be in there right at…prototyping and greyboxing these level ideas, and the pacing of them, the mechanics of them. From my time as a designer tester, I sort of knew that stage of development really well, so I was able to get in there and do some playtesting and get an early idea of what the structure of the level might entail, and really see it come together piece by piece…as I was working on the music.

In a lot of ways, I was just any other discipline working on a level; the art was coming in, the writing was coming in, my music was coming in.

How did working alongside the game’s development benefit you creatively?

I think it really speaks to the benefit of being able to write an adaptive and dynamic score for a video game because games are intrinsically about the interactions with them. So, we really wanted the interactions to be meaningful.

If you’re coming in, say, for a film or TV show, you’re usually coming in at the very end of development. Everything is there; the picture is there, you’re just putting the final touches on the completed thing to make it, sort of, come together orally.

The downside of [coming in at the end of production]—when you’re working on a game—is that there’s no chance to really let those pieces bounce off each other. So, if you come in at the end and the game is already done, and you have temp music or whatever, that’s everything that the designers or creators of this game intended, but it leaves very little room for creativity on the composers part and, also, little room for iteration, not just for the music, but for the game as well. I think it absolutely strengthens it both ways to be part of that process.

The Celeste soundtrack definitely is a dynamic one. Can you speak more to that aspect of the music?

When I first went into it…we had just finished the first level, and we kind of did some dynamic stuff, but it was very loose and not tied to progression necessarily. So when we got to the Celestial Resort, we really wanted to play with dynamic music a whole lot more. This was kind of when we were structuring the whole thing

I knew there was going to be three main stages of the level: there was going to be the introduction to the hotel, there was going to be the cleaning segment, and then there was going to be a big boss chase. So I really wanted to develop some themes that were all paid off in the final boss chase. I was playing through and was realizing “Okay cool, there’s [sic] doors and locks and keys for a new mechanic that was being added specifically for this level.” So I was like “Okay, on this side of things, the metaphor is you’re unlocking more and more of the soundtrack as you’re progressing through the level,” kind of using that as a literal metaphor to your progression.

When you get to the cleaning segment…there’s a very direct metaphor that’s being made in the gameplay as well as the music, where you’ve got this huge mess, and Mr. Oshiro’s in this cycle of unable to clean up, and it’s very relatable [laughs]. So, in a number of ways, you’re trying to help him, but at the same time you’re exerting your agency over him and he is getting more and more destabilized as you’re helping him clean things up.

The cleaning thing was definitely a very literal, like, “Okay, there’s [sic] different stages to this, so we’re changing things about the music as you clean up the hotel.” So I thought why not reflect Mr. Oshiro’s mental state as you’re cleaning and getting him slightly more agitated that you’re doing all this work for him. As you are cleaning up the mess, you’re actually building up the track and making it more and more unstable, until, in the actual track, it goes directly to an explosion.

Celeste has been for highly regarded for its distinctive tone and story. You just mentioned how the music for Celestial Resort reflects Mr. Oshiro’s instability. How else does the music reflect the tone and themes of Celeste?

I think pretty much all of the music is reflective of [the tone], and I wanted to make sure that it was, because, in a lot of ways, the music—especially for games that don’t have the benefit of a traditionally told narrative…there’s a lot that needs to be conveyed through means other than traditional storytelling. To me, a big part of a musical score for a game is the ability to tell that story through a number of different ways.
Whenever I approach a score for a game, I’m thinking not necessarily in terms of just musical setting…it depends on what I’m scoring, right? There is a track, for example, in Guild Wars 2, which was a piece of music that was describing this room that you’re in. But in the sense of Celeste, everything is about the action you’re doing. So, throughout the game, the agency you have on your character is you are jumping and climbing this mountain, and the music is reflecting all of that. It could’ve just been, “Heres music that reflects this abandoned city,” or, “Heres music that reflects the hotel itself.” But with such a strong focus on the characters, and the conflicts, I really wanted to focus on what the character arc was, what Madeline was thinking every step of the journey Because it’s very much her climb up this mountain, and every step of that is tied to something that is both internal and external.

You mentioned how the theme for Forbidden City differs from the rest of the soundtrack. What caused this?

It’s very much reflective of a number of things. One, it was absolutely the very first track that I wrote for the game. I was thinking melodically. I really wanted to establish a melody that was iconic to the game, and was able to be both a symbol for the game but also able to be reused over and over again—which I think is an example of a strong theme, something that can be used both as a melody for a song, but also is kind of like a Leitmotif that informs the rest of the music.

I tend to get—I went to music school, so I get really symbolic when it comes to writing music [laughs].

Sure! Of course!

So, coming up with the melody for the game and for Madeline—the melody itself is actually a bit of a climb.
If you charted it out on sheet music, you would see an actual diagram of a mountain.

I was thinking of some of the really iconic themes of game music. Like, obviously you have themes like Mario 1-1…these games have established not just this level’s music, but also the entire series’ [sound] in this one piece of music. That was the challenge that I took upon myself. I really wanted to do something that was just as iconic, so I didn’t necessarily want to think about the dynamicism of the soundtrack [for this level] but just create a piece that I could draw a whole lot of material from.

What is the secret to a good theme?

I think part of that is a mystery. Part of that is a lot of study and a lot of embodying good melodies and good melodic writing…and letting it become a part of you and…your vocabulary that you’re speaking with when you’re writing music.

For analysis purposes, I think a good melody is one that has a good economy of sound to it. It has a variety of things rhythmically, the relationship of notes to each other…there’s so many melodies in the world. So many of them are very iconic, and so many of them are just bleh and derivative. The melodies that stick with us are the ones that have that je ne sais quoi, that…to me, it’s really just, like, interesting intervals, surprising changes, and as many opportunities for iteration and variation.

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Joe's favorite games are Zelda: Majora's Mask, Dishonored, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Hearthstone. His favorite game is not The Witcher 3 because he hasn't played it yet.

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