An Interview With the Composer of Celeste
Celeste, the upcoming platformer themed around climbing a mountain, will be out on the Nintendo Switch eShop tomorrow, January 25.
Ahead of its launch, we got in touch with Lena Raine, who composed the original soundtrack for Celeste, to learn more about the game and her work in the industry.
How did you get into the video game industry? What was the first game you composed music for?
My intro to making games was a bit of a sputtering start right out of college. I went to school for music, and was very optimistic about just finding a job straight out of school. I went to two GDCs, met a lot of people–mostly other composers–and got a couple gigs writing additional music for fairly obscure PC war games (The Operational Art of War III etc.) It wasn’t super glamorous, but it gave me some amount of introduction to the kind of work available for composers fresh to the industry.
Either way, it wasn’t something I could sustain myself doing. So I took up a contract testing job at Nintendo of America, and generally worked my way through testing until I ended up at ArenaNet. From there, I decided to give a game design job a try & managed to get hired full-time. It was only after we released Guild Wars 2 that I got an opportunity to write some music for the game. I’d designed a sort of Guitar Hero style bell choir minigame for the game’s holiday festival, and the audio team took notice of my writing. When I presented a fully orchestrated version of one of the songs I wrote, the cinematics team took notice and decided to use it in a trailer. From there, I managed to keep writing more and more tracks until I got to co-compose the soundtrack to the game’s first expansion Heart of Thorns, which I generally consider my first big break.
It sounds like you’re a longtime Nintendo fan. When you first got into the industry, did you already have dreams of working on a game for a Nintendo system?
I wouldn’t exclude other platforms, but Nintendo was easily my gateway into games and the kinds of games I love playing. It’s also held a lot of elusiveness for me as someone that makes games. While growing up, I was always fascinated by the “Nintendo Seal of Quality” whereby obviously games released on Nintendo platforms were just, really top notch stuff. That doesn’t mean a whole lot in retrospect, but I do still think that it marks a special sort of merit for me, personally.
How did you get involved with Celeste?
I’d been gradually making friends within the indie games scene, and a good friend of mine was friends with the Celeste developers. She introduced them to my music, and apparently I made an impression! They got in touch with me, asking if I’d want to work on music for the game. I’d seen a little bit here and there, but it looked like a really fun little platformer. I had no idea at the time just how much of an emotional journey the game would become, but I’m extremely glad I decided to get involved.
What is it like to create a video game soundtrack? Do you have any particular routine you follow?
Because music is inherently a vehicle for emotions, everything tends to derive from the gameplay feel and the story that the creators want to tell. At the start of any project, I like to ask a bunch of questions regarding what sort of vibe, emotions, style the designers are going for. Luckily, I’m in the position where people are mostly getting in touch with me because they like the music I write, and want me to do something that also speaks to me. That’s not a luxury a lot of composers can afford, so I also try my hardest to inject a bit of myself into a soundtrack whenever I can.
When writing, I also like getting in on a project as early as possible so that the music can be an element that’s iterated on alongside the art and mechanics. For Celeste, I was writing music well before some of the levels were even finished. We kept each other inspired, and often things would change on both sides because of the decisions we made. It also let us create as many opportunities for dynamic music as possible.
What inspired you for the music in Celeste?
Celeste is as much a story about self-discovery and acceptance as it is about climbing a literal mountain, so I found a lot of inspiration in my own experiences. The past few years have been very challenging in a lot of ways that run parallel to Madeline’s in the game, so I pulled from my own accounts of anxiety and depression to fuel the music and keep it as personal as possible.
As far as actual musical inspiration, I’ve drawn from a lot of piano-reliant composers such as Masashi Hamauzu, Ólafur Arnalds, Aivi & Surasshu, and Joe Hisaishi to find my own voice in performance.
What was your favorite part of working on Celeste? Any entertaining stories to share?
Two things really stand out for me about writing Celeste. The first is that I finally managed to revisit my own abilities in piano performance. Back in college, I wrote for piano a lot & was surrounded by virtuoso pianists, so I was always very hesitant to play my own work. That’s lasted basically until starting Celeste and realising I would need to perform my music for the score. I bought an amazing piano library called Felt Piano by Spitfire Audio, which coincidentally recorded a piano with a moderator or ‘celeste’ mechanism engaged. It creates a really wonderful soft-edged sound to the instrument, and was perfect for this game also called Celeste. So I not only wrote but performed all of the live piano parts. There’s a lot that I modified after the fact, but I’d like to consider it my debut as a performer.
The second favourite part was the b-sides. Way before we called them b-sides, there was a notion of creating super challenging “remix” levels that you’d unlock and really challenge yourself. Just the term remix spurred me to think, hey, what if I actually got people to remix the music for these levels. So I went about asking all of my favourite composers–both friends and acquaintances–if they’d like to contribute a remix for the game. Amazingly, nearly everyone I asked said yes! The only sad omission was Aivi & Surasshu of Steven Universe fame, who wanted to collaborate but were extremely busy (for good reason!) We weren’t able to work together this time, but I’m hoping we can still collaborate in the future!
Finally, is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers about either Celeste or your work?
I’m really really excited to release Celeste and its two accompanying albums this Thursday the 25th. I hope you can check out the game & music! The game releases on Switch and basically every other platform, and the soundtrack will be available first on my Bandcamp (radicaldreamland.bandcamp.com) & then everywhere else!
Also, as a self-plug, I’m currently hard at work on a number of new things, including an interactive cyberpunk novel called ESC. I’m doing continual updates about it on my Patreon (patreon.com/lenaraine) & Twitter (@kuraine), so maybe check it out?
We’re happy we had this chance to talk to Lena about Celeste, and we’re looking forward to it. Are you excited for Celeste? What are your favorite video game soundtracks? Let us know in the comments.