We at the MAGES Library Blog are so honored to have had a chance to talk to Lena Raine, award-winning and BAFTA-nominated composer whose work includes the Celeste and Guild Wars 2 soundtracks. In the interview, we talk about the composition process, storytelling, collaboration, and one of Raine’s latest projects, the music for Chicory: A Colorful Tale!
To start, how would you define your relationship with video games?
Games have kinda always been part of my life in some way, at least since I was around 6. I got an NES and Gameboy pretty early on, and so my upbringing was on games like the Zelda and Metroid series, the odd Mario here and there, a whole lot of Championship Bowling and Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. I eventually got a Genesis and was hooked on the Sonic series, Streets of Rage (I always picked Blaze, of course). Once I got an SNES and a PS1, pretty much everything dramatically shifted towards RPGs once I played Chrono Trigger and got completely hooked on the concept that games could tell stories.
How did you get into video game music composition?
When I was in middle school, I was a part of a Sonic fan community that was super passionate about the games & cartoons & everything, and one of the people there did MIDI arrangements of Sonic music. I was so impressed, they sounded awesome even on a crappy MIDI driver on my PC, so I asked him about how he made things. He introduced me to a program called Noteworthy Composer, which used music notation to write things for General MIDI. I already had experience writing sheet music, so I started transcribing a bunch of tunes I knew, including a few from Ocarina of Time. Eventually, I started applying what I'd learned from transcribing into making my own music! Granted, I wouldn't actually write for a real video game until years later, but from the get-go I was already imagining scenes and areas in games that my music would fit into.
I’ve been listening to the Chicory: An Afternoon in Luncheon EP and am in love with how you mix such different sounds/styles into such a cohesive album! I wonder if there’s anything about the Chicory: A Colorful Tale Kickstarter and/or the process so far that you’d like to tell us about?
Chicory is such a fun and different project for me, because it's something I came to with a proposal for Greg (the main creator on Chicory) that I'd done so many tracks with synths lately, that I wanted to use as little as possible, and as many real instruments as I could. So as you listen through the Chicory EP that I released alongside the Kickstarter campaign, the only synths used are one pad during the town theme, and then a bit of a shock of them during a particularly contrasting finale. I can't say why I broke my own rule for that, specifically, but it'll be fun to explore why in the full game.
I’m also curious: what was the process of creating a team for Chicory? How did you all come together?
As far as how I heard about it, well, Greg is a really good friend, and as I was working on Celeste, he was also working his butt off on Wandersong, his latest game before Chicory. Pretty much any time I hung out with the Celeste team up in Vancouver, Greg was also there on his laptop working on Wandersong. And anyway we built up a pretty good rapport, enough that once he started working on his next idea, he immediately reached out like Lena, hey, I have this prototype where you're a dog and you draw and he'd literally just made a blank room and a placeholder dog and you could paint, and that was it, and he wanted to work with me on it. And I was so charmed by even the fact that, hey it's a dog with a giant paintbrush, I was like okay yeah let's do it! So as he kept working on concepts and piecing together the full prototype, I was taking notes and figuring out what I wanted the style to be.
The very first track I wrote was “Supper Woods,” and I immediately had the idea to use a fun 1500s-era instrument called the virginal, which is a kind of rectangular harpsichord. But the fun thing about them is that the insides of their lids were always painted with these gorgeous pastoral scenes and baroque imagery. When Greg was describing to me the concept of a Wielder that handed down a magic paintbrush from generation to generation, I really connected with the idea of the virginal helping to symbolize that tie to antiquity, but now it's being played in this super modern groove that no one would have thought of composing back in the romantic era. And then we just sort of meandered from there, and the style continues to develop!
It’s really interesting to hear about your process! It makes me think about your article where you talk about the process of creating the complex, unique and interesting synth sound for “Resurrections” in Celeste. I was wondering how you came upon this layering. Was it trial and error or was there a specific process you underwent to cultivate this specific sound?
Honestly, with synths, pretty much everything becomes trial and error. Even knowing what an LFO does, or how a certain kind of gate or routing will affect the sound, that knowledge is nothing compared to just diving in and tweaking knobs and finding a sound that resonates with you. Which is why I love synths so much! It's this weird sort of summoning alchemy where you have all these possibilities and components and the final form can be so varied based on what you specifically want to hear. If anything, my knowledge of how sound functions from a scientific standpoint helps a lot primarily from how fast it takes me to work. Knowing frequencies & curves will do wonders for speeding up the process of finding a sound, but ultimately it's your ears that tell you when you've found it.
Celeste’s soundtrack so powerfully captures not only an emotion, but an emotional narrative, and I was wondering how you went about translating the experience of a gameplay into music?
What is the process of composing for hire, and how does the process vary from doing your own compositions?
I've talked a lot about writing for Celeste over the past year and a half, but I think the one thing that sticks with me the most in answering this sort of question is that I really just absorbed the game to the largest extent I could before writing. A game in abstract or design document is only as good as the reader's imagination, but playing a game in progress, no matter at what stage, if that experience sticks with you then that is perhaps the most valuable tool to use in scoring for it. I feel like with every game I've been the most satisfied artistically, it's been one that I have become really invested in how it plays and how the player interacts with it.
Composing for hire is... well in those terms, it feels like it's describing something way different than the sorts of collaborations I'm most at home with. I don't know if I've ever had a successful project where a client just says hey here's a bunch of music we need, go for it. I've been very fortunate to work with teams of folks that I'd consider close friends after having worked with them, because I always want to feel at home on a team. If work is just passing along files with instructions of how to hook them up, then I'm not going to do my best work. The teams I gel with, and the best interactions I've had, are with people I can sit in on meetings or team chats and just goof around or provide input on design or writing, and feel a part of the development process. It's not something that most composers strive toward, but that's how I feel most comfortable working as a composer.
By contrast, when I'm writing for myself, it really is just a sense of letting myself pour out some experience or thought or imagined setting in a way that is only filtered by my own self-imposed restrictions. But I still do need those guidelines to help me write. If I'm just sitting with no expectations or restrictions, then I'd stare at a blank page for hours. And sometimes that's unfortunately what happens! But then, if I do end up finding a guide, whether it's an instrumentation, a style, a melody or chord progression, then I have something to work with.
That makes so much sense. I find that I need parameters for my writing projects as well. Speaking of which, I hear you’ve also written novels! I would love to hear about your writing, as well as your interactive novel ESC. What drew you to the interactive novel medium? After making ESC, do you still enjoy writing traditional narratives, or prefer interactive? What do you think draws you to the mediums of writing and music? Do you see similarities between the two mediums?
I think the two kinds of games I resonate with the most, as I get older and don't really enjoy as many challenging games, are RPGs and visual novels. Games hold such a unique command over interactive fiction, and even if the interaction is as simple as choosing how and when to advance the text, while visuals or audio aid the experience, it's a method of even further transporting you into a writer's world. Which isn't to say that I shun the traditional novel, in some cases I prefer them, but interactivity is such a powerful tool for the stories that use them best. I think they both have really powerful strengths, and they coexist really well.
In a lot of ways, I approach music and writing from the same perspective, as a storyteller. Writing music for me has always been about telling stories, even if it's about a single moment in time. Similarly, I've written stories for just as long, and put a lot of focus into literature and writing in college when I could. I think they complement each other in such strong ways, through their use of form, of dramatic tension and payoff, of pacing. I try to keep in practice with both skills so that they can help each other out!
I love that perspective--there are so many different mediums for telling stories, and they all work different “muscles.” To close out, what advice do you have for aspiring video game composers?
My go-to advice is always going to be keep writing what you love, keep being passionate about the genres and instruments and sounds that resonate with you, and share them with the world. I had a hard time finding work for the first 10 years of my career, because of some weird sandwich of shame in sounding too "video-game-y" to be taken seriously, but also because I had no desire to follow the trend in AAA games to become reflective of the Hollywood blockbuster style. My idols were the classic game composers and JRPG composers who found influences in 80's Japanese pop music, folk music from around the world, and weren't afraid to push that sound forward. It took some time before I found the game creators and collaborators that shared my passion for those sounds. Maybe you're really into trap beats, or experimental ambient, and games don't feel like the right avenue for you without changing what you do. But I'd argue that as long as that passion exists, and creators widen their expectations, there's a place in games for all kinds of music. Put your work out there, be passionate about games and your music, and the chances of sharing your aesthetic with the world are way higher than just trying to fit in.
Lena Raine is an award-winning composer and producer, whose work on Celeste was nominated for a BAFTA & won ASCAP's Video Game Score of the Year. She has been writing video game scores for 13 years, most notably having worked on Celeste and Guild Wars 2. Beyond games, she released a solo album in early 2019 titled Oneknowing, and provided song and score mixing for the upcoming Steven Universe: The Movie. Lena is currently working on the score for Chicory: A Colorful Tale, and other unannounced projects.
Meg Eden runs the MAGES Library blog, and teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (2017), and the forthcoming poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (2020). Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.