Words by Chal Ravens

Video games are now big business – bigger than the music and movie industries combined, in fact – and their increasing sophistication and diversity has created all kinds of new opportunities for composers. But beyond the top-tier releases, with their big-budget scores and lucrative sync deals, lies a vast landscape of independent games, from farmyard simulators to magical point-and-click adventures, all with unique music to match.

One of the most celebrated scores of recent years happens to be attached to one of the most acclaimed indie video games: a platform adventure game called Celeste, which follows a young girl as she battles her inner fears to reach the top of a mountain. The dreamy, synth-driven score is the work of Seattle composer and lifelong gamer Lena Raine, whose memorable melodies – played on Spitfire's Originals Felt Piano , among other virtual instruments – have won its creator multiple awards.

Raine has been making music since before she could walk, inspired at first by her dad’s basement full of synthesizers, fiddles and reel to reel recorders, as well as a childhood performing in professional choirs. But video games were always her passion, and after studying music at college she got her first break on Guild Wars 2, designing a festive bell choir for the popular online role-playing game. Her current commission is her biggest yet: composing music for a creepy alternate dimension inside Minecraft, the phenomenally popular block-building game.

Raine is also the author of ESC, an interactive fantasy novel about roleplay and dreams, and a musician in her own right, with numerous releases available on her Bandcamp. In 2019 she released her debut album proper, Oneknowing, on the London label Local Action, where her mysterious glossolalia sits and soothing electronica sits alongside dance, R&B and ambient music. 

We caught up with Raine at her home studio in Seattle to find out how she developed her singular sound and what it takes to break into video game music.

Hi Lena. First of all, for the non-gamers – how does writing music for a game compare to writing a film score?

There are similarities and there are a lot of differences. The primary difference, I feel, is that for games you're not necessarily writing to picture. With film, everything has to sync, right? You're always writing along with what you know the visuals are going to be at any given time. You can go to a timecode – exactly when the violin comes in, or whatever it is. But with games, you're scoring the potential for a player to do something – whether it’s standing still for a while, traversing from one section to another, or having a surprise encounter and resolving that encounter. There are all kinds of different situations that need to be taken into account. So whether you're actually writing individual pieces that cover these situations or you're writing music that is dynamically adapting to those situations, it's very much thinking in a non-linear way, and having to compose in a non-linear way. With limited technology that can be abrupt – you're playing one piece of music and then something happens and you play another piece of music. But as you get more advanced you can create elegant segues that sort of mask the fact that they're individual pieces, and it just feels like one piece of music that is flowing. That's the peak of perfection for a professional game composer, is to write with that sort of dynamism in mind.


Because digital software synths can sound pretty clean, I love pairing one of the Noise filters with the Bitcrusher Insert and a subtle vibrato to really grime it up and make it sound as analog as possible.

What were some of the first video games that you played where you noticed the music?

I think the first time I really realised that music was a key emotional component of games was when I started getting into RPGs, these role-playing games that were very much about the story. There’s a game that came out in the mid- to late 90s called Chrono Trigger which was one of the first games that really spoke to me on an emotional level. Games were still working with the limitations of the medium at that point, but Chrono Trigger really pushed past those limitations to get me to identify with these characters and to feel the events of the game.

You’re currently working on a new score for Minecraft to accompany a world called “the Nether”. What does it mean to be scoring for a game that already exists and is being played by millions right now?

It's definitely an immense pressure because Minecraft is a game that has been out there for such a long time, and it also already has a very highly acclaimed score. I honestly had no clue that I would ever even delve into that ecosystem, let alone write new music for the game, so first off it was a big intimidation factor – like, oh no, everyone's gonna judge me! But the concept of adding new music is like the game itself, they're constantly adding things. It's an ever-growing toolbox of things for people to play around with. So the Nether is kind of a creepy alternate dimension – you gather materials and construct a portal that then takes you there. Originally when the game came out it was this hellish, lava cave kind of thing, and one of their latest updates is expanding that with weird creepy trees and mushrooms and stuff. They actually reached out because of my solo album, Oneknowing. They loved the mixture of creepy and calming that some of the tracks had, so they asked me to demo for it. I took a piece that I had written and reworked it in a way that I thought would fit what they were going for, and they really loved it, so they asked me to go ahead and do the rest.

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Did you have visuals to base the music on?

Well, I have the benefit of the game already existing, so it was possible for me to actually hop in and play. It’s like a cubist rendition of a spooky environment. I could hear the weird animal sounds that are in the distance, the drips coming from the ceiling – it's very spooky. The audio really sells it, really gives it life. While I was composing they put together these three-minute soundscapes which were like a looping ambience of what each of the areas sounded like. So I put that looping music on in the background while I was writing because I wanted all of the music to just emerge from that soundscape, so you got the sense that the music was emerging from the environment rather than just being wallpaper.

Listening to your music for Celeste, I feel like I can imagine what might be happening in the game when I listen to it, even without playing it. But why do you think this music has struck such a chord with listeners and gamers?

It’s a soundtrack that plays against the conventions for this kind of game, because it's a very difficult game. It's a game where you’re throwing yourself at these very difficult levels and you're failing over and over and over again – but the game and the music are not working against you. They're saying, you can do this, you can overcome this! The game literally tells you that. The way that it's designed is friendly towards retrying. The music doesn't try to punish you for doing badly, it encourages you. 

The tone of the music is a little bit more laid-back. It's got interesting melodies that keep the player going, with very long loops so it gets a chance to sit there. It doesn't restart every time you fail. You're able to get into the music while you're retrying the levels over and over again. And then as you progress, the music is changing. More layers start coming in and it starts filling out the piece even more, so it almost feels like a reward for getting past a certain milestone. I approached the score from a storytelling perspective. The actual gameplay of climbing this mountain is a story in itself, with the main character internally overcoming what feels like a mountain to her, all while she's physically climbing a mountain. The fact that everything was working together, towards the same goal, really helped.

Were you inspired by other games pulling a similar trick?

Journey is a big inspiration of mine. It's a game with a score by Austin Wintory, who's an amazing orchestral composer. He got nominated for a Grammy for that game. It's similarly a story about reaching a mountain, in a lot of ways, but it's all done without words. It's this very emotional, evocative experience which has dynamic music that carries you along with the action. It's a sweeping orchestral score. I have a lot of strong melodies in my work, but I'm not primarily an orchestral composer. I've done orchestral work, but I love to play with sort of atypical instrumentation. I love playing with my synths, I love playing solo piano stuff and odd chamber arrangements. So it's very much approaching the same kind of goals with a different set of tools.

When you say synths, are you mainly talking about VST plugins or have you got a selection of hardware synths?

For Celeste I primarily used software synths, and in general I mostly use software synths because I don't have a lot of space. I've got a couple of hardware synths and I use them from time to time, but it's also difficult to constantly be figuring out wiring and stuff when I can just go into my software and have my flow already set up and know exactly what I'm going to do to build a patch or something.


I think the first time I really realised that music was a key emotional component of games was when I started getting into RPGs, these role-playing games that were very much about the story.

Do you have any favourite sounds that you go to most often? 

I have an array of pianos that I've been drawn towards. I wasn’t raised as a pianist, I was raised as a vocalist, so I consider my primary instrument to be my voice – but I have to translate that into something. I'm not very good at chords but I can play melodic lines and layer things together. The first real piano VST that I got attached to was the Soft Piano, or Felt Piano, by Spitfire. It drove the signature sound for Celeste. Everyone was asking, "How did you record your piano?" No, it's this VST! I don't have a real piano. I'd love to have one someday, but you know, space and expenses and all that.

I also use the synth Massive by Native Instruments. It's really easy to use, easy to put together synth patches and the building blocks of the tracks that I was writing. The vast majority of Celeste is just Massive and Felt Piano. There are a couple of other things in there – I love the sound of voices, and I love the Bulgarian women's choirs. There's a really amazing library called Vocalisa by Impact Soundworks that is my go-to choir library. I've ended up using them on pretty much every soundtrack that I worked on so far, usually during big climactic moments.

What is it about that type of voice that appeal to you?

I love that it's not your typical Western choir sound. It's very raw, it's very emotional. It's all done using a syllabic language, so you don't necessarily need to have real words to feel the emotions behind them, which was also the driving point behind my album, Oneknowing. I was writing lyrics from invented syllables that had no real specific meaning to them but had emotional resonance. I've been doing that for years, since college actually.

Could you say more about how you create sounds within Massive? Do you work with any FX, have any favourite reverbs, for example?

With Massive, I tend to always create my sounds from scratch, using mostly internal FX for my sounds. I absolutely love the built-in reverb, so I almost always use it, but when I want to match up spaces with my other instruments, I'll pop it into ValhallaRoom, which is my go-to reverb. Otherwise, a pretty common effect for me to play around with is putting more staccato synths into Ableton's ping-pong reverb. Within Massive itself though, I almost always make full use of the Noise layer to layer on more personality to the sound. Because digital software synths can sound pretty clean, I love pairing one of the Noise filters with the Bitcrusher Insert and a subtle vibrato to really grime it up and make it sound as analog as possible.

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Do you do your own mixing and mastering?

I've always been my own mixing and mastering engineer until recently. I had to figure it out on my own in order to survive and finish my smaller budget projects with as high a sound quality as I could manage. Now I work with several external mastering engineers, depending on if the project is digital or physical media, and I've been gradually trusting other mixing engineers with my work. I primarily still do all my own mixes, though, since I'm exceptionally picky about how the overall sound should come together!

What were your first experiences of making music?

Before I could even talk I was down in my dad's recording studio, recording myself on his reel-to-reel set up. He was a fiddle player in country and western bands here in Seattle. He had a regular band of Hawaiian guys doing Hawaiian country and western, it was pretty cool. Then he'd have his home studio where he would record things and write music. He had a whole bunch of synthesisers – an old Moog, a Kurtzweil synthesizer and a Yamaha, because he majored in music down in California. I would go down into the studio and bang around on his synths and sing nonsense, and then go upstairs and listen to it recorded onto a tape. Then when I was a little older, around six, I joined a professional touring choir and I was with that choir for years and years. So I learned solfege, I learned music theory, how to write sheet music, and I was in a couple of musicals. Small roles, but I got paid. I bought video game systems with that money.

Did you always feel that you wanted to be a musician?

Yeah, I never had a doubt. I wanted to do music from such an early age that it was just like, yeah, that's what I do. That's my identity and I never really challenged that. I was already writing music in high school, and I had a self-produced album of fake video game music. The teachers at my school said we could write a paper or we could express the thesis of the project through art. So I wrote this 12-minute piece of music that was an expression of the futility of war, just using my synthesiser that I had in my bedroom. I got a passing grade from that, so that's cool! I was just scoring fictitious games. I would make up something, like, here's the town square in some fantasy village and I'm gonna write music for that. Or, what if I wrote the final boss music for a cool game? So it all became this hypothetical scoring, but I would file it away like, ‘okay, I've written that now,’ and write something different.

How long did it take you to be able to make it your full-time job? 

I didn't make it my full-time job until halfway through the development on Celeste. In the early days it was very much like, “I need to support myself so I can move out of my parents house." So I got a job as a game tester at Nintendo in Redmond, close to Seattle. It’s like being a quality tester on a conveyor belt. I released an album called Acoustic Collections that was all the music that I was writing while doing part-time work. Eventually I got a job at Arenanet, which was the team making Guild Wars 2, a very large online PC game. I got an entry level position as a game designer, working on the game that I was testing. I ended up making a music mini-game where you match notes, like Guitar Hero but playing bells. I showed them to the new composer and was like, “What if I wrote a full orchestral version of one of these little songs?" They ended up using it in the trailer for the game, and then it became one of the background tracks that plays during the festive holiday season in the game. We made a schedule where I would do my normal job as a designer four days a week and then on Fridays I would work from home and write music. It's still the longest running job I've had in the game industry. I was there for about six years.

What is it like to live and work as a composer in Seattle?

In all honesty, I don't really consider myself to be working in Seattle, even though I live here. I actually lived for about five months of last year in Osaka, Japan, working with a remote setup that I could travel with. The vast majority of my work is done online, since I collaborate with teams around the world. Of my multiple projects in 2020, I've worked with teams in Vancouver, London, Paris and Sweden. Even if I were to move to a city like LA, my work would remain unaffected.

You've managed to release several solo records too. How does writing for yourself differ from writing a game?

The start of Oneknowing was a reaction to my own mental state at the time, which was very fragile. I was writing music as a means to calm myself down in a lot of ways. Once my brain got to full capacity, I needed to let it all out and write something soothing. The very first piece that I wrote ended up being Tsukiyomi on the album. I loaded up some sounds that felt calming to me, like comfort food sounds, so I had the Rhodes piano and the Zither VST. Boards of Canada really nailed that kind of relaxing, cerebral music and I was channelling them a little bit. It’s something I got from my dad – he writes a lot with loop pedals. I would lay down some loops with the Rhodes piano and then start improvising on top with the Zither VST. At some point I had this concept, like, “I'm writing a relaxing album. I'm writing an album of music to relax to, because I need it right now." At some point things started improving a bit for myself mentally and I took that chance to to reflect on those pieces that I'd written. I wrote the second half of the album essentially as a reflection, to reflect my own building back up.