Halfway through the 2018 indie platforming game Celeste, the main character, Madeline, suddenly stops all of her wall-jumping and air-dashing to say something to her friend: “I can’t breathe.” She’s beginning to suffer from a crippling panic attack while trapped aboard a gondola hundreds of feet in the air; as gnarled, pixelated tentacles encroach on her from both sides, the music swells into a spiraling web of paranoid synth stabs. It’s one of the most intense scenes in a game that is full of them, and if it weren’t for Lena Raine, it wouldn’t even exist.
“When I got the music in for the ‘Anxiety’ scene, I remember Matt Thorson was like, ‘I just realized I need to completely change this, because it doesn’t live up to the experience you’ve created with the music,’” Raine tells me via Skype. Celeste is a video game about overcoming struggles both internal and external, telling the story of a girl named Madeline who challenges herself to climb an increasingly punishing mountain while confronting her own anxiety, self-loathing, and depression. Its powerful statements on growing and persevering through life’s hurdles made it one of the most celebrated breakout games of the year, and much of the acclaim has circled around Raine’s dreamy, 8-bit-inflected score.
When I hop onto our call, she’s curling up with her cat Bobbin after assembling an entire new set of IKEA furniture all by herself. “I’m a big nerd, so I mostly stay inside,” she tells me with a laugh when I ask her how she likes to spend her free time in her hometown of Seattle. (Her other current hobbies include filling out the gaps in her extensive collection of CDs by anime composer Yoko Kanno and replaying through the Kingdom Hearts series—a personal favorite). The day we speak, she’s in the middle of preparing for her trek to San Francisco for this year’s GDC, where she’s been nominated for this year’s “Best Audio” award. A week after our conversation, she’ll be holding the award in her hand.
“It was the most surprising thing to me, especially as someone who’s worked on fairly small-ish games,” she says of the massive response to Celeste. But Raine’s real journey is only just beginning; this week marks the release of her official solo debut LP, Oneknowing, an enveloping album that takes her soundtrack sensibility into luscious new realms, positioning her as one of the most exciting modern composers to emerge from the gaming sphere.
Music and video games have been a huge part of Raine’s life ever since she was a child, but it took a little while for her interests to finally cross paths. As a kid growing up in the 90s golden age of the NES and the SNES, Raine vividly remembers playing Chrono Trigger as a teenager for the first time, and realizing that video games had the power to tell complex stories beyond the Ninja Gaiden-style beat-‘em-ups she had been playing up to that point. “It was definitely one of those first games that showed me what video games could do,” she tells me, citing Chrono series composer Yasunori Mitsuda as an enduring source of inspiration. Nevertheless, Raine was raised in a traditional musical family that put her on the classical-music-and-choir track from an early age, sending her to symphonies and recitals with the design that she would eventually go to music school.
“Those symphonies were amazing, but they were things that my parents and my grandparents were ushering me into,” says Raine. “Soundtracks were kind of how I got into actual modern popular music in a lot of ways.” Her early favorites in high school included the techno-heavy remix album for the soundtrack to Square’s nightmarish urban RPG Parasite Eve, and the soundtrack for cyberpunk anime series Serial Experiments Lain, which she describes as her first two entry points into electronic music. “I was just extremely antisocial, in my shell, not really going out to clubs or anything,” she remembers. “But then I got these albums that were very much drawn from that scene, and I was like, ‘This is amazing. I want to find more of this!’”
Although Raine continued her track through music school at Cornish College of the Arts, she found it difficult to pursue her growing ambitions as a soundtrack composer while going to classes which mainly focused on teaching her how to write grants and arrange for orchestras. Professors tried to pawn her off onto the school’s film scoring program, which Raine describes as depressingly Hollywood: “If I wanted to write something super by-the-books, I would prefer to write a symphony than do a film score that sounds like every other film score.” The indie game market was nowhere near as expansive as it is today, leaving Raine without a clear avenue to pursue her musical dreams. “I was like, ‘Where do I go as a video game composer?’” she says. “There [was] no route for this.”
After school, she spent a few years working her way into the game industry, first as a contracted certification tester for Nintendo and then as a designer for Guild Wars 2, where she made her first big musical splash with her holiday bell choir mini-game. During this time, Raine started producing scores for indie games like hackmud, PANIC at Multiverse High!, and Dead State. She also began releasing her own solo music on Bandcamp under the name Kuraine, with hard-driving releases like Singularity; it was through these solo works that she eventually caught the eye of Matt Thorson, creator of the indie multiplayer hit Towerfall. Thorson liked her fusion of ambient music, techno, and 8-bit sounds so much that he decided to bring her on to compose the soundtrack for a new platformer he was developing: a game called Celeste.
Celeste was made with a core team of six people who all shared various responsibilities, making its development a highly collaborative process. “I think everyone on the team kind of brought their own experiences,” says Raine, who strongly related to the game’s themes as someone who’s also struggled with anxiety and depression throughout her life. While recording the soundtrack, Raine found herself pouring her own emotions into the game; looking back, she recalls one particularly intimate moment she had while recording the music for the for the Mirror Temple level.
“I wanted there to be something almost unintelligible, but something spoken in the background. So I took my handheld recorder, shut myself in the dark in the closet, and just kind of talked to myself,” she says. “I improvised a little internal monologue, putting myself in the character Madeline’s perspective, and tried to vocalize what I related to in the struggles she was having.”
The resulting piece is one of the most transcendent songs in the entire game, distilling all of Madeline’s feelings of failure into a mystic, funereal hymn worthy of Super Metroid or even her beloved Chrono Trigger. “I didn’t make that recording with the intention that people would go out and find out what I was saying, but people did anyways,” she says with a knowing laugh, well-acquainted with the obsession that a good game can inspire in its fans.
When Celeste finally dropped in early 2018, it was an immediate hit. “I was literally on a train on my way up to Vancouver to celebrate with the team when it launched,” says Raine. “I had to be on my phone to launch the soundtrack album at the same time, so I was just waiting for 9 o’clock to hit and hoping my internet didn’t drop out.”
By the end of the day, the team was already getting reports from Nintendo that the game was selling like crazy. As 2018 came to a close, Celeste received some of the most prestigious award nominations in the video game industry—an incredible feat for an indie title in a year loaded with gargantuan hits like God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2—and Raine finished off her year performing alongside Hans Zimmer at the 2018 Game Awards. “That was just a completely surreal experience,” she says. “I still don’t think the actual scope of that has really set in for me, and I don’t think it ever will.”
In the aftermath of Celeste’s runaway success, however, Raine found herself dealing with mounting stress, and it was starting to interfere with her work. “After Celeste released, I was finding that while I was just doing everyday things, I was starting to get really, really stressed out and wound up,” she says. “I had a lot of pressure on myself to live up to people's expectations of me. Whenever I'm put in the spotlight, a lot of my self-antagonizing anxiety comes out.” As she struggled through this time, music emerged as a way to channel her anxieties into something meaningful.
“I wasn’t initially intending any of this to be an album,” she says. “But once I started writing a number of tracks that had the same vibe to them, I started unofficially calling it my ‘Relax’ album.”
Raine recorded Oneknowing entirely in her 300-square-foot apartment, using the highest-quality samples she could find. After completing a batch of recordings she was happy with, Raine left them untouched for a while before eventually returning to them and constructing a second act to the album, as a kind of therapeutic interrogation. “It kind of became a call-and-response format for the album, where the first half was like, ‘Here’s all the things that I needed to decompress from,’ and then the second half was, ‘How am I dealing with all of these things?’”
The resulting LP comprises some of Raine’s richest music yet, wavering between angelic computer pop songs like “Wake Up,” trip-hop head-nodders like “Momodani,” and softly glowing synth sketches like “A Chance to Rest.” Raine made use of Vocaloid effects throughout the record in an attempt to challenge the Hatsune Miku-style artificiality the software has come to be known for. “I essentially created this custom setting for the voice that sounded as close to me as possible,” she says. “So in that way, it’s me, but it’s not physically me.”
While the music carries the same kind of animated, synthetic tones that defined Raine’s Celeste score, Oneknowing is a much headier listen; if her Celeste soundtrack was like an acrobatic, ever-climbing voyage, Oneknowing is a deep, meditative sink into Raine’s headspace, wavering in the uneasy territory between encroaching panic and hard-earned peace.
While it’s incredibly difficult to establish oneself as a solo artist coming from the world of video game soundtracks (not usually a realm where one spends much time in the limelight), Raine’s completely at ease not defining herself one way or another. “I definitely hope to continue not just writing one type of music, or just doing soundtracks, or just doing solo work,” she says. “I want to experiment with doing as many different kinds of music as I can.”
Raine’s come a long way since her early days of struggling to find a proper outlet for her love of video game music, but it’s that same sense of perseverance and adventure that drives her to keep pushing onward. “I always try to tell a story with my music,” she says. “I always try to go somewhere. I always want to bring listeners in and have them experience something. Some sort of transformation, or journey.”
Cayce Clifford is a photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can find more of her work on Instagram.
Sam Goldner is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter.