Checking the Score: Celeste

Checking the Score is a feature about video game music, composers, musicians and tools of the trade.

Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain – both literally and metaphorically. It’s a “tour de force” of gameplay, minimalist storytelling and stunning sound design. In it you play as Madeline, a young Canadian woman struggling to face the parts of herself that have dragged her down throughout her life. It’s a game about depression, anxiety, revelation and triumph. It’s also insanely difficult, with levels and challenges constantly ramping up in complexity as the player progresses. Interestingly, the music operates exactly the same way.

Celeste starts things off simply enough, having the player figure out basic mechanics like jumping, dashing, grabbing and climbing on their own. These aspects are introduced individually and naturally, but soon the player must combine each mechanic in order to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. One minute, a new wrinkle where platforms move whenever Madeline dashes is introduced, the next there are orbs that jolt the player off in any chosen direction – the player is then expected to get past a screen where the platforms move and the orbs are necessary. This sort of mechanical building and melding is present up until the end of the game.

With each new chapter, a new basic musical theme is introduced. It’s typically executed with a light touch, offering sparse piano or synthesizer melodies to ease the player into a new section of the mountain – whether it be a creepy ghost resort or a gem-filled series of caves. As the sections of the level get more complex, so does the music. As Madeline moves from one screen to the other, it isn’t rare for a new element to appear in the music – often it’s a new bass line, a repeated hi-hat tap or even an increase in tempo. It’s the subtle boost the player needs to tackle those new challenges, because regardless of how hard the game was up to that point, it will continue to get harder.

In one of Celeste’s first major themes, “Resurrections,” a soft synthesized arpeggio-like riff is introduced and is then quickly accompanied by a light series of piano notes. It’s a calming start, but things quickly grow darker and more complex. Before long, once the player gets a hang of a new set of gameplay mechanics, a full rhythm section is introduced, adding a cutting, aggressive element to the mix. Then, just after a difficult screen is cleared and an even more challenging screen comes into play, a deep, synthesized bass line is brought into the fold. These introductions are sometimes subtle, sometimes abrupt, but they almost always signal a change to the player, whether they realize it or not. Then the song calms down significantly, as a story beat approaches. Maybe dialogue (matched with silly audible gibberish) is met alongside this calm. Sometimes the level reaches a temporarily easy section, laughably simple to overcome after the hardships Madeline just faced. But suddenly, all of those rough, complex elements jump back into the track, faster and more aggressive than ever. The challenge is back on, and the game refuses to let the player rest on their laurels for long.

Then there are shorter tracks, more specifically tailored to moments in the story – like the subtle, two-minute stunner “Anxiety.” Songs like this highlight the game’s themes: in this case, it’s Madeline’s anxiety that must be dealt with. It begins with a slow, dreary piano part that is combined with a disruptive, almost industrial synthesizer line. It’s an aural representation of anxiety – and it’s just as complex, yet frustratingly simple, as anxiety really can be. The music echoes Madeline’s mental state, and helps project it onto the player in an affecting manner.

Just like the game itself, however, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, the soundtrack becomes triumphant and uplifting at all the right moments. Towards the end of the game, when Madeline must climb faster than ever, “Reach for the Summit” hits the player’s eardrums with joy, energy and maybe even a little bit of apprehension. Short bits and pieces of earlier tracks come in and out of the song as those sections of the game are quickly revisited, but it’s that marching snare drum that keeps the player marching onwards – even when the challenges get difficult, Madeline, and the player, know they can tackle anything thrown at them. They just have to set their mind to the task at hand.

The entirety of Celeste’s soundtrack was written, performed and mastered by Lena Raine – a name that is sure to quickly take off in the gaming industry. Her often subtle, often on-the-nose approach to composing Celeste’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant and this little indie game wouldn’t have been the same without her efforts. The way she tailors the music to the gameplay and story is staggering, and we can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. In addition to the core soundtrack, she has also made a B-Side compilation filled with tracks cut from the game and remixes of soundtrack songs from other talented musicians to keep listeners satisfied until we hear more of Lena’s output in the future.

Celeste has quickly cemented itself as one of the most celebrated indie games ever released, and its soundtrack will float in and out of our ears for some time. Themes of joy, sadness, anxiety, fear, frustration and more litter its short playtime, perfectly supported by an exciting, appropriate set of songs. Time will tell when Matt Makes Games‘ next title will be released, but when it is, it will be lucky to have as memorable of a soundtrack as Celeste.

To dive even deeper into the wonderful world of video game OSTs, be sure to read our complete Checking the Score series.