Lena Raine's meteoric rise over the past few years has taken her from working in Quality Assurance at ArenaNet, all the way to being nominated for a BAFTA and an award for Best Music at The Game Awards — pretty impressive for someone who's technically only nine years old, due to her birthday being on February 29th.
Raine's love of video game music goes back a long way, all the way back to NES games, where the likes of Koji Kondo and Hirokazu Tanaka wove their musical magic into some of the best soundtracks of all time. As part of the new generation of video game composers, Raine's soundtracks evoke a feeling of nostalgia, harking back to Saturday mornings cross-legged in front of the TV, controller in hand.
Yet, at the same time, Raine's style of music is entirely its own, recycling her inspirations into something entirely new. Her work on Celeste mirrors the tone of the game by jumping between synth-heavy pop and gentle, soothing piano melodies; if you're into Minecraft, you almost definitely know the glorious, bass-boosted bop that is Pigstep.
As part of the Nintendo Life Video Game Music Fest, we spoke to Lena Raine about her work, the composers that inspired her, and what's next for music in games...
Nintendo Life: How did you get your start in composing for games?
Lena Raine: I think there's a bunch of different answers I could give for this question, but the most honest one is that I was determined from a pretty young age that I wanted to write music for games. So everything I ended up doing after high school just kept funneling me towards that path, in one way or another.
I went to school for music, tried contracting for games for a while, got a job in QA and eventually a design position at ArenaNet. I still wasn't doing full-time music work, but I kept picking away at it in the background. It wasn't until I was just turning 29 that I began writing music for Guild Wars 2, but I kept writing and hoping that I'd get an opportunity. And then I just used that momentum to keep doing music and eventually turned it into my full-time career.
Were there particular game soundtracks/composers in your childhood that inspired you? How have they influenced your style?
I grew up playing a lot of Nintendo consoles, as early as the NES and Gameboy at six years old, so I was subconsciously absorbing a lot of the house Nintendo style from Koji Kondo's Mario and Zelda music, and Hirokazu Tanaka's contrasting sounds of Metroid and Kid Icarus.
As I got older, I ended up getting absorbed in JRPGs, starting with Chrono Trigger and became a lifelong fan of Yasunori Mitsuda's combination of orchestral and folk instruments as well as some sneaky samples and synths. And honestly I've just kept an open ear over the years, always listening for new sounds developing in both the games space and outside of it in pop music, electronic music, and new experimentations. It's a huge pot of music fusion.
Have you ever been told that game music isn’t “real music”? What would you say to that?
I don't think I've ever been told it isn't "real", because I'd never let that fly. It's a silly argument. Music is music, no matter what it's for or what its intent is. Closing yourself off from that argument is just being deliberately obtuse, I feel.
You performed live at The Game Awards a while back — how often do you get to perform soundtracks live? How weird is it to perform live versus composing?
Not often! I'm a weird introverted composer that spends most of her time indoors with a computer and keyboard. So I'd say it's pretty weird to perform live.
I don't really consider myself a performer when it comes to my music. I'll play everything live into my computer, to the best of my ability, but it's a highly tweakable format. I'll go into the MIDI data (what communicates to synths or samples what to play) and tweak things, make them softer or louder, poke at their timing. I'm a bit of a perfectionist that way. But then I'll hand things off to real people sometimes to perform and then edit back into my projects. It's a lot of meticulous work. So performing that really feels like I'm sort of putting on a show of what I've spent hours poking at in the dark, sometimes.
I love it when other people perform my work though, it's way more satisfying to sit back and go like yeah, cool, I made that somehow.
Do you have a dream collaboration that you’d love to do, whether it’s another musician, a certain instrument, or a particular game?
Collaborating with hugely talented people is always something I'm really into. It feels like cheating, sometimes, since so much of my time composing is making my tiny ideas feel like big impressive pieces of music. So jotting down a cool idea and getting someone else to elaborate it is simultaneously an amazing experience, but also like... a quick way for me to feel like I didn't do anything, even though I did come up with the main idea.
To answer more concretely though... I'd love to collaborate with Yasunori Mitsuda, because it's always your pipe dream to meet or work with someone that basically made you realize you could do something, right? I'd also love to have the opportunity to work on a Final Fantasy or first party Nintendo game... As a guest composer, maybe, because doing that full-time would be a way different career than I've got now. Oh, also I'd love to write a really rowdy anime opening.
We know Chicory: A Colorful Tale isn’t on Switch… but the soundtrack is very Nintendo-inspired (we loved the Turnabout Squeeze bit so much, btw). How did you manage to create a soundtrack that felt so familiar, while keeping it uniquely Lena-style?
I think it's important to have super flexible composers that can do anything. But I learned very early on that the quickest way for me to stop caring about something is to lose a sense of self in its creation
Thank you! Honestly I think anything I write is gonna be Lena-style, because I'm me. It's hard not to be. And I mean that as like, some composers deliberately try to blend in. And that works super well! I love that for them, and I think it's important to have super flexible composers that can do anything.
But I learned very early on that the quickest way for me to stop caring about something is to lose a sense of self in its creation. It took me so long to get into writing music for a living because I didn't want to just be a tool through which someone else could express their ideas about music.
I wanted to be a creative person who told my own stories through the games I worked on. So I try my hardest to make every style or genre I end up working on feel like it's an honest representation of myself. I'm built out of my influences, for sure, but there's things about how I write that I hope are still indicators for who I am.
How do you work with audio designers to create a cohesive soundscape for a game?
I'm lucky enough to have worked with tremendously talented sound designers that want to make the sound of a game really cohesive and uniform, so there's a bit of back and forth between us to try and capture what the overall aesthetic of the game should sound like.
With Celeste, for example, Kevin [Regamey, from Power Up Audio] was in many cases coming in after I'd finished the music for an area and was able to fit his sound design against my music. But then I would also come back in and see what I could contribute to enhance the sound design in my musical ambiances. With Chicory, too, I worked closely with Em [Halberstadt, A Shell In The Pit] and Preston [Wright, sound designer] so that the music and atmospheres and brush sounds were all part of a cohesive "world" and not at odds with each other.
As a side note, I find it really hard to write background music for an area until I know what kind of ambient sounds will be present in it. Since the music sits in the mix alongside everything else, it's hard to know whether I'm being too loud in my writing, or too subtle, until I know what sort of audio bed it's going to be nestled in.
Not many composers get to be part of a studio — most seem to work freelance, as far as we can tell. What’s it like to be a permanent part of the Extremely OK (Earthblade) team? How does it affect the musical side of the games?
I'm really lucky to have found a group of designers and artists that I gel so well with. Celeste was definitely a bit of a trial by fire because I had no idea if it would work out as well as it did, but we came out the other side really great friends, so it's just a joy to be able to work with them every day.
Even if it takes a while for music to be a full time part of a game, I love to just hang out with everyone and cheer everyone on, make suggestions, and overall just be really inspired by everyone's work. Being able to be in there with everyone lets me absorb the essence of what a game is and eventually channel that into music.
I got an email from my contact page on Bandcamp from a developer at Mojang asking very plainly whether I'd like to contribute new music to Minecraft. I legitimately thought it was some hoax at first
It's honestly still surreal that I'm working on one of the biggest (the biggest?) games in the world. I have to sort of separate that reality from my work, because otherwise I'd never finish anything. A lot of it was trusting that the developers at Mojang knew they wanted to work with me, and that I was trusted to carry on the musical legacy of the game in what I've been able to write for it.
As for how I got involved, I got an email from my contact page on Bandcamp from a developer at Mojang asking very plainly whether I'd like to contribute new music to Minecraft. I legitimately thought it was some hoax at first, like, really? Me? But we went back and forth for a while and I submitted a demo and everyone was really on board with me writing new music for the game.
So I did the Nether update, and incidentally Pigstep as a last-minute addition to the update, and then once that was released I think everyone got so preoccupied by how much they liked the disc I wrote that some people forgot I actually wrote new music for the Nether too! But regardless it's been an amazing experience, and I'm glad that my additions have been welcome.
What’s your all-time coolest moment of working in game soundtracks?
There's honestly a lot to choose from, but I feel like the moment in which a game releases and you get to watch people play it for the first time and discover it, without fail always affirms why I do what I do. I love peeking in on streamers playing, or being at a demo session on a show floor, just seeing whether or not the experience sticks with them, and when it does, it's such a great serotonin rush to be able to share that with another person.
What do you think is the future of game music?
Marginalized composers from all walks of life and around the world, everyone who hasn't had a chance to be in the spotlight and contribute their voice to games.
There's so much interesting music out there that hasn't had a chance to help develop the sound of games, and I think more and more musicians with unique takes on music will and should be introduced into games. This goes for a lot of aspects of how games are made, and it really fills my heart every time I get an email or message from someone who hasn't been a part of the usual faces who feels invigorated to study music, to get into games, and isn't chased out by the unfortunate racism, sexism and transphobia that mires a lot of aspects of media. I want to hear their voices, their music, and play their games.
Thanks to Lena Raine for taking the time to talk to us, and for making some of the best soundtracks to have on in the background while we
dance around the kitchen cook dinner.
If you enjoyed the soundtrack to Celeste, Chicory: A Colorful Tale, Minecraft's Nether Update, or you're excited for the upcoming Earthblade, make sure to check out Lena's work on Bandcamp and Twitter!