Talking with the amazing Lena Raine about composing for games
One of the industry's finest
The videogame industry is chock-full of absolutely amazing composers. While it always has been, that statement is even more true today. There’s a litany of incredible titles that are made that much more impressive by the music that accompanies them, and I personally believe that game composers don’t get near the amount of recognition they deserve. Their songs not only heighten any experience, but help build memories that will last a lifetime.
Without a doubt, one of the best composers in gaming today is the award-winning and BAFTA-nominated Lena Raine. She might not be a household name for gamers like Koji Kondo or Nobuo Uematsu, but she certainly deserves to be.
Raine has composed for titles like Celeste, Chicory, and even Minecraft, and her entire body of work is absolutely stellar. If you haven’t heard some of Lena’s work, you owe it to yourself to spend time digging through her albums. I promise you won’t be disappointed!
All this is why I was absolutely honored to interview Lena Raine about her process, numerous soundtracks, and the hard work that goes into being a game composer. You can find the extensive interview with Lena below.
GN: What led you down the path of being a composer?
LR: There were definitely a lot of things that contributed to this. My dad was a composer and fiddle player, so I grew up around music and had a studio in the basement full of synths and recording setups, plus a piano and pump organ that I’d regularly play around on for fun. I also fell in love with video game music as a kid, and did a lot of transcribing music to see how it worked. Putting all of those things together led to me writing my own original music, and eventually finding the motivation to learn more about music in college.
GN: Was composing for games something you always wanted to do?
LR: I’ve dabbled in all sorts of art, whether it’s writing or visual art, but music was the thing I felt the most confident about. I had a good ear for what I loved to hear in music, and it made me the happiest to do. I never thought it would be a possible career until actually finding a job, though. I’d always seen it as something I’d have to do on the side, because the style of music I wrote didn’t line up with what American game studios were looking for in 2006 or so when I graduated college. But I kept trying, and now somehow I’ve managed to make it work as my full time career.
GN: What sort of musical background do you have (training, experience, ect.)
LR: I first studied music when I was around 6 or 7, joining a children’s choir and learning music theory, ear training, solfege, things like that. In high school, I was in just about every choir I could be, from the concert choir to a vocal jazz ensemble. I was proficient enough with how music works by the time I entered college for my 4-year music degree, I ended up tutoring other students, and had the chance to write for a number of local Seattle ensembles that came to the school for residence.
GN: What do you consider your first ‘big break’ into composing for videogames?
LR: I was working at ArenaNet as a game designer for Guild Wars 2, and was tasked with designing some seasonal mini-game content that needed holiday music. So I wrote some original music that the player could play themselves in the game. The audio team was impressed enough that when I asked if I could expand out one of the pieces as a full orchestral track, they were like yeah sure we’d love to hear it. So I wrote it and showed it to the team, and they actually put it into the game as one of the seasonal bgm tracks and was featured in the patch trailer. So from then on I actually got a lot more confidence that I could make a composition career work.
GN: What do you consider the hardest part about composing for games?
LR: The most difficult part I think is also what makes games unique, which is fitting the gameplay in a dynamic and interesting way that doesn’t tire the player out. I come from the retro school of game music, which means I love writing catchy melodies and looping tracks, but the expectations these days are for more dynamic implementations and to stay out of the way as much as possible. Lots of big AAA games have pushed dynamic music writing into a corner where it’s almost impossible to go for catchy melodies anymore because of how agile the music has to be, to change on the fly. Of course it doesn’t mean you have to NOT write melodies, but it adds an extra level of challenge to the composition when you have to account for that. It’s difficult to do right, but really satisfying if you manage to pull it off.
GN: Is there a particular piece of work that you’re extremely proud of?
LR: I really love a lot of the pieces I’ve written for the game Chicory: A Colorful Tale. I think it demonstrates my best writing to date, and was so much fun to record. It’s that sweet spot between 16-bit era vgm influences, and modern production that I think I thrive in, so it makes me really happy when people also enjoy it.
GN: What was the most challenging game to compose for?
LR: Minecraft, for sure, mainly because it has such a legacy of music and fans of that music. Even though I’ve done three updates now, around 14 new tracks, each one has had me second guessing myself and super anxious about how it would be received. I get some flack from fans that wish I was someone else, which y’know, I can’t change that. But ultimately the people that do like my music seem to really like it, so I try to take that to heart, and know that Mojang trusts me to come up with something that feels right for present day Minecraft. I can’t make everyone happy, but I try my best anyway.
GN: What was it like being asked to create tracks for Minecraft?
LR: Honestly, I still can’t believe it. It’s definitely not every day you get an email from Mojang asking if you’d like to write for Minecraft. I was also staying in Japan at the time, so it lent this extra level of surreal quality to the demo request. But I still managed to pull together a demo once I got back home to Seattle, and it impressed them enough to hire me, so I’m really grateful for that experience.
GN: What are your favorite instruments to work with (physical or digital)?
LR: I love messing around with synths, obviously, but any time I’m able to write for voice it really takes me back to my origins in learning music. I haven’t been a professional vocalist for a long time, but I still write nearly everything by singing it out first, so I think my music resonates best when it’s sung or played on wind instruments. Breath and lyrical form are such important qualities to the melodic lines I gravitate towards.
GN: Your music seems to capture and express an incredible amount of emotion (and has made me tear up!) Is this something you try to do with all of your compositions?
LR: Yes, I always want everyone to be crying every time they hear my music ^^ (/s) In all seriousness though, I do try to capture some emotion or another when I write. I read a really off-hand comment once about my music being too depressing for them, but it’s funny to reflect on that because it’s not been an easy few years for anyone! If I’m going through a lot internally, then that just comes out in my music. But there’s a lot of joy there too, I think. I always try to lend some form of honesty to my work, so my music is often a window into where I’m at when I write it.
GN: What are your musical influences in music, games, or movies/TV?
LR: Ohh too many to count. I could name a bunch of names though: Yoko Kanno and Yuki Kajiura are incredible composers primarily for anime, but also have dabbled in games, and are two really amazing women I look up to in my music. On the games side of things: Masashi Hamauzu, Mariam Abounnasr, Kohei Tanaka, Yoko Shimomura and Hitoshi Sakimoto are my orchestration all-timers. Yasunori Mitsuda is a huge inspiration always, and is responsible for a handful of the games that made me interested in composing in the first place.
GN: Do you feel game music gets the recognition it deserves, both in and out of the games industry?
LR: It’s sort of all over the place right now. In Japan, game soundtracks have always had a presence in music stores, but I feel like the mainstream appreciation is still pretty niche. On one hand, more and more western companies are choosing to produce albums of game soundtracks, but it feels primarily motivated from a financial perspective, that a game soundtrack is just another merch item they can sell to increase the value of something. Companies like Bandai Namco are choosing to bundle soundtracks in with collectors editions but never make them available outside of that one-time initial purchase, opting instead to produce expensive vinyls that only contain a selection of the music. Companies like Konami are continuing to scrub their legacy releases of detailed credits, opting for a ‘Sound Team’ blanket credit rather than the real people involved. There is a growing appreciation, but I don’t think game music is yet respected on the level it should be. Certainly not within the industry, and absolutely not outside of it. There’s hints, sometimes, like when an outstanding Kirby arrangement wins a Grammy. More and more music awards are adding game categories, but the nominees and winners are primarily driven by budget rather than the quality of their composition or implementation in their respective games. Lots of work to do.
GN: What individual track/soundtrack took the most amount of time to complete?
LR: Absolutely the final boss sequence of Chicory: A Colorful Tale. On the soundtrack, this is ‘History Against Us’ and ‘Do The Impossible’, and it was an honestly ridiculous undertaking. The final boss is a 6 phase encounter with dynamic music that goes from the intro, through every phase, two dialog intermissions, and a finale… the amount of work it took to compose and implement it was just silly. Enough that I had to make the tough decision to record all the parts myself instead of getting outside musicians. But I still love how it turned out!
GN: What are some of your favorite pieces of game music from other composers?
LR: There’s always too many to list, but I do frequently get the opportunity to put together mixes and playlists for the radio and other publications, so definitely stay tuned for those windows into my personal faves!
GN: Where can we expect to hear you next?
LR: I’m currently working on Earthblade, the next game from Extremely OK Games (formerly the Celeste team). It’s a 2D explore-action game and I’m doing some really exciting stuff for it. I’m working on two other games that haven’t been announced, as well as my own personal game project. I also had the opportunity to collaborate with fellow game composer Jon Everest on a short film called Death’s Diner by director Ravenna Tran & writer Son M. It’ll be debuting later this year at Toronto’s Inside Out 2SLGBTQ+ Film Festival!
Thank you to Lena Raine for taking the time out of her incredibly busy schedule to chat with us. If you’d like to learn more about Lena’s entire discography and see all the wonderful games she’s contributed to, you can visit her official website here.
No doubt her music really puts you in the game! Playing through Celeste, not only did her music drive emotion, but created the atmosphere for what I was seeing visually. Fantastic on so many levels.
She’s def one of the best. Anytime I hear she’s working on a soundtrack, I know the game is a must-buy.
The Celeste album is so damn good, I listen to it at work all the time. I have downloaded Chicory but haven't played it yet, didn't realise it was the same composer.
Really enjoyed this interview, RMC! Great job.
You are in for a real treat, my friend. So many incredible songs in there. I literally had to stop playing a points to wipe away tears.
What a get! One of the best in the business for sure, Celeste is an instant classic. Great interview. (Love the Kingdom Hearts necklace she has too! A Yoko/Lena collab would be amazing)
This was a great interview. I love Lena's music!