I’ve been regularly listening to Lena Raine’s soundtrack to 2018’s indie knockout Celeste for a little over a year now, but I hadn’t actually played the game until this month. Intending to pick up the Switch port to play through over the holiday break last Christmas, I decided to put it off just one more month when Microsoft announced that the game would be coming to Games with Gold for January. Although it had been on my wishlist for more than a year by that point, I found it was easy to procrastinate actually playing the game because I’d led myself to believe I’d already seen most of what Celeste had to offer. How wrong I was.
Listening to the soundtracks to games I haven’t played isn’t unusual for me. In fact, I’ve been doing it since at least 2011 when more and more of my work started to happen in an office environment. The fact that game music is typically non-intrusive and helps to promote productivity was a major draw for me originally, but it also helped me to deal with the fact that while I was wasting my days away at a desk, I would much rather have been playing games.
I’d led myself to believe I’d already seen most of what Celeste had to offer. How wrong I was.
I tend to consume game soundtracks with a flavor-of-the-week regularity. I find something that really clicks with me and then keep it on repeat until it no longer has me tapping my feet or dancing at my desk (I work from home, which feels like necessary context now). Celeste’s soundtrack was special, though.
Story spoilers warning for Celeste
Without having the game experience to contextualize the tracks I was hearing, the experience of listening to Celeste was a bit like listening to a concept album or opera: it tells a story from start to finish. “Prologue” establishes Madeline’s leitmotif, which is developed and subverted over the course of the the 101-minute run time of the soundtrack.
As I listened, I could picture what was happening in the game in my mind. I’d seen enough of it in screenshots and videos, read enough about it in reviews and on Twitter, heard enough of my friends and favorite podcasts waxing lyrical about it to mentally forge an empathetic play experience. While I’d avoided spoilers about the game’s narrative, I really started to believe over time that, on some level or another, I’d played the game.
Celeste started to rack up Game of the Year award nominations and popped up in other end-of-year conversations among the people and outlets I follow. Close friends were encouraging me to “just play it.” And so, finally, I did.
The opening chapter teaches players nearly everything they need to know to about the entire game, culminating with one final lesson as you rush towards the end of a crumbling bridge. The music swells as you race towards the finish line, and time freezes for a moment in which players the game’s signature dash mechanic is introduced.
The magic of video games happens in the combination of music, visuals, and player interaction.
And it was in that moment that I was reminded of something: the magic of video games happens in the combination of music, visuals, and player interaction. Without even playing it, I’d allowed myself to believe I’d heard and seen everything the game had to offer, but I hadn’t.
Celeste’s soundtrack is magnificent, but I really had no idea how masterful Raine’s work was until I heard it build, layer upon layer, from one screen to the next in-game.
Take, for example, the track “Scattered and Lost.” It takes the spooky, theremin-laden motifs from the two tracks preceding it, and it amps the musical equation up to a 10 with a driving percussive track that gets my blood pumping every time I listen to it. On its own, this track rocks.
But hearing it while being chased by a monstrous ghost, dodging attacks and deftly dashing around hazards from one platform to another elevates the experience. And then you reach the finish line, and the music just stops, leaving you alone with only the sound of rushing wind, a technique the game effectively employs several times throughout the story.
Celeste and its music are brilliant because of the marriage of play and visuals and sound.
You might think you have an idea of what the experience is like from reading my description, but you don’t. Not really. And that’s my point.
Celeste and its music are brilliant because of the marriage of play and visuals and sound. Take any one of these components independently, and it’s still incredible. The pixel art is sublime; the platforming is top-notch. The music… well, the music is good enough to listen to nearly daily for over a year without getting sick of it. But take it as a whole, all at once, and the experience is pure magic. That’s what I love about this medium, and sometimes it takes a game like Celeste to come along and reaffirm that for me.
Edit: I changed one of the quote blocks since it was redundant with an earlier one in the article.