The Hidden Gems of Celeste’s Soundtrack

The 2018 video game Celeste has become popular in many dimensions: its mechanics, its story, its speedruns, and—in the focus of this article—its soundtrack. Typically a video game soundtrack just needs some catchy tunes, but Celeste’s score is well crafted to create progression, development, and denouement right alongside the game’s story.

Celeste is a 2018 video game that’s also famous for its soundtrack. Here the main character Madeline begins climbing a mountain.

Plot

Before we dive into Celeste’s score, we need to review its story. The game is descended from the Super Mario lineage of “platformers” where the gameplay is focused around jumping on 2D platforms. But while Super Mario never had a story beyond the simple MacGuffin of “a monster has abducted a princess and you have to go save her,” Celeste has no monsters, and the only antagonist that we get is what the main character — Madeline herself — brings with her. Super Mario is an enemy-driven adventure story, but Celeste is a self-driven saga about confronting our own demons in order to achieve personal growth.

Madeline is a young woman suffering from depression and panic attacks. She has decided to climb Canada’s Mount Celeste just to prove to herself that she can do it. But early on her ascent the power of the mountain causes a negative “Part of Herself” to split out and manifest as an alter ego (whom fans have dubbed “Badeline”). Yet Badeline isn’t strictly an antagonist. Even though she does attack Madeline, it’s only to get Madeline to give up climbing the mountain because Badeline is scared they can’t make it. Badeline even intervenes to help Madeline when her safety is threatened. Ultimately, Madeline realizes Badeline is just an aspect of her personality and that they have to accept each other and work together to find balance. Only then are they able to complete their ascent.

To craft a soundtrack for such a unique game, composer Lena Raine heavily employed leitmotifs so that we have a melody to associate with each character; she used variations on the characters’ themes to show their mood and development; and she created and resolved conflict between these subjects as the plot required.

Madeline’s Theme

The Chapter 1 track First Steps (game cue, sheet music) establishes Madeline’s Theme, the game’s main leitmotif. It’s a cheery synthesizer tune in E Major that jumps and climbs like “an ascent up the mountain”:

Madeline’s Theme in E Major, cadenza style, from “First Steps.”

This is the theme we will be hearing the most throughout the score, and in many forms. But this is actually the last time we will hear it in a major key for the next hour. Every time Madeline’s Theme appears from now on, it’s in a melancholy minor key. This nicely reflects how Chapter 1 is the only chapter where Celeste is a standard platformer game; hereafter it gets complicated.

Chapter 2 starts with Madeline having a dream where, after seeing herself in a mirror, her reflection takes on a life of its own, splits out, and manifests as a separate “Part of Herself” (hereafter “Badeline”). The music that accompanies their first confrontation establishes Badeline’s Theme from the track Resurrections (game cue, sheet music):

“Badeline” (Madeline’s “Part of Herself”) introduces herself to Madeline.
Badeline’s first appearance is accompanied by the “Badeline Theme,” a minor key variation of Madeline’s Theme.

This isn’t a separate theme but rather a variation on the Madeline Theme—just as how Badeline herself isn’t a separate character but is a variation of Madeline’s personality. It has the same basic structure but is in the somber key of A minor. It’s also in an abbreviated form as an 8-bar melody that never resolves, much unlike the freewheeling cadenza we hear in First Steps.

Chapter 2 also contains an instance of a transforming theme. Resurrections introduces a theme (game cue) that plays while Madeline is in the dream sequence. After Madeline wakes up, this theme reappears in the track Awake (game cue, sheet music), only this time it is stripped of the drums and the grooving accompaniment and is arranged simply for solo piano. This pared-down setting gives us a feeling of “reverse phantasmagoria,” with the theme’s first appearance in Resurrections now feeling appropriately plasmic and dream-like, while its second appearance in Awake represents how the confounding matter of a dream suddenly dissolves once we wake. This transformation of a theme is a motif Lena Raine will keep coming back to, where, as she put it, “most of the music in Celeste … goes through a transformation half-way through.”

Chapters 3 and 4 are more traditional platforming levels that don’t make heavy use of Madeline’s Theme. Though Chapter 3 does feature another dramatic theme transformation. Hotel manager Mr. Oshiro—a ghost—is introduced with an eerie tune in Spirit of Hospitality (game cue, sheet music). Tensions increase between him and Madeline until he goes on a rampage, whereupon his theme returns as a raucous jam in Scattered and Lost (game cue, sheet music).

The Fulcrum in Chapter 5, “Mirror Temple”

Chapter 5 is the turning point of the story. Here Madeline has to rescue fellow traveler Theo from a temple populated by horrors from her own mind. At first she suspects Badeline is behind this, but, when she finds out otherwise, it helps her realize that Badeline isn’t the worst part of herself, just a different aspect of her personality. Madeline has been running away from herself since Chapter 2, but now realizes that she will have to face her—or rather herself.

This is reflected beautifully in Chapter 5’s two tracks, Quiet and Falling and In the Mirror, which are mirror images of each other. The chapter starts with the meditative Quiet and Falling playing; then halfway through the level Madeline encounters the temple’s eponymous Mirror and she is transported to a mirror world (game cue). After an interlude, Quiet and Falling actually starts playing backwards. This is even hinted at with a spoken word message recorded backwards halfway through the track.

The score for Chapter 5 actually starts playing backwards (“gets mirrored”) after Madeline travels through the temple’s mirror.

Since Celeste’s seven chapters get longer as the game progresses, Chapter 5 is about in the middle of the game. Thus the fact that the music plays forwards going in and backwards going out shows how the score, too, is perfectly acknowledging how the story has switched gears coming into and going out of Chapter 5.

Development in Chapter 6, “Reflection”

Chapter 6 begins with a brief respite between Madeline and Theo, accompanied by the track—ahem—Madeline and Theo (game cue, sheet music). It’s a duet of Theo’s campfire guitar music from Chapter 1 and Madeline’s Theme on piano in C Major. This is actually the first time we’ve heard Madeline’s Theme in a major key since Chapter 1 (which, depending on how quickly one has played the game, could have been hours or days ago). This reflects Madeline’s growing confidence and understanding as she is starting to sound like herself again.

Theo’s Theme is played on guitar from the campfire setting we meet him in Chapter 1.

But then Badeline appears and the two fight, with Madeline calling her “all I need to leave behind.” Enraged, Badeline casts her down to the base of the mountain in a scene called “Rock Bottom.” This is a dramatic surprise for the player because games usually offer monotonic progress, such that we never have to fear losing anything beyond the last save point. But now suddenly the player’s progress has gone negative, as they are farther down the mountain than where they started in the prologue. Lena Raine accompanies this with the wailing track Starjump.

Madeline goes searching for Badeline, which is scored by Reflection (game cue, sheet music). Most of the music in Celeste has an introductory section and several segments, but Reflection is an A minor theme and variations piece that starts right away with the main theme and then “reflects” on it with several variations. The score increases the tension as we encounter giant waves of Badeline’s hair always retreating offscreen as we close in.

Chapter 6’s “boss fight” between Madeline and Badeline is scored with a mix of both characters’ themes.

The fight between the two is accompanied by the crowd-pleaser jam Confronting Myself (game cue, sheet music). It centers around a “battle mode” variation of Badeline’s Theme that’s in a major key — though notably E♭ Major, which is a half-step down from Madeline’s home key of E Major, so it feels a bit off. The music also scratches every time Badeline takes damage, highlighting the theme’s connection to that character. Once Badeline loses the fight, we get the last appearance of her theme in the piano rendition Little Goth (game cue, sheet music).

The Summit

Madeline and Badeline agree to work together to rescale the entire mountain in the titanic final Chapter 7, “The Summit.” Starting from rock bottom, they climb back up through stages that revisit the settings of all the preceding chapters. The score accompanies this with Reach for the Summit (game cue, sheet music), which finally reprises Madeline’s Theme in its gleeful Chapter 1 mood. As the characters revisit each previous setting, Lena Raine sticks to the core Madeline Theme but mixes in the soundscapes from the previous levels. This gives us an effect like the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which quoted pieces from all the previous movements for its development.

As Madeline nears the summit, the background music actually starts to die down. At the top there is none, and all we hear is the wind whistling under the final cutscene. This was a great decision to not try to dress up this moment that the players have been struggling towards for so long, and to give everyone space for their own thoughts.

At the summit, the soundtrack actually dies away so that we just hear wind whistling under the final cutscene.

Once the credits roll and the characters start their trek down the mountain, we get the solo piano track Exhale (game cue, sheet music), another Madeline variation. It’s in C Major, which is the relative key of A minor, so it’s actually using the same notes as Badeline’s Theme. And the second phrase also uses some C minor accidentals for a bittersweet tone. Thus we hear that Madeline’s and Badeline’s melodies have grown and changed by coming together, and that the naive Madeline who started her ascent in Chapter 1 is not the same composed and self-aware Madeline who descends now.

It’s interesting to contrast this to Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony—incidentally another great piece of music about climbing a mountain. There, when the climber reaches the summit, we get a massive, celebratory diapason named “Vision” that restates the piece’s main themes. In effect, Strauss’s protagonist knew what they were looking for when they started their climb, so the summit is where he put the piece’s sweeping and spiritual climax. In Celeste, however, Madeline had no idea what she was looking for when she started her climb, since she was only fixated on scaling the mountain as a way to challenge herself. The journey turned into one of self-discovery, and thus the summit was not a place for celebration but for quiet reflection. So instead of her theme achieving its greatest statement at the summit, it achieves its greatest development on the way down.

Celeste’s soundtrack actually completes its development not at the summit but on the way down during the credits.

Coda

Some completionists will note that I haven’t covered all of Celeste’s music. The game actually includes an additional bonus Chapter 8 named “Core,” for which Lena Raine composed Heart of the Mountain. Since this chapter lies outside of the main story and the music doesn’t develop Madeline’s Theme, I don’t discuss it here. Also, also the music I discussed above was for the chapters’ “A-sides,” and there are also B- and C-side levels that have a different soundtrack, but these are all remixes of Lena Raine’s music that don’t pertain to the story’s development. And, finally, a year ago the game developers also added a further Chapter 9 named “Farewell,” which Lena Raine scored and wrote an analysis of herself, so there’s certainly nothing for me to add here. I’ve used quotes from that essay above, but I refer you to that again for some great reading.

Silicon Valley software engineer and novelist: https://amzn.to/2LmCH4Q My opinions are my own and not necessarily those of my employer.

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