Road to the IGF: Matt Makes Games' Celeste
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Celeste takes players on daring, challenging mountain climbs, with its music carrying the player along the varied emotions the heroine feels along her adventure. Through song, the player is encouraged to feel her emotions on this journey, allowing the player to immerse themselves and join in on the dangers and triumphs they share in.
Co-creator Noel Berry and composer Lena Raine shared some thoughts on the design of the music for Celeste, how they sought to capture what its character would be going through at a given time throughout the game, and the challenges in mirroring those emotions through song.
What's your background in making games?
Berry: Everyone on the team has been making games in various forms for quite a few years. Both Matt (Thorson) and I started making games as teenagers with Game Maker before moving to Flash games, and then later desktop/console games. Our artists Pedro and Amora of MiniBoss have a similar history, creating several of their own games and later collaborating with Matt on TowerFall.
How did you come up with the concept?
Berry: I had recently discovered PICO-8, a small fantasy console inspired by the computer & gaming platforms of the late 80s, and Matt and I decided it would be fun to try to make a game for it. We wanted something fairly minimalist in concept, partially due to the limitations of the tool, but that also had a lot of depth in mechanics. The idea of a character struggling to climb a mountain felt like it fit really well with this. We spent 4 days and made the original.
After releasing it, we left the concept alone for a few months. When we later revisited the game, we decided to make something inspired by the original, but without any of the constraints of PICO-8. Initially, we felt like we could do that in a few months, but as the game grew, the spaces we felt we could explore with it did too, and it ended up being a 2 year project (we were also never realistic with our timeline, and kept thinking "it'll be done next month" the entire 2nd year of the project). As we expanded the project, we tried to make sure it always felt true to the initial concept of the PICO-8 version - a game about climbing a mountain and overcoming the personal struggle of seeing that through.
What development tools were used to build your game?
Berry: The game was made in C# and XNA, using Visual Studio. XNA is now deprecated, but is still pretty dang stable on Windows, with actively updated ports (FNA and MonoGame), which we use to get the game on other platforms. The levels were designed in a level editor we created in HTML5 and Electron. All the pixel art used a great tool (that you can check out on itch.io!!) called Aseprite. The high-res art was a mix of Photoshop and Clip Studio. Finally, the music was written in & with Ableton Live (DAW), Massive (synths), and Spitfire’s Felt Piano (Piano). All the sounds were authored in FMOD Studio.
How much time have you spent working on the game?
Raine: For the music, I started getting involved in the second half of 2016. I worked in tandem with the team to come up with not just tracks for the levels, but to brainstorm how certain mechanics or the pacing of the level could lend itself to a dynamic implementation for the music. In a lot of ways, being involved as early as I was helped create more opportunities to really let the score be a reflection of the pace, mood and gameplay itself.
What thoughts went into creating the music for the harrowing climb that is Celeste? What makes a song feel appropriate to this kind of play experience to you?
Raine: My very first attempt at writing for Celeste actually overshot the goal for this quite a bit, but I think going a bit overboard let Matt & Noel close in on what kind of pace they wanted. My first attempt was super peppy & up-beat, something that wouldn't be out of place in, say, a Kirby game. It didn’t quite fit.
Celeste is a game about methodical planning as much as it is about action. I tried to keep the pace of the music lower in order to not stress the player out too much. Even the more fast-paced tracks that accompany chases or boss encounters have an intentionally lower tempo. They have a groove to keep you moving, but in a more slowed-down breakbeat sorta way.
Celeste's soundtrack is a soothing one at times - a balm for those stressed by the challenging gameplay. What drew you to create a calming soundtrack for this kind of tense game? What do you feel it does for the player?
Raine: So many challenging platformers really play along with the difficulty of their games to amp up the intensity, which I feel, is a very literal way of scoring a difficult game. Break out the distorted guitars and synths solos, etc. But for Celeste, everything about the game is a reflection of its characters. The story isn't just some fluff that loosely contextualizes why you're jumping a lot. Celeste's challenge and its gameplay ARE the story. So, in scoring the game, my primary thought was in how Madeline is feeling.
In so many ways, the music is almost 1:1 with her internal state. Her optimism, or pessimism, influence the music on every level. Because the music is such an internal non-diegetic thing, I felt that in exposing how Madeline is feeling through music, the player could more easily slip into that role while taking control and, combined with the challenge of the platforming, use those elements in counterpoint to embody the story.
What various moods did you wish to capture with the soundtrack to Celeste? What story and feelings did you wish to carry the player through, and how did you wish to do it?
Raine: Madeline's journey is one of self-discovery and acceptance. The journey to that point is full of every possible human emotion - joy, anxiety, loss, fear, excitement. It's also about the transition between those feelings, whether rapid or gradual. To capture that journey, I wanted the music to be flexible & dynamic, but with a solid constant at its core. While the synths explore the ever-changing parts of Madeline on her journey, there is always a soft piano sound to return to that really grounds the score.
I adore working with synths because of how transformative they can be. The same sound can be calming or ratcheted up to the most frightening & overwhelming thing. Along with Kevin & the Power Up Audio team, I worked on getting as many dynamic cues as possible where appropriate. We were able to do some very cool things even in how a track fades out to really let an emotion dissipate into nothing. There's several sequences in the game where, through dynamic layering, we were able to try to capture, in a musical sense, what an anxiety attack feels like. Even though I wrote it, it still affects me a lot.
2017 was a difficult year for a lot of people, myself included. Being able to channel some of those feelings into music helped tremendously, and I hope it comes across to people when they play it.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Berry: I've only managed to play a few of them while wrapping up Celeste, including Cuphead and Getting Over It, but I'm really excited to check out more. Baba is You, Rainworld, and Into the Breach all look like games I'd really enjoy. Our 3d artist, Gabby, also co created A Mortician's Tale, so it's really exciting to see that included in the IGF.
What do you think are the biggest hurdles (and opportunities) for indie devs today?
Berry: I think the biggest opportunity is that making games is (slowly) becoming more of an accessible thing to do. Tools like Twine, PICO-8, Unity, PuzzleScript, and so many more are making it easier for people to dive in and start creating, and it's so exciting. The amount of resources out there to help you get started is constantly growing, and there's more places to easily share, distribute, and sell your work, with sites like itch.io.