On January 25, 2018, a small team led by Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry at Extremely OK Games (EXOK) released Celeste. The game quickly grew in popularity as a 2D platformer with smooth, intuitive movement, a heartfelt narrative, and a stellar soundtrack. The impressive levels of depth to the game also helped launch a vibrant speedrunning community as it is the 6th most active game on speedrun.com.
I want to dive deeper, though, into how the music in this game ties together those other elements. Between Lena Raine’s composition and Power Up Audio’s sound design, Celeste has been nominated for (and won) 7 different awards for its score. There will be spoilers for the first 7 chapters that comprise the main game, so go play Celeste first if you haven’t already.
Chapter 1, Forsaken City, establishes our protagonist and her goal of climbing Celeste Mountain. Madeline travels through an abandoned town with run-down steam machinery as her theme plays in the background. Using a high-pitched synth in a major key, the theme sounds hopeful and optimistic.
Along the way, she meets a fellow climber, Theo, who mostly just wants pictures for his Instapix followers as opposed to actually reaching the summit. Eventually, she finds an old campsite with a memorial “dedicated to those who perished on the climb”. The music dies down, leaving just a piano repeating the same three notes softly, and the chapter ends.
Chapter 2, Old Site, introduces Madeline’s antagonist, who refers to herself as “Part of You”. The community has instead nicknamed her Badeline so I’ll use that name here. She casts doubt on Madeline’s journey and reflects her anxieties, uncovering Madeline’s true motivations for climbing Celeste Mountain.
About halfway through the chapter, she begins chasing Madeline by imitating the player’s movements, killing her if they touch. Here, the music intensifies as Badeline’s theme begins playing. The same synth for Madeline’s theme plays a similar melody, but lowered an octave and slowed down, creating a spookier, haunting melody that echoes on. The parallels between Madeline and Badeline are obvious through gameplay and music, though their ideas still clash.
Books and a Breakdown
Madeline makes it up to a hotel on the mountain for chapter 3, Celestial Resort, which is often considered harder than the next two or three chapters. A soft piano introduces the chapter as Madeline meets Mr. Oshiro, the hotel owner who appears to be a ghost. As the player progresses through the level, Oshiro continues to grow more insecure about Madeline not wanting to stay.
Badeline tells Oshiro that Madeline only wanted to help him to satiate her ego, which Madeline tries to argue against. A boss fight with an enraged Oshiro ensues, and the music grows violent. An 8-bit synth mixes with Oshiro’s ghastly theme as vibrant drumming intensifies the interaction.
Madeline: If I disappear now, Mr. Oshiro could have a meltdown. And maybe I can actually do something good. For once.
Quote from Chapter 3 of Celeste.
Madeline was advised earlier by Theo not to try to help Oshiro with his anxieties for her own safety, but she refused, saying she wanted to “do something good for once”. So, Badeline was not that wrong in what she told Oshiro, leaving players with a sense that Madeline and Badeline are not as good and bad as they seem to be respectively.
Chapter 5, Mirror Temple, delves into a visual representation of Madeline’s worries through a labyrinth of puzzles. The score is quiet, subtle, and devoid of either Madeline or Badeline’s themes. As a result, players feel alone and lost in the temple, allowing doubt about their own abilities to creep in. Madeline eventually gets sucked into a mirror where she enters rooms now occupied by seekers.
The temple amplifies the mountain’s ability to bring out a part of oneself that they despise, so these seekers represent Madeline’s worries about climbing the mountain. She feels they’re attacking her. The same vibrant drums from the boss fight with Oshiro return, indicating that Madeline feels as stressed now as she did then.
Revelation and Reform
Chapter 6, Reflection, opens with Madeline telling Part of Herself that she doesn’t need her anymore. Badeline is only slowing her down. It seems like Madeline has finally defeated Badeline as bold, optimistic synths come in. And then, Badeline breaks. She begins berating Madeline for thinking she can just neglect Part of Herself and Madeline begins having a panic attack. Badeline worsens her stress and they end up falling all the way back to the base of the mountain.
They meet again later, and the last boss fight in the game commences. The music swells louder and more complex than ever. Madeline and Badeline’s themes alternate now as the fight progresses. Everything feels so grand that this difficult section feels invigorating rather than discouraging to play.
Madeline tries to keep calming Badeline down until they are both beaten down. Madeline tells her counterpart that she was wrong to leave instead of helping her, and that they have to work together instead of separating again. They merge into one character and the player unlocks a new mechanic.
Chapter 7, Summit, ends the game by progressing through remixed versions of each of the previous chapters. Now each chapter’s music is accompanied by triumphant strings and a piano version of both character’s themes. The progression of the game becomes much more vertical as it feels like they are speeding up the mountain far faster together than they ever did separately.
The last section features a series of checkpoints counting down from 30 as players are encouraged to jump, dash, and climb their way to the summit. As the player reaches the final checkpoint, the score fades into the background so a sense of relief can wash over. Madeline was really able to climb the mountain. The player was able to climb the mountain.
Aside from the contents of the music within each level, there are a couple other elements I wish to praise. No part of the score ever grows stale, since there are so many small variations of each chapter’s music. They never seem to loop on themselves.
The way EXOK handles anxiety in Celeste is remarkably original as well. Much of the story was created through Maddy Thorson’s own experiences, and there’s even a genuinely helpful strategy at the end of Chapter 4 for alleviating panic attacks, both for Madeline and the player.
Although Celeste’s narrative was primarily focused on anxiety and how to reckon with it, many trans people have found the narrative to describe their experiences very well too. In fact, this coincidence likely comes from Maddy’s experiences as well, since she came out as trans not long after Celeste released. In a follow-up DLC to Celeste, the last cutscene shows a trans pride flag on Madeline’s desk, confirming that Madeline the character is also trans, which is a nice touch.
Anyway, play Celeste if you haven’t before, so you can greater experience this indie masterpiece. And if you have played it before, replay it and see what connections you can make to your own life. Keep on a lookout for EXOK’s next game too, Earthblade.
On Halloween, 2020, Adult Swim released a series of short films titled “adult swim smalls”. Many of these featured the work of Jack Stauber, an animator and pop musician who uses many different styles and genres to create moving, eccentric pieces of art. One of these works was “OPAL”, a 12-minute amalgamation of ballads, pop songs, and animation.
Now, I highly recommend you go watch this film before continuing on with this review. It’s a fantastic work of art and the music is pretty neat I think. Also this review will just make more sense. You will find so many different analysis videos talking about “OPAL”, so instead I’m going to discuss my own experience and feelings watching it for the first time.
Opal and the Plot Summary
I’m going to give a brief overview of “OPAL” here for people who refuse to watch the actual video. The opening scene shows a family gathered around a small, likely malnourished child named Opal as she picks up a burger and subsequently starts dancing around with it in her hand. She sees a dark, decrepit house across the street before the shutters on the top window swing open, releasing cries of anguish and despair as a ghastly presence spills out around it.
Still, she gets curious and sneaks over to this dark abode. The first thing she encounters is an old, obese smoker who calls the girl Claire. He seems to be her grandfather, and he asks her to bring him some cigarettes before launching into a tirade about how Claire shouldn’t try to get him to quit smoking because he’s fine, actually. Also, he’s likely blind.
After a while, he gets suspicious that this girl is not actually his granddaughter and starts chasing after Claire as she runs up the stairs in fear. She’s stopped by being seen through the doorway by a man surrounded by mirrors who we can believe to be Claire’s dad. He’s clearly dealing with narcissism coupled with insecurities about his appearance and hardly ever talks to Claire directly. Also, he never sees Claire’s face.
Eventually, she runs off and ends up being grabbed by a drunk, pill-abusing woman who we can assume is Claire’s mom. The mom keeps calling herself similar to or the same as Claire even if that’s not actually true. Also, she never sees Claire in focus.
Opal finally escapes and ends up in the room with the top window mentioned earlier. Through that window, she sees a billboard for “Opal’s Burgers” with the same family from the opening scene, but a healthier, well-fed girl. Claire begins to have a mental breakdown and retreats into her own head while her (probably actual) family bangs on the door to get in.
Opal and the Hamburger
The opening scene and everything to do with the first house is honestly kinda confusing to open with. I mean, it makes sense by the end, like a Tarantino movie, but it makes the later tragedy even harder to stomach. Opal’s here having a good time actually being seen by people she can consider family.
“We See You, Opal” is more of a thematic intro ballad than an actual song, so it doesn’t really leave much impact, especially since I didn’t know what “OPAL” is about yet. However, the pure, innocent joy that Opal gets just from picking up a burger is infectious.
Opal has a family who cares about her and doesn’t try to project themselves onto her and it’s really sweet. Of course, we’re only 2 minutes into the film at this point, so things were bound to get worse. The cries that come from the dark house are genuinely chilling. Opal’s dad’s warnings not to look at or think about the house are pretty spot on to how suburban parents handle local crime, homelessness, drugs, and Black bad people. Or maybe that was just my family.
Opal and the Cigarettes
The scene with Opal/Claire and her grandfather is such a dramatic shift in tone delving into the abuse Claire faces on what is probably a daily basis. The way the grandfather’s head seems to snap around at the sound of a wood block is extremely disconcerting.
“Easy to Breathe” during this scene did not really have much going for it to be honest. I mean, thematically it works really well with how Claire is never seen for herself throughout the film, but the music itself is bland. The piano uses very simple chord progressions and the drums add basically nothing interesting. The backing vocals singing “la, la, la, la” are fun though.
Also, something I didn’t notice first time around was how claymation was implemented into “OPAL”. I’ve seen other Jack Stauber shorts before so the clay heads of the first family and Claire were not a shock, but it’s weird to see them placed in the frame so that they basically just cover the head of Stauber’s body in different outfits. Claire is the only character to get her entire body in claymation, probably so that her malnutrition can be exemplified.
Opal and the Egomaniac
On first watch, the scene between Claire and her father felt both refreshing and familiar while still bringing that disturbing touch that Stauber is often known for. Although I don’t think it’s Stauber’s intent, the father reminds me of being an “ally” to marginalized communities. He’s completely unaware of his own biases while still seeing himself as a “tiny growing thing” on a journey. And of course, he refuses to lose the audience that sees through his narcissism while he ignores any and all issues at hand.
The song “Mirror Man” in this scene creates such a dichotomy with the previous song in that this feels so sterile and clean compared to the dirtiness of “Easy to Breathe”. Also, “Mirror Man” is much more in line with the sound of Stauber’s discography outside of this film, including the voices, which he uses often. Overall, this track is definitely the most fun and enjoyable in the film, which is probably why this scene is the least impactful to the emotional punch at the end.
Now I sit here in reflection chamber
Fixing myself so that all can savor.
Lyrics from “Mirror Man” by Jack Stauber
Opal and the Booze
Seeing Claire’s mother for the first time creeped me out far more than any other character thus far. Her drunken stupor is clearly something that happens quite often for Claire to have to deal with. Her narcissism is probably the most traumatizing for Claire, as Claire has to fight fear and hopelessness in order to be better than her mother who sees Claire as a reflection of herself. Her dad is more neglectful than directly abusive, and she seems to almost exist in a sort of business relationship with her grandfather.
And that song, “Virtuous Cycle,” is just so chilling. The piano is something straight out of “Friday the 13th”. The song’s breakdown at the end as a montage of the mother’s abuse plays is by far the most haunting part of the whole film. It’s unclear whether these are the mother’s own traumas that she’s relaying down to Claire or whether these are just a collection of abuses towards Claire. Either way, the use of “Mama” in the song is the most disrespectful thing to happen to Claire that we see. Claire is fully justified in not seeing that woman as family, let alone her mama.
Opal and the Hamburger (reprise)
That ending is just a punch to the gut. Opal and her family don’t actually exist, they are just the closest thing to a loving family that Claire has reference to. Her house is so isolated that she may not ever see anyone other than her relatives. The reprise of “We See You, Opal” has such a twist of irony to it now that Claire’s troubles are not “miles away” but right outside her bedroom door.
I still don’t think I’ve seen anything as creatively diverse in medium and unified in theme as “OPAL”. Stauber was responsible for all of the singing, all of the acting, much of the animation, and most, if not all of the music. I highly commend his work as an artist, and I hope you all go on to visit more of his projects.
I write songs because I like to write songs. It’s my life. I had to do what I had to do.
Wesley Willis, in an interview with Nardwaur the Human Serviette
Wesley Willis was a Chicago native diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 1989. Despite this diagnosis (in fact often empowered by it), Willis devoted his life to his music and his drawings, some of which became his album covers. Over the course of his career, he performed as the lead of his punk rock band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, many solo acts, and even collaborations with more well-known artists such as Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys, who signed him to his label “Alternative Tentacles”.
Songs for the Strange
Much of his music, especially his solo work, has a very distinctive song structure and sound. His Technics KN keyboard tended to be the only instrument used during his performances, where he used various presets altered in some way for each song. One preset in particular, featured on “Rock N Roll McDonalds,” was used for over 40% of songs on his 3 “Greatest Hits” albums.
There are also several recurring themes in Willis’s lyrics based on his own experiences with schizophrenia, both imagined and physical. Several songs call out fast food companies for selling fattening food. Others recount his outbursts on the Chicago bus lines or in church. Still others are entirely devoted to praising artists and people he loves (platonically and romantically). A concerning number of his songs tell of people being arrested for murder and other felonies.
I believe that all of Willis’s songs reflect some fear of his. He may worry about his own weight. He may worry about being sent to jail because of his outbursts. He may fear losing the love of people he adores. Additionally, many of his songs are highly explicit and violent, likely stemming from his paranoia such as “I Wupped Batman’s Ass” or “Suck a Caribou’s Ass”.
Nearly every song ends with the phrase, “Rock over London / Rock on Chicago,” and the slogan of companies such as Folgers, Wheaties, and Mitsubishi.
A Man Beloved
Wesley Willis was well known in Chicago during the 1990s among his fans for his honest, heartfelt songwriting, even if the music can be repetitive. He famously greeted and left people with a headbutt, leaving a permanent bruise on his forehead.
In fact, his entire body was distinctive to people who saw him. Not only was he 6’6″, towering over most people, but he had multiple scars over his face from an attack by a stranger and that bruise on his forehead. This attack was only one of many traumas he experienced during his lifetime, the most notable of which is probably his aunt robbing him of $600 with a gun to his head.
Regardless, he was compassionate to his fans and the people he sings about. His music was incredibly original if nothing else, and most people who went to his shows seemed to be enjoying his music for what it was, not as “so bad it’s good” music.
If you want to explore Wesley Willis’s music, I suggest listening to his “Greatest Hits Volume 1” album and watching his interview with Nardwaur below.