How Composer Inon Zur Built the Acoustic Soundtrack of ‘Fallout 4’
Like many epic role-playing games, 'Fallout 4' is made all the more immersive courtesy of its enveloping soundtrack. We spoke to the composer behind it.
Fallout 4 features the kind of compelling landscape that could just as accurately be called a wonderland as it could a wasteland. It's a post-nuclear environment crawling with monsters and home to an arsenal of potential adventures, but the game's story wouldn't be nearly as compelling without its accompanying soundscape.
In addition to the delightfully sinister soundtrack of the in-game radio—check out "Atom Bomb Baby" for a flavor—Fallout 4 features a score that shifts with the player's actions, transforming the act of virtual exploration into an all-encompassing experience.
To find out how this music came to be, I spoke to the game's composer, the California-based Inon Zur, who's previously worked on titles including Crysis and Dragon's Dogma, as well as prior Fallout games. We discuss his source of inspiration, "alternate reality" instrumental techniques, and the challenge of writing cinematic music only indirectly linked with on-screen action.
VICE: How do you begin the process of creating the score for a game like Fallout 4?
Inon Zur: I started by looking for the thematic material that would be the basis of the soundscape. My job is to build an organic, acoustic world. The Fallout story is reminiscent of the past, but it's also a world that has evolved and developed in ways that are really hard to imagine. So, the music needs to help sort of by describing what's going on there. At the same time, it has to be organic. It has to grow from the background noises and enhance them as well.
There's something both familiar and totally alien about both the world and the score. How did you figure out how to make that connection?
It all came from the fact that we needed to play instruments in a way that wasn't necessarily traditional; and then we needed to take some weird day-to-day tools, like a garden chair or oil jack from my backyard, and play them like they were real instruments. For example, I took a guitar and bowed it in a weird way. I took a grand piano and, instead of just playing it, I hit it with open hand on the strings on different parts of the piano. I basically pinched the strings and did things to them, so that you would know these sounds were coming from a piano, but not really from where, exactly.
Do you think disrupting the traditional way to play instruments creates something entirely new?
Yes, there is piano there—but nobody told us that we need to play it this way. We could play it in a different way, because we're in an alternate reality [in the game]. This is the whole thing about Fallout. Everything is an alternate reality, so you need to treat everything in an alternate way.
There are certainly similarities to Fallout 3 in terms of how the game feels and sounds. How tied in are you with branding, and connecting the two stories?
The situation is not the same, but there are a lot of connecting lines between Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. Basically, where we're coming from and where we're going are very different things in each game, but the reality is that we're still struggling though the huge aftermath of a global holocaust. That's the connection, so even though it's a different hero, he or she is struggling with familiar problems in different ways. The music has to make some kind of connection, not only because of the brand, but also because of the situation in the game and the way it is evolving. Fallout 3's score was colder, more mechanical, and it enhanced more of the raw sort of elements. Fallout 4 is cultivating more of a human aspect. It's got much warmer sounds, more humane sounds, more intimate sounds. So, in some ways, it is a totally different approach.
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I know you didn't work on selecting the game's licensed songs, but were you familiar with the tracks on the in-game radio stations when you started composing?
I actually didn't know them well, but I knew the sound of them. These songs from the 1950s have their own very particular sound. It almost doesn't matter what song it is, there's a sense of the technique they used to record them. So, I could definitely imagine these songs while composing the score. They were in the back of my mind, but not prominently. What I will say is that it's important for everything to feel part of the world. The score and the soundtrack need to work to help you grow into the story. Nothing can feel pasted there.
You've worked on film scores in the past, so how do you approach working on a game's score, in comparison to one for a movie? How have you seen games become more cinematic over the course of your career?
Many people differentiate between music for film and music for games, but in the last ten years they have really not been that different. Games can be very cinematic these days, and they are attracting and demanding a cinematic feel from the score, as well. They are basically cinematic adventures; gaming can be an interactive cinematic medium. So, the score has to follow that, and I think the score for Fallout 4 might as well be playing behind a movie. The only difference is that I'm not locked to a picture—I can just write music and be inspired by where you are and not really respond to everything that happens or will happen.
Related, on Motherboard: Just How Realistic is the Post-Apocalyptic World of 'Fallout 4', Anyway?
Game scores are distinct from film, though, in that they can't be directly linked to action. Do you experience that element of composing as challenging or liberating?
Both. What you're asking is the question that we're asking ourselves every project: how would it be possible to respond to every little move that the player is making? After many years of struggling with this question, I think the most effective way to treat this is basically to attack the feel of the scene rather than the actual specifics of what's happening. If you're able to capture the emotional aspect of the scene, then it doesn't really matter what the player is doing. The music is describing more of what you feel. Let's say that you're scared right now. You could fight, you could explore, you could run, you could do something like that; but inside your brain, your state of mind is almost the same: "I'm afraid right now." If the music is able to capture this emotion, then it is almost as good as responding to every action, and it may be even deeper.
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