Interview: Fallout 4 composer Inon Zur discusses the music of the Boston Wasteland

Fallout 4 was one of the standout games from 2015, with just as much hype surrounding it as there were things to do inside the world Bethesda created. It’s a massive, sprawling, and diverse game with hundreds of quests and a seemingly infinite span of possibilities. With a game that offers so many ways for players to develop their characters and so many areas to explore, setting the tone with not only the right visual aesthetic, but also the right score and sound design, is more important than ever.

Developing a compelling and immersive score is something that you might say Inon Zur excels at. His works includes past Fallout games, Dragon Age, Prince of Persia, and more. We talked to how he creates a score for a game like Fallout, and the importance that it brings to the overall experience.

GameCrate: For a game like Fallout 4, where does your creative process begin when creating the score?

Inon Zur: The creative process starts from an understanding of the story and the emotions evoked when you merge it with the scenery and the way the game looks; a picture starts to form for how to look at the music. This is the first part. The second part is deciding on the specific colors we want to apply to this picture and what will work best because even when you know the story and you know the setting you need to decide which way to approach it from. This is more of a creative process between myself, Mark Lampert, the game’s audio director, and Todd Howard; we work closely on the whole creative collaboration. Then I bring my ideas to the table by sending some musical ideas and sketches.

This is how the creative process moves forward. Once we have established the general palette then we can start to focus on each location and every part of the story.

GC: When you work on a new project, do you typically approach it with a blank slate, or do you draw on inspiration?

IZ: Ideally this is the case because you want to approach every project as something fresh and new. This is the best way to approach it and allows the best chances of originality. However, this is not always possible because many of the projects I’m working on, for instance, have some kind of connection or reference to a previous game in the series. So what I try to do is find the starting point, even if it may remind you of a similar motif. But let’s only approach it as a starting point and then we evolve the music from there and build upon this to make it different.

For every project, you basically have a lot of building blocks (based on your previous experiences), and you need to make something new from these, and if you feel you’re missing something then you create new ones!

GC: How did you approach Fallout 4 from a composition perspective?

IZ: Fallout 4 has two main aspects when it comes to composition. The first is thematic –highlighting the main theme, referencing the theme throughout, the actual melody, the harmony and the style. This is one element I always keep in consideration to tie in with the player’s experience as they progress through the game.  But from another point of view we don’t think thematic at all.  In fact, many of the compositions for Fallout 4 are quite impressionistic in some ways, especially the exploration cues.

At first you may only consider them as a collection of individual pieces but when you connect them together in context you can appreciate the whole picture, so if you’re looking at them from afar and you listen to the score a few times you will understand what I am trying to say musically. But if you only listen to it once then you just hear a bunch of ideas that are streaming one after the other. It is almost like intuitive composition when one idea leads to the other, and each idea is not structured with a planned beginning, middle and end or introduction, development and recapitulation; it’s a more free form composition style and impressionistic approach.

GC: How were you able to draw inspiration from Fallout 3, making sure to stay true to that game's lineage, while also making Fallout 4 sound unique in and of itself?

IZ: Each game has its own story, so you have to take that into consideration. The stories for both games are different. Also the scenery and locations are different. So you need to decide on the palette you’re going to use. For Fallout 3 the score was more synthetic, cold and dark but with Fallout 4 we are always keeping a more intimate sound, it’s a warmer sound, almost optimistic, conveying the idea of rebuilding the wasteland and coming back home. So the approach is very different for each game. We can employ elements of the same theme and the ideas could be close but the way we approach it and the execution is very different.

GC: How much of an influence did the licensed "olden-tunes" in the game impact the music that you created?

IZ: None directly except we always to try find elements in the score that will connect us to the ‘50s era, so the score is not going to be alien to the songs. For example, for one of the factions in the game we composed an old spy style score. Or there is a low tech faction in the game so we created an old, primitive synth sound that reminds of the radio sound of the time. The score is not alien to the era but we approach it from a certain compositional point of view. This is also why the score co-exists so successfully with the song selections.

GC: Fallout is a unique game franchise in that it's not based heavily on fictional properties. While the events are future-fiction, it's very grounded in plausible reality as far sci-fi goes with regards to its setting and tone. How does that differ from other projects you've worked on, such as Prince of Persia or Dragon Age?

IZ: It’s a good question because with other games like Dragon Age and Prince of Persia you’re coming from the premise that this is a fantasy game/world so the whole approach is set in a fantasy style. You don’t try to connect to any reality, in fact you’re telling a fairytale with your music. The use of musical language will be more drawn towards to fantasy writing which is very different; it’s very thematic, it’s story-driven, almost classical.

But Fallout 4 is a more ‘realistic’ game, although it’s portraying a surrealistic situation or alternate reality. Still, you really want the player to be connected to what’s going on, their personal experience needs to feel like they’re really living and breathing in this environment. That’s why the music is more based on organic sounds and not so much high fantasy.

GC: Since Fallout 4 takes place in an alternate future, how does that inform your process? Do you try to create special and unique sounds that aren't common to fit with this unknown world players will go through?

IZ: There are two ways in which I approached creating the musical sounds for Fallout 4. One was taking a known instrument but using it in a non-traditional way, for example, bowing the guitar, overblowing into ocarinas, hitting and plucking piano strings, this is using traditional instruments in a non-traditional way. The second was taking a non-traditional instrument, like an oil drum or garden chair, everyday objects, and treating them as traditional instruments or percussion. By combining these two elements together we created this alternative reality sound. It has proven to be a really successful approach for Fallout.

GC: How do you think musical compositions influence a player's experience with a piece of interactive art such as a video game like Fallout 4?

IZ: Our aspiration is to support the player with the emotional dimension.  In order for the player to feel the game, the music needs to create a sonic world that elevates their experience through immersion. The emotional system is solely dependent on the music and the story combined together.

GC: What is it about video game scores that you like as opposed to other media, such as films?

IZ: At this stage in my career I feel that I am being given a lot of creative freedom and studios are coming to me because they know I have created successful scores for many other games, so they trust me. This is one factor. The other reason is the fact that you don’t need to be locked to the picture also gives you a lot of freedom to create a whole musical composition and develop a musical idea in the most pronounced way without constraints. For many composers, this freedom is not easy on one hand but is also a blessing because it allows you to compose in the most traditional way, creating a real tune with a complete musical structure.