Fallout 76’s Music Was Always Great

Fallout 76’s Music Was Always Great

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today we’re going to talk about Fallout 76’s pastoral ode to nuclear death and irradiated rebirth. No other soundtrack in recent memory has breathed so much life into an otherwise empty and broken game.

I’m speaking, of course, about Fallout 76 (playlist / longplay / VGMdb) as it was when released back in November 2018. It’s undergone many changes in the two years since — for the better — with a dedicated community of players who have undergone untold struggles to build a life for themselves in its unwelcoming world. Back before the current seasonal updates, Wastelanders expansion, and Nuclear Winter add-on, Fallout 76 was just a deserted open world caught between a messy single-player story and half-cooked MMO mechanics. Even then, though, it always had Inon Zur’s moving soundscapes to imbue every West Virginia tree, hill, and abandoned country road with a tragic elegance.

Take a listen:

Bethesda / Inon Zur (YouTube)

Fallout 76 takes place shortly after the bombs fall, and for all its bravado about going forth and reclaiming the land to lay the foundation for humanity’s next golden age, the game’s nearly three-hour soundtrack spends most of its time reflecting on the unfinished business left behind by the dead. “You Must Rebuild” starts out meandering and uncertain before a sea of strings swells up (2:19) like a requiem to those sleeping in the graveyards you’re about to desecrate. It’s immediately followed by a track called “Invisible Ghosts” in which Zur breaks out a twangy electric guitar that sounds like it was birthed straight out of some toxic sludge-filled shadow realm:

Bethesda / Inon Zur (YouTube)

Bill Frisell vibes anyone? One of the things I love most about Fallout 76’s music is how tracks build on and out from one another, echoing, doubling back, and contorting into something slightly different each time despite all of the leitmotifs. Almost any track can work almost anywhere in the world at almost any time. At the same time, Zur plays off the ecological depth and diversity of the Appalachian landscape to create a slightly different mood for each. The woodwinds in “The Wind and the Reeds” still give me chills:

Bethesda / Inon Zur (YouTube)

Fallout 76 notably didn’t have any non-player characters when it originally launched, outside of a few pre-programmed robots. Zur’s music always helped fill some of that void with the interplay of nostalgia for a dead past and hope for a future yet to be born, akin to being pen pals with yesterday. With no NPCs, Fallout 76 characters tell their stories through handwritten notes and audio logs. If these are just the narrative bones, though, Zur’s music is what gives them flesh. Here’s “Ash Heap Lullaby”:

Bethesda / Inon Zur (YouTube)

Without spoiling anything, it weaves together the innocent intimacy of a high-school romance with the ominous agenda of a military-industrial complex whose tendrils have infiltrated every part of daily life. One of Fallout 76’s most beautiful, compelling, and lasting tensions is between its loving monuments to small-town country life and the capital-driven expansionism that undergirded it. One moment you can be traipsing through an old Victorian house with a pumpkin patch out back, the next you’re climbing up a giant mining drill used to pillage the earth. Fallout 76’s music nails that uneasy, parasitic alliance. The result is Aaron Copland filtered through an iron lung.

I could listen to this stuff all day. In fact, I probably will. It’s perfect October music, especially for one as sideways as this. How’s everyone else feeling on this chilly autumn morning, and what are you planning on listening to to hasten this weekend’s arrival? I’m sure it’ll just be another completely uneventful Friday.

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