Interview: Fallout composer Inon Zur on creating ‘other-world music’

We chatted to Inon Zur — composer for Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and many more — about his new solo work, how video game composition has changed over 20+ years, and what the far future of game music might look like.

By Thomas Quillfeldt

As the video games medium approaches ~50 years of age (taking 1971’s Computer Space as the start), game music has become a mature artform in its own right, with a well-established top tier of composers having emerged.

This top tier includes legends who came up during the chiptune era — for instance Koji Kondo and Rob Hubbard — and the composers who found success as each wave of technology made more things possible. If you Google “video game composer” you’ll see an auto-generated list of such artists (including, bizarrely, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), and right there amidst the first 30 or so names is 21-year industry veteran Inon Zur.

The composer behind the latter Fallout games and BioWare’s first two Dragon Age titles, Inon Zur has tackled just about every type of video game project. With a background in film and TV composition, he came to video games in the late ‘90s and has since worked on everything from Infinity Engine classics to the upcoming mobile title The Elder Scrolls: Blades. He’s scored AAA open-worlds, intimate indie projects, and VR experiences; and worked across the RPG, MMO, MOBA, FPS, RTS, sim, rhythm, and fighting game genres.

We got a chance to catch up with the LA-based Israeli musician and ask him about his approach to songwriting, how Fallout’s music has changed over the years, and how machine learning might help personalise game music in the future.

Flying solo into the storm

In mid-2018, Zur signed as a recording artist with Sony Music Masterworks — the record label home of Hans Zimmer, Yo-Yo Ma, and Tina Guo — and is set to release his solo album Into The Storm (also the name of his first single) in early June 2019.

This latest sort-of-but-not-actually-video game music project sees Zur enter the world of ‘Classical Crossover’, although he maintains that that genre label (which iTunes has him listed under) is truthful to the musical journey he’s been on. Far from being a departure from his soaring game scores, fans ought to feel right at home with this solo record, which is faithful to his signature sound and features familiar collaborators.

Into The Storm has been four years in the making, and was born out of Zur’s songwriting efforts for the Dragon Age series: “When I worked on Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II, I wrote several songs to be integrated into the games. This wasn’t typical at the time — especially for RPGs — but fans liked them a lot. I started getting a lot of requests for more songs in the same vein, which led me to start work on the album.”

Initially, Zur’s working title/thesis was “Songs From The Tavern” — to be a collection of lute- or guitar-led, Celtic-inspired songs that might be heard in an inn in a fantasy world. As he continued working on the idea, the musical scope of the project started to broaden. Separately, but along the same lines, 2014’s Dragon Age: Inquisition saw a soundtrack release of tavern tunes called The Bard Songs, which opens with a guitar-led cover of Zur’s “I Am The One” from Dragon Age: Origins.

World music < other-world music

Zur has long explored different musical palettes — including Celtic styles and instruments — that could loosely be grouped together under the label ‘ethnic-sounding’. Whether it’s unrelenting percussion in Crysis, dancing woodwind in Syberia 3, or gliding vocals in Eagle Flight, he’s constantly introducing instruments and sounds that distinguish an Inon Zur score from more typical Hollywood-ish orchestral fare.

“It was always important for me to establish a signature sound for each score, especially for story-heavy games that take place in an imaginary world, or are not set in our time. If you wanted to you could use the word ‘ethnic’ to describe the signature sounds I was usually working towards on different projects. I wanted to communicate to gamers: ‘This is the world you’re in and this is what the music of this world sounds like.’”

“When the concept art for a project comes in, I start to imagine: ‘maybe this world’s inhabitants could play these kind of flutes or these percussion instruments.’ When writing, I try to avoid using instruments merely because they’re Chinese, or Bulgarian, or whatever. I want the listener to think that this is ‘world music’, but not pinpoint that it’s of our world — they should feel that it’s ‘out of this world’ or ‘other-world music’.

“I don’t want the music to sound alien, but like it comes from a different country. I’m using different modes and existing instruments in a way that will create a unique signature — I prefer to think of them as ‘storytelling instruments’ rather than ‘ethnic instruments.’”

Do you speak Zurish?

Zur clearly feels that within the realms of music making and video game development he’s as much of a storyteller as anything — or anyone — else. Also, when it came to his solo material, there was no risk of him feeling unmoored in the absence of a fleshed-out fantasy world such as Dragon Age’s Thedas because he was continuing in the exact same vein as a musician.

Zur’s second single, “Shelaya", features Aubrey Ashburn, Zur’s collaborator on many Dragon Age songs:

“When I’m writing a song it’s always telling a story — whether it has lyrics or not. The most important thing is to create a melody that listeners are able to hone in on. With Into The Storm, I wanted to share the story of each song with listeners, and if they feel that they’re being drawn to it then I’ll have succeeded.”

As with his Dragon Age songs, Zur created lyrics in his own made-up language for the album: “We call it Zurish and it has its own syllables and sounds. But, it’s very important that even if we don’t know what the words mean per se there has to be a background story. When I’m writing these [Zurish] lyrics, I brief the singer about the story so they can deliver it in the right way.”

At the musical crossroads...

At Laced With Wax, we’ve been thinking a lot about crossover between game music and classical — something we explored in-depth with interviewees including Jessica Curry, Austin Wintory, and members of the Videri Quartet in Video game music is a wonderful gateway to classical.”

Perhaps game music’s greatest recognition by the wider music industry was Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV winning a GRAMMY; whereas recent years have seen the inclusion of VGM in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame, and the subsequent commissioning of show High Score.

Whether one finds the label ‘Classical Crossover’ meaningful or not, Zur’s solo tracks (and many of his scores for that matter) undoubtedly straddle the two worlds. His personal love of classical music; previous projects such as Fantasia: Music Evolved for which he researched Prokoviev, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky; and his mastery of various orchestral and choral palettes make that feel like a safe conclusion to draw.

In his mind, the label doesn’t particularly apply to Into The Storm: “I don’t feel like it’s a crossover — it’s just a continuation of my career. For me, there’s almost no difference writing music for games or writing solo music. I want to tell a musical story and share it with listeners. That’s it.”

He sees the album as a tribute to the games he’s worked on and the loyal fanbase he’s accrued along the way. “It’s the time to dedicate music to them that has nothing to do with any one game, but is in a style they like — and I like writing it too!”

The inevitable question: Games vs film

(Left) Hack’n’slash game The Lord of the Rings: War in the North; (right) The Fellowship of the Ring.

If you’ve ever heard an interview between someone from outside the games industry and a video games composer, it’s almost a guarantee that the question “how is composing for video games different from composing for film” will come up. Since we’re all worshippers in the church of video games here, we asked Zur whether his answer to this perennial question has changed over the course of his two decades in the business.  

“My understanding of this issue has deepened. My answer every time used to be: ‘at the core, there is no difference [between video games and film composition].’ That core task is the creation of a fourth dimension, an emotional dimension in any media — movies, TV, etc. [It’s simply about] making music.”

Zur scored the 2014 film Reclaim:

“The question that reveals the big difference is ‘how do we put music to work?’ As we know, in film and TV you have to be locked-in to picture. The music is in response to everything. That’s basically only true in games with cutscenes.

“The rest of the time, the big challenge in games is how to make the player feel that the music is reacting to them, without locking in to every minor event. The secret is to hone in on the atmosphere and the emotions that the player might have at a given moment. If [a game composer/music team] is able to nail this feeling and drive the player forward then it doesn’t really matter if their sword hits something at a specific moment, or they fell down a hole, or won a battle.

“The most important thing is to be with the player if they’re feeling victorious or frightened.” Of course, he adds, this emotional triangulation also needs to take into account the plot and the player’s location within the game world. “If you were able to do this as a composer, then you’ve been successful.”

Twelve-trick pony

As mentioned above, Zur has tackled just about every different kind of video game project: smaller budget games and huge blockbusters; new IP, long-running series, and movie tie-ins; and VR, multiplayer and mobile games. “This is a very exciting time. There are a lot of types of games, and a lot of the challenges I face daily are because the video games industry grew tremendously. I’ve had meetings with indie developers working on innovative ideas you’ve probably never even thought about! And I want to [continue to] adapt to that.”

Zur composed the score for VR game Eagle Flight:

“It’s such an exciting time for a game composer trying to take on an industry that is ever-changing; and the pace of change is so fast that you need to be on the edge of your seat all the time just to keep up with what’s happening. I’ve been very fortunate to be approached by many game developers with different games, and that has helped me broaden my style whilst establishing my own signature. I’ve also learned how to adjust myself to different kinds of games and broaden my language, my musical vocabulary.”

At the time of writing, the promise of Google Stadia has outlined, although the details are as hazy as an early 3D game’s draw distance. One wonders how game composers will approach something like a 1,000-player battle royale title (as suggested by Google).

Zur responds: “Multiplayer games always pose a lot of challenges in terms of music, especially when it comes to large numbers of concurrent players all talking to one another. Everything has to be about teamwork and music can sometimes get in the way. In battle royale games, music has to be administered in a very different way to other games: accentuate a few emotions and step back; and let people do what they’re doing. There’s a huge difference between a Fortnite or Apex Legends and a single-player open-world game like Fallout 4, where music can thrive.”

Zur was a co-composer on the soundtrack to the South Korean MMO TERA:

Developing a love for development

Game composers can be hired onto projects at almost any stage right up to the last few months of an in-development game. The earlier in the development journey they start their work, and the more access to lead developers and design materials they get, the more integrated and thoughtful a game’s score will likely turn out (in theory). There are surely exceptions to that — fantastic scores knocked out in a few weeks, right at the death — but it logically follows that the longer a composer gets to experiment, and the more of the development they’re exposed to, the better the final product will be.

Zur is always hungry for concept art, story and characters details, and anything else available: “If it’s a new IP, I need as much information as I can get. Sometimes this info isn’t even available because the game is in its very early stages, which poses a challenge and a huge opportunity — the opportunity to be amongst the creative people building the foundations of the game. I love that process. If all they have is the general idea and story outline without much detail, it’s an amazing chance for me to start afresh and not be influenced by what’s already in the game.”

A concept painting of the location Concord in Fallout 4.

As for who he actually interfaces with at the development studio — sometimes a team that numbers in the thousands — Zur explains: “In every games company there is a lead producer or director of the game in question; they will be the boss of the audio director and the one that ultimately dictates the style of the music and how music will fit into the game.

“In the beginning, the first music produced is usually a main theme. This is where I’ll primarily be working closely with this [lead producer/director] — who is sort of the parent of the project — to develop a signature sound. Later on, when we have that established and everything is clearer, I’m often able to just work with the audio director.”

Actually getting to play a game that’s early in development is rare. Even if a composer gets to see an early ‘build’ (i.e. unfinished version of the game), it might be in such an embryonic state that it isn’t much help for the people tasked with nailing down a game’s aesthetics (artists, musicians, etc.) For Zur, it seems to be an added bonus when it happens: “It’s rare that I get to play an early build. I like to go to the studios and play the game there, as usually they’re extremely careful not to send anything outside of the team. From time to time I might get videos of work-in-progress gameplay to inspire me and/or artwork.”

With modern games featuring highly detailed settings, developers will often gather real-world reference materials, take thousands of photos, and record hours of video — resources that might also be shared with composers.

Concept art for Dragon Age II.

The sound of the wasteland

Full of intelligent writing, black humour and morally grey player choices, Interplay’s Fallout (1997) is a beloved isometric RPG set in a post-apocalyptic America. Musically-speaking, many now associate the series with Zur thanks to his iconic theme for the first numbered title he worked on, Bethesda Game Studios’ 2008 hit Fallout 3. But, he actually joined the series seven years prior, scoring 2001’s Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel; and most recently scored the 2018 online multiplayer title Fallout 76.

It was never difficult for Zur to feel inspired to write for a Fallout game thanks to the strength of the core premise: that civilisation has fallen apart due to nuclear war, and the struggle to rebuild amidst the wreckage serves as rich soil for interesting stories about survivors, mutants, thieves, child gangs, and talking trees.

Aside from Zur’s forbidding, militaristic and not a little Batman-y main theme, the other thing fans tend to associate with Fallout is jaunty early 20th Century popular songs such as The Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire”.

That juxtaposition, that musical split personality is something that he is cognizant of, but consciously stays apart from. “I have nothing to do with the licensed music on purpose — choosing it, or even hearing the choices in advance. It’s kept away from me because [the developers at] Bethesda want me to create a soundtrack that will be standalone and not influenced in the slightest. It should be a totally different world.

“That said, I will use some instruments here and there that would be reminiscent of that [era of music], so the crossover between the two soundtracks won’t be quite so jarring.”

We asked Zur whether he was tempted, with his score for Fallout: New Vegas (released two years after Fallout 3), to lean into the ‘50s/‘60s Rat Pack sound one associates with Las Vegas — which would inevitably feature heavily in the licensed soundtrack. He responds: “Not really, because [aesthetically] I thought about Vegas as it relates to the desolate desert and less so as a thriving city. I was also inspired by the story of New Vegas [written by, among others, veterans of Interplay/Black Isle RPGs Josh Sawyer and Chris Avellone] and not so much by the typical stylings of casinos.”

Music for (deserted) airports

Navigating vast open-world games necessitates lots and lots of music that nestles in the background, often created to blend with, or as a substitute for, environmental sound effects. Of course, ‘ambient’ is a musical subgenre in its own right (hence the Brian Eno reference), but it also feels right to apply it to the hours and hours of quiet, atmospheric music that Zur and other composers have to create for huge games like a Fallout.

One might assume that composing so much ambient music for each wasteland setting might get tedious over the years, but Zur rejects this: “It’s everything but boring. It’s fun, it’s invigorating, and it’s challenging to come up with new ideas and themes every time. I don’t like to repeat myself, even if something is different by just a few degrees.”

Keeping things fresh over the course of a series set in atmospheric, lonely locales is a continual challenge. Zur points out: “The series has transformed a lot from Fallout to Fallout 76. In the beginning it was much more about ambient, atmospheric sound design-ish stuff — nothing particularly memorable. That continued with my work on Fallout Tactics.”

Fallout 3 was the first time in the series that there was a theme. Tracks from that point forward were built a bit more like songs structurally-, melodically-, harmonically-, and rhythmically-speaking. We kept on developing that throughout New Vegas and Fallout 4, and it matured during Fallout 76, where the cues are more or less songs in that way.

Fallout 76 is more about camaraderie, hope, building and rebuilding — that’s why we created this [more upbeat] musical identity.”

A long time in the game

Zur has been composing for video games for over two decades. Whilst it may seem that a lot has changed in the video games world over that time — technologically, design-wise, the diversity of experiences — for game composers “it’s pretty much the same.

“However, technological advancements made in the last few years have posed a lot of new challenges — and created new opportunities. Composers can basically do whatever we want: we can enhance music in every way possible because the [physical format memory/sound chip limitations] are gone. So, when you have so much room for music and so many ways of implementing it, it’s exciting, but raises a lot of questions in terms of narrowing things down. Also, since there are so many new styles of games, you need to develop a whole new set of skills to deal with all of that.”

It was always a relatively lonely vocation, no more so in 2019 than in 1999: “Composers were always sitting in their dungeons writing music. This is our world! I spending 10 hours every day on my own; I’m used to it and actually feel very comfortable this way.”

Inon Zur sitting comfortably in his composer dungeon. (Photo credit: Fitz Carlile)

The pressures of deadlines haven’t altered much either: “I don’t feel like I’m time-pressured more now than in the past. On the one hand, I’m pretty fast when I’m composing; on the other, developers understand that composers need some time to develop something that will be mature and finessed.

“What has changed over 21 years is that everything got deeper, everything got more complicated, and the opportunities today are just immense — it’s a very exciting time for video game composers.”

What’s on the far horizon?

A spot of future gazing never hurt anyone. Probably. Regarding what excites Zur about the potential for game music technology over the next 20 years, he says: “One of the challenges for every game is to personalise the game to each player, and have the game adapt to the style of play. In future, games will understand the player the way the players needs to understand the game.

“It will make the experience of gaming different and exciting if we could make every gamer feel that a game was created only for them. Usually, the music programmed to play in a game is universal to all players. But what if there was a huge library of music sitting outside of the game, and, through machine learning, tracks could be pulled in based on how the player responds. We could build a custom music engine that takes into account not only the player’s musical taste but how they’re playing. Are they adventurous? Are they aggressive? Do they like to go slow?

“The variations in the music wouldn’t be as great as changing between, for instance, metal and classical. A game score has to have a certain consistency as part of the overall experience — Star Wars is Star Wars because of John Williams’ score. But we can have lots of variations within a certain style. The player wouldn’t know what was going on, but would feel highly connected to the game in an imperceptible way.

“We’re far away from this being achieved but, to me, the future is machine learning; also there will be a mutual feedback loop between the player and the game. We’re not even close to this, but I believe that once we’re able to achieve it, it will be as exciting as it is dangerous.”

Inon Zur is an internationally recognised composer for media – | YouTube | Twitter @InonZur | Instagram @InonZurOfficial | | Spotify artist page | iTunes/Apple Music

His debut solo album Into The Storm will be available on June 7th 2019 from Sony Music Masterworks.

His singles “Into The Storm” featuring Tina Guo and Caroline Campbell and “Shelaya” featuring Aubrey Ashburn are out now: