For a number of reasons music is hard to get right in video games. Firstly, there is the balance between the game’s original score and the collection of licensed music to get right. The original score helps to set the atmosphere and set the tone, with a number of set pieces which help you to understand what is going on in the game, be it signalling night time, the middle of a battle, or simply sneaking around. The licensed music is there to draw you into the game and make you want to play it.
The licensed music of a game will typically reflect the nature of the game which you’re playing, so in Fifa, you might get “Gold on the Ceiling” by the Black Keys, whilst in a game like Civilisation you have big orchestral pieces such as Grieg’s “Morning Mood”.
In the Fallout franchise the licensed music has always played an important role, because it’s one of the easiest ways for the developers to help the player bridge the lore gap. It’s all in the live action trailer that Bethesda made just before the game’s release with an opening shot of a robotic butler clipping the hedge; when “The Wanderer” by Dion blasts out from the speakers you can’t help but become immersed.
That is exactly what the music in Fallout 4 manages to build so well; immersion. In many ways the lore as to why artists such as the Ink Spots, Bing Crosby and Eliza Fitzgerald were all the rage back in 2077 is irrelevant – once you’re strolling along with your companion and a fantastically catchy track comes on, and you can’t help but sing along and start shooting.
However, there is so much story telling within the music, and a lot of the songs are put there deliberately because they help tell some indirect story, either about the Pre-War world, or about the player’s character. ‘Uranium Rock’ by Warren Smith for example, whilst being a simply hilarious song also tells a deeper story about how the pre-war United States was obsessed with nuclear power. Whilst the title track “It’s all Over but the Crying” by the Ink Spots, could very easily be a cheeky hint at the player’s storyline.
The music is entertaining and helps to reinforce to the player that they’re playing a Fallout game (they’re running about with a plasma rifle whilst humming along to “Butcher Peter”, after all), but it also provides us a story element which tells us that no everything was quite right in the world before the bombs fell. It’s a world of the American dream on steroids, a world which had become so removed from reality that the music has come to represent something of a vision of what could be, mixed with a deep melancholy, carried by the Ink Spots tracks, which brings across regret that this dream couldn’t be realised.