Fallout 76’s Music Was Always Great

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Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass 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.

Kotaku staff writer. You can reach him at ethan.gach@kotaku.com

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DISCUSSION

There is such a sturm und drang in Fallout 4 (I haven’t played and have no interest in playing 76, so I’m deliberately referencing its closest, obvious parallel) between Zur’s fantastic score and the retro vibe of the licensed music on Diamond City Radio (which becomes infinity times less annoying after doing the “Confidence Man” quest for Travis...)

Most of the time, I tend to favor turning the Pip-Boy radio off and enjoying the atmospheric music, but Sheldon Allman’s voice never gets old; he’s like the musical love child of Thurl Ravenscroft and Weird Al Yankovic.

And speaking of music from Fallout, I’ll run this piece, my favorite musical track from my favorite game of all-time (not just favorite Fallout game, favorite game full stop.) But stay tuned after the jump for a funny off-topic gaming story:

OK, now for the promised funny story:

I created a male Sim in The Sims 4 whose sole purpose in life was to impregnate as many decently-genetics’d female sims as possible to inject some life (snicker) into the gene pool. Of course, since I love mayhem as much as I love simulated eugenics, I had particularly in mind to target women whose husbands may object to the “divine children the SimuLord has blessed us with! You should be happy!” element.

Anyway, Simo Koivonen (canonically Finnish, his first name both a pun on the word “Sim” and a shout-out to Simo Hayha, the most famous Finn who ever lived, with the added twist of his bearing an uncanny resemblance to YouTube military ration maniac Steve1989—this was completely unintentional, since I didn’t modify the face the game gave him) was happily about his business; three sim bastards born to him and (in chronological order) Eliza Pancakes, Nancy Landgraab, and a random sim who just happened to show up at his door one day wanting to meet someone new and getting a lot more than she expected out of it, with at least two more confirmed pregnant random NPCs who got the “cute sim gene” in their programming, and plans to go find Bella Goth and possibly even age up Cassandra Goth for a real “family ouroborous” vibe to the family tree if the game allowed it.

And, for the piece de resistance, the plan was, as soon as all the dirty deeds were done dirt cheap (sorry not sorry that’s stuck in your head now), to drown him in the nearest swimming pool just to keep him out of the way as I eventually play as and properly raise those Sim bastards in their respective in-game homes.

The game, however, decided that there were going to be limits to my godhood this day.

Simo took a shower and the poor-quality household appliance glitched out. Hilariously appropriate to a guy who was always Flirty during his life, he froze to death in a malfunctioning shower on a hot day. I watched the game glitch out and decided “Screw it, I’ll allow it, this is both karmically appropriate and friggin’ hilarious.

I love The Sims sometimes. RIP Simo Koivonen, your legacy will be long remembered. Seriously, it’s gonna take me weeks to properly skill up all those kids through their childhoods.