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PC Gamer recently had a chat with Inon Zur, a prolific video game composer whose credits include Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal, Icewind Dale II, Dragon Age: Origins, and multiple Fallout games. The resulting interview covers Zur's approach to creating video game music, his work on Fallout games, and the general evolution of video game music throughout the years. An excerpt:
PC Gamer: You've worked in television and film, but the majority of your work has been with videogames. What was it that first attracted you to games?
Inon Zur: Videogame score is very unique and a different process than movies and TV. Since the music cannot be locked to a picture (cinematics and cut-scenes being the exceptions), it has to carry a strong signature that can represent what’s going on in the game without hitting specific points. This is challenging, but the creative process is more open and the freedom to write a piece of music that has no boundaries or limitations is very rewarding.
I also feel that many of the producers and audio directors in the game industry value the music very much and are willing to invest in a high level of production, like recording live orchestras and so on. This is what I’ve found in the scoring for games world and this is why I like to work in this medium so much.
You've now composed Fallout 4, Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 3. Firstly: Do you have a favourite? And secondly: Is there anything specific you must consider when composing Fallout music—are there any special techniques you've relied upon in all three games?
There is a definite creative approach that connects all these games when it comes to music. What we call ‘organic sound design’ is the main tool when it comes to the Fallout world of music. Rather than playing a traditional instrument to create traditional music, the way these instruments are used to being heard, I use them in a non-traditional way. Or I can use a non-musical instrument (practically any object or tool) and produce music from it.
This is what is so unique in the Fallout scores. The fact that you can hear music but not be really sure how it is actually produced. It is a nice enhancer for the mysterious and unknown world of Fallout.
By the way, I also scored Fallout Tactics, which was way earlier.
Your career in videogame music spawns a number of very different games. How does your approach differ when writing a Fallout score compared to, say, Dragon Age: Origins, or Prince of Persia?
It all starts and ends wtth the story and setting. I will approach games like Dragon Age as a dark fantasy world. It has a very distinct, artistic setting—in this case, dark fantasy. I will approach it from this perspective and will try to bring to life this world from an emotional point of view within the boundaries of this style.
The story of course has a lot of influence on the composition, but the style of the game and the world it resides in will be the biggest factor when it comes to the initial musical approach.
Speaking generally, how has the videogame music scene changed over time?
There are many factors that contributed to the evolution in videogame music. The first is the technical aspect—today we can fit a huge amount of memory into a game, so there is basically no limitation when it comes to space. Therefore, the quality of the music can be maximized; music can be broken into stems, the interactivity of the score can be enhanced dramatically since there are no memory space constraints and since the audio engines are more sophisticated today, the music can respond in real-time.
The second factor is the introduction of software like WWise, and other similar applications. These are working wonders when it comes to how the music is being implemented in the game. They expanded the audio director’s possibilities and made it easier and more creative than ever.
The third factor is the overwhelming success of the videogame industry—this brought more resources to the productions and therefore the composer has more budget than ever to create a high-quality score, with live recordings, quality mixes, for example.
Certainly music was always heavily valued by game developers and gamers at large, but today I believe it’s more than ever.