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The Music of The Mojave Wasteland

Obsidian Entertainment audio director Scott Lawlor talks composing the soundtrack of Fallout: New Vegas, and how elements of the previous games' scores merged with a new direction in the series' sound tech and audio aesthetic.

[Obsidian Entertainment audio director Scott Lawlor talks composing the soundtrack of Fallout: New Vegas, and how elements of the previous games' scores merged with a new direction in the series' sound tech and audio aesthetic.]

Atmosphere is the key ingredient in the Fallout: New Vegas soundscape. From the long-decayed, echoing gunshots to the dense, layered ambiences, these are the sounds that pull the player further into the post-apocalyptic world of the Mojave Wasteland.

My goal for Fallout: New Vegas was to make sure the music fit in seamlessly with this soundscape and would help to subconsciously guide the player through their 100+ hour experience. In order to do this, the music had to match the atmosphere of the world to a T.

We wanted to pay homage to the history of the series and draw a line between Mark Morgan's musical style from Fallout 1 and 2 and Inon Zur's musical direction from Fallout 3. To this end, Inon brought everything full circle in Fallout: New Vegas with a masterful score that perfectly fit the environment.

In such a large world with so many hours spent roaming the wasteland, it would be easy for the music to get repetitive. We ultimately decided that a location-based, adaptive and reactive music system would be the best way to alleviate the problem.

The end result is a music system that flows seamlessly from the randomly generated ambient music in the empty wasteland to the layered, location based music in the towns.

The dungeon music transitions smoothly between exploration, tense moments, and when the player is in the midst of combat, while the whole system is reactive to the relationship the player has with the factions in the area.

All of this together achieves a smooth, scored musical experience that reacts to the player’s choices in the game. [EDITOR'S NOTE: You can hear elements of the soundtrack and see Scott, Inon Zur and others discussing audio as a whole as part of this Fallout: New Vegas video diary.]

The process of putting together this system took well over a year and had many phases. I will take you through how we approached everything from Preproduction, to Production, and Finalizing.

Preproduction

The musical direction in each of the previous Fallout installments was quite different. In New Vegas, we wanted to attempt to homogenize all of the varying influences while bringing something new to the table that was specific to this game. We came to the conclusion that Inon Zur was the perfect person to do this. He is a very diverse composer and we felt that he would be able to achieve our goals for this game.

Once we had decided to go with Inon for the project, we started to brainstorm ideas of what type of music would best fit the Southwestern feel we were taking for New Vegas. I sat down with Josh Sawyer, our project director, and we decided on some goals for the project. In our first email to Inon, we set out these goals:

To sum it up in one phrase: Southwest in the Future

Open, Spacious, Raw, Lonesome, Cowboy, Rattlesnake, Desert, Wind, Heat, Rust, Steel, Dirt, Grit

  • To start with, your Megaton piece from Fallout 3 is along the lines of what we are going for
  • We also like the spaciousness of Mark Morgan’s piece, Redding, from Fallout 2
  • The instrumentation should focus on Western/Folk instruments mixed with more Modern, Industrial, Found-Sounds and Gritty Synthesis
  • Experiment with smaller String Ensembles like quartets where you hear a lot of the rosin on the strings

We envision there being three types of music in the game. Licensed tracks, Ambient Music, and Scripted Music.

  • The licensed music will focus on the Rat Pack era in Vegas
  • The scripted music should be the most similar to your work from Fallout 3 but with more of the southwestern influence
  • The ambient music should be very spacious and open -- We may experiment with layering percussion over the ambient pieces for battles

With this, we began the process of iteration that defined the musical style for New Vegas. Early on, we gave Inon a number of directives, pushing him toward a few influences that we wanted to see in the project -- including Jonny Greenwood’s score for the film There Will Be Blood. Also, there were a number of pieces of music from each game in the Fallout series that fit the direction we wanted to take the music for this game.

Once we had defined our goals for the project, it was a breeze. Inon was inspired to create something unique with this project, and he immediately came back with demos of the first pieces that sounded exactly like what we had imagined. We were off to the races.

Now that we had defined the aesthetic direction for the project, it was time to focus on how to best present the musical content to players in context of the game. Again, Inon was instrumental to this process. He is a big believer that the manner in which his music is implemented is crucial to how it is perceived. We had a number of talks early on about how best to go about this.

Fallout has a unique set of challenges when it comes to music implementation. The experience the player has is largely unscripted and is subject to a number of unpredictable choices that they will make. At any point, the player can choose to walk away, or turn the other direction. This means that tightly scripted musical changes are essentially worthless. In this case, the player has the control.

Not only is the format largely unpredictable, it is also an extremely long form. Since the player is likely to spend countless hours in this world, we didn't want the music to be overbearing or annoying. This meant trying to create variations and diversity wherever we could. In order to do this, there needed to be various approaches for each situation.


The five types of music that we defined in the original system spec are:

Scripted Music. This is the most basic type of music. It plays. It overrides any other types of music that may be authored. When it is finished playing, the system will go silent until a new command is given.

Incidental Music. When out in the open wasteland we want the music to be very, very sparse. Incidentals are short pieces of music (five to 15 seconds).

We will want to play a sound that contains a collection of these at a certain time interval. The result will be random chucks of music and tones that quietly wisp away in the background. Almost like silence.

Location Music. When approaching an area in the desert we want to draw the player in. Location Music helps accomplish this. Picture the player walking through the empty desert listening to the wispy incidentals.

As the player starts to see a house on the horizon, the first layer (of three) starts to play. The player hears the tension change. As he nears the house, a second layer comes in, and once he is in the center of town, the whole music track plays.

The same thing happens in reverse as the player leaves the area. This gives a very natural flow to the experience of exploring the wasteland. And to this, we also make sure the music has night and day variations.

Battle Music. While in the wasteland or in small towns, we are generally playing Incidentals or Location Music. In either of these cases the player can get into battles. These tend to be fairly small skirmishes. If the enemy is of significant threat to the player Battle Music will play an intro, a loop, and an outro when the battle is over.

Hostile Music. When a town or location is hostile to the player, we will play Hostile Music. These pieces of music will have three layers; explore, tension and battle. The system will switch between the three based on the threat level to the player.

These various systems should go completely unnoticed. Ideally, players will never realize that any of these systems exist. The systems are created so that the music seems as purposeful and intentional as a composer would score the experience.

Before entering production, there were a few last questions to answer. First, I needed to put together a final cue list for Inon of what pieces of music he was to work on. This meant looking at the game as a whole and trying to determine which areas needed their own custom music.

Inon was very supportive in providing variations of pieces he created, which we were able to implement very effectively. All of the pieces of location music had a night and day version created for them. They were also all mixed into low, medium and high versions. The system we were creating would use all of these variations to help stretch the music's value across the countless hours of gameplay.

We also had to put together a final system specification of the programming work that would need to be done for the adaptive music system. Once the system was designed and the composer had his battle plan, all of the questions we had for the project were answered and it was time to enter production.

Production

At this point, everything had been given the green light and all systems were go. My role switched to reviewing the system as it developed and the music as it was written.

There were a number of hurdles that we had to overcome on the programming side. Designing an adaptive music system is not a simple task. However, the early tests of the system proved out its value. I was extremely happy with how the music felt as the player would enter and leave our first town, Goodsprings. The instruments subtly build onto each other to form a piece out of the ambient wisps of the incidentals of the wasteland. We decided to stress the player's relationship with the town and we implemented an element of reactivity to the system.

Fallout is a game that allows for its players to choose their own role, and their own morality. Some players play the good guy, and others play the bad guy. We decided that the music system should reflect that.

If the player runs through the town of Goodsprings and kills everything in sight, the music will reflect that with a dark, foreboding tone. If the player is helpful to the townsfolk and doesn't cause too much trouble, the there is a much lighter, rural tone to the music. This was accomplished via the Media Location Controller system we had set up for the project, which you can see below.

As you can see, we had the ability to define what faction reputation to base this reactivity off of. Then, we could choose to play a different set of music based on the relationship with the faction, be it enemy, friend, ally, or neutral. These Media Location controllers were then tied to the Music Markers that were placed in the world. The Music Markers (see below) allowed us to define the radius and location of the music in the game.


(Click for full size.)

Once the groundwork was laid, these Music Markers and Media Location Controllers were relatively easy to set up. When attempting to cover such a large amount of ground with music, the ease of set up was necessary. I had to come up with a template control system by creating a series of Location Controller templates (scary, hostile, mysterious, peaceful, rural, vault, etc...) that could be placed across the wasteland as a first pass.

This allowed the entire world to be covered with music in relatively short order. Then, I could go back and focus on the areas of the game that were part of the critical path, and that belonged to the two main factions, NCR and Caesar's Legion. These areas will react to your reputation and as you ally with one or the other, the music will reflect that. It was this process of iteration that allowed the most flexibility.


It quickly became apparent that the musical diversity we were going for was going to require more minutes of music. Thankfully, the Fallout series has a rich history of amazing music. I had been listening to Mark Morgan's soundtracks from the first two Fallout games quite a bit while working on the project and I decided that some of the tracks would fit perfectly into the world of New Vegas. After all, the series shares a lot of factions, characters and themes from the first two games.

I contacted Bethesda and Mark Morgan about including a selection of remastered Fallout 1 and 2 pieces in New Vegas, and all parties were fully on board. I also felt that some of the Fallout 3 tracks should make a return to help forge a synergy between all of the games in the series. It was amazing how well it worked out. The tracks that were chosen fit perfectly together and added the depth and scope that I felt was necessary.

The music from the previous games acts as an homage to the lineage of the series. For example, most of Mark Morgan's music can be heard in the Vaults scattered around the wasteland, and the Fallout 3 tracks are mostly used in areas where there are references to military technology and the Brotherhood of Steel.

However, the vast majority of the music in the game was composed for New Vegas and it takes the series in a new direction.

Fallout has always been known for the amazing, licensed period pieces of music in the games. For this game, we wanted there to be a few distinct styles of music that you would find throughout the world. The three most common radio stations are Radio New Vegas and Mojave Music Radio.

Radio New Vegas tends to play more of the rat pack era of music, Mojave Music Radio plays rural and country music, and Black Mountain Radio has a style all of its own. On the new Vegas strip, each of the casinos also has their unique musical signature, some classy, some sultry. The radio music can be heard all over the wasteland and it adds an authentic dimension to each of the areas that the player explores.

Finalizing

Once the system was finished, the locations were set up, the radios were placed, and the music was composed, the total picture began to become audible. At this point there were only a few final details to wrap up. The most important of which was to record and finalize the music.

From the beginning, the idea of using a string quartet seemed to fit the series. There is a certain intimacy to a small string section. The gritty detail of a bow scraping across the strings was something I wanted to get across.

At times this meant playing the instruments in unconventional ways and making sure the microphones picked up these details and carried it across to the final recordings.

And it certainly helped that Inon made sure to bring in some of the best string players in the world with the Denali quartet, consisting of Joel Pargman, Carrie Kennedy, Luke Maurer and Timothy Loo. His mixing engineer Asaf Rinde captured their performances brilliantly and brought across all of the detail and clarity to the final mixes.

Once the mixes were delivered, the final piece of the puzzle was present. I only had to drop them into place and care for them throughout the final game mix. The picture was complete.

Conclusion

Now that all is said and done, I am very happy with the results. I have a fascination with how Audio affects the subconscious, and this music system is good example of that.

As mentioned earlier, it’s my hope that no one actually notices these systems at work. It should just sound natural and right. Players should get tense or scared without ever really knowing why. They should feel as if someone is composing the game just for them -- because really, in the end, someone is.

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