The Commonwealth of Fallout 4 is a pleasure to wander through, but since 90 percent of your interactions with other people involve shooting them in the face and searching their corpses, it can get a little lonely.
Keeping your Pip-Boy tuned to Diamond City Radio can make the wasteland seem more hospitable, though: the voices of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole can keep you company on your violent meandering.
But like all good game audio, the songs of Diamond City Radio do more than just give the player something to tap their toe to. While many of them (I’m looking at you, “Uranium Fever”) are bludgeoning reminders about all the radiation and general apocalypse stuff, some create atmosphere, inform the player, and work hand in hand with other design elements of the game. Their random appearance can add a twist of bitterly ironic humor to the gameplay, and create unplanned emergent moments of synchronicity between audio and narrative.
Here are seven examples of the incongruently innocuous melodies that so cleverly complement the design of Fallout 4.
1) “Accentuate the Positive” by Bing Crosby
Almost all of the Diamond City Radio soundtrack, like the rest of Fallout 4’s aesthetic, is based around stylistic contrast. Just as the mascot of the Wasteland is not the mutated ghoul but the smiling blonde Vault Boy, so too are the songs we associate with the series not grim orchestral atmosphere but the upbeat pop of the 40s and 50s. In the world of audio and soundtracks, contrast can be a powerful tool--in horror, for example, a children’s song can be a portent of terrible things. In Fallout 4, songs like “Accentuate the Positive” produce a powerful sense of irony and humor, while making the Wasteland seem all the more bleak and imposing.
2) “The Wanderer” by Dion
This is the song that originally appeared in Fallout 4’s cinematic trailer, so it should have some significance to all the moving parts around it. With an upbeat tone that sharply contrasts with the dangerous, glum environment of the Wasteland, “The Wanderer” also wields the power of contrast. But the subject matter of the song actually mirrors the actions taken by the player from moment to moment. Though the wanderlust-stricken narrator was more concerned with finding paramours than bottlecaps, ammunition and desk fans, the player sees their own restless exploration described in the pop song.
3) “Pistol Packin’ Mama” by Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby sings plenty of songs about women, but not generally of the armed variety. Crosby finds himself in the crosshairs of a dangerous dilettante in this song, a situation that either the player or a hostile NPC might well find themselves in. Even if the player opts for a male character, there are plenty of gun-toting dames in the Wasteland between the raiders and the several female companions. Having “Pistol Packin’ Mama” come on during a fight featuring such a lady can create a memorable experience for the player.
4) “Right Behind You Baby” by Ray Smith
It doesn’t matter how peppy the Rockabilly track’s rhythm section and guitar may be--as the nervy Diamond City Radio DJ says, this innocuous enough song takes on a different and much darker tone in Fallout 4, especially while creeping through the many dark, abandoned structures that litter the Commonwealth.
5) “Orange-Colored Sky” by Nat King Cole
Yes, interpreting the lyrics in the context of Fallout makes us think of the atomic bomb. But
the cleverness of “Orange-Colored Sky” appearing on Diamond City Radio actually comes from the song structure, more than the narrative. The verses musically build up to the forceful “Flash, Wham, Alakazam” of the chorus, which can punctuate gunshots or swung weapons from the player or her foes. With a little luck, the player might even pull off some syncopation. In “Orange-Colored Sky,” the arrangement of the music itself can compliment and synchronize with player action.
6) “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis
Most of the songs in the Diamond City Radio catalogue are about the apocalypse, nuclear or otherwise--while plenty of them, as demonstrated, are clever and subtle bits of design, there’s plenty of bluntness too. What sets “The End of the World” apart is the emotional undercurrent of the song, where the world is not literally over, but may as well be for the lovelorn singer. Past the obvious irony of its inclusion in the game, hearing “The End of the World” come on the radio gives the player an opportunity to empathize with Fallout 4’s lonesome protagonist, who begins his or her story heartbroken.
The deejay who supposedly devised this playlist has his own character arc
7) “Dear Hearts and Gentle People” by Bob Crosby
This is one of three songs Bob Crosby has on the Diamond City Radio playlist, the other two being “Way Back Home” and “Happy Times.” All three are about either about Crosby’s hometown or good times long past; all are rich with the melancholic nostalgia that is Fallout’s most evocative theme. These songs invite the player to wonder about a pre-nuclear past for the Commonwealth, one with fewer mutated monsters and radioactive dust storms--a kind, happy home, like the place Crosby seems to have had and lost.
As Fallout 4 shows, songs in a video game can have a lot more purpose than just setting tone. When thinking about what tunes to include in your game, think about what your player will be doing moment to moment. You could help them find purpose, humor and a few surprisingly synchronized moments.