Fallout 3: Jazz in the Wasteland

Fallout 3
I’ve recently finished Fallout 3. Lots of people have already dissected the setting, the characters and the the ending, so I won’t go into those things. There is one thing, though, that I don’t think anyone else has mentioned. The soundtrack. How cool is the radio feature?

Yes, Three-Dog’s overblown commentary is as annoying as hell, but the music is wonderful. How sublime it is to walk through a post-apocalyptic wasteland with 40s and 50s jazz going through your head. How poignant to hear a lonely radio playing amid the ruins of a great building.

The big fight scenes became sureally cinematic. If I was more of a film buff, I could name instances where a major gun battle was offset with an inappropriately upbeat backing track. I’m not, but I hope you know what I mean. The action seems at once more detached and more awful.

I’m not sure that I have the words yet to explain this in more detail. What made this work so well? Is it just me? Is there a design lesson? Could this effect be used in other games? How?

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Published in: on January 13, 2009 at 3:19 am  Comments (6)  
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  1. I think the primary reason the music works so well is that it meshes with the game world on such a meaningful level.

    In-world music – or music that not only the player is hearing but the player’s character too – has existed for a while in games like Grand Theft Auto where you can tune the radio in any car; and the idea that the music isn’t being played by some code on your game disc, but by some radio DJ inside your game’s world. There’s a certain sense of immersion in that alone. But just like how GTA’s radio reflects the decade-centric urban theme, Fallout 3’s radio reflects the twisted and sparse humanity of the Wasteland.

    There’s a reason why the post-apocalypse’s radio station plays mostly tunes of longing for the good ‘ol days. It’s because that’s what the people of a broken society would probably want to listen to: happy songs as a form of escapism, or maybe wistful songs that they can relate to. I think Fallout 3 spends so much time building up the setting and the mindset of an average Wastelander that it’s easy to understand, even subconsciously, that the radio is less of a “developers’ carefully chosen soundtrack” and more of a “Three Dog’s most-requested songs by Wastelanders.”

    So there’s something very charming about the fact that the only sounds you hear in this game are the sounds that a would-be Wastlander would hear. That the rare melodies of a ’40s jazz tune is as much of a highlight to the player as it “is” to an NPC.

  2. […] isn’t always a big problem — used judiciously it could even be a drawcard, as in my previous comments about the incongruous music in Fallout 3 — but in general it is something to be avoided. […]

  3. For those who love Fallout’s music, I can recommend the “More Where That Came From” mod, which adds 100 new songs to the playlist, all belonging to the same era and sourced from the Internet Archive’s 78 rpm Digitization Project.

  4. simply put, its the only videogame I have ever seen with real music.
    Scypher, it works because the music sounds so good. Seems that nowadays no one knows music anymore. I love jazz, I simply stop walking and just stand near the radio.

  5. what is the name of the music played when your ten and first get the pipboy?

  6. this is bizarre, the best of jazz in a shooter video game. you listen to jazz greats like Billie Holiday singing about romance while exploding other people’s heads in violence?
    simply absurd


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