Fallout is mostly known for its pop radio soundtrack, music-wise; the 40’s and 50’s hits, especially. You can actually listen to the radio in the games, and Fallout 4 has some original music from Lynda Carter as well.
I want to bring attention to the orchestral score, though, because it’s perfect.
Video game ambient soundtracks are a tricky deal; you want something beautiful and memorable, but not overpowering. The music has to at least vaguely match what’s going on, and in games, the player often has almost total control over what’s happening. You don’t want the music switching in and out of combat to be jarring, for instance.
Ambient soundtracks also tend to be fairly repetitive. World of Warcraft, for instance, has a few minutes of music that will loop over and over until you decide to turn it off before it gets stuck in your head for days.
It’s also hard to tell whether an ambient soundtrack is suitable if you’re just listening to it out of context.
Some soundtracks, like The Witcher 3’s, are absolutely gorgeous, but they end up being a little distracting when you’re trying to pay attention to what’s happening in the game. Dragon Age: Inquisiton’s ambient music, by the same token, isn’t riveting enough. When it’s there it’s lovely, but it usually isn’t: long periods of silence end up making the world feel too empty. In other words, there are plenty of soundtracks that have wonderful music, but just don’t work when you stick them in the background of a game.
Fallout 4’s score, by Inon Zur, hits the best midway point. It’s just the right amount noticeable and just the right amount atmospheric. More importantly, it adds something to the story that wouldn’t be there otherwise–a sense of loss.
Nostalgia can come in via the pop music, of course. Fallout is pretty tongue-in-cheek, and it makes constant digs at the ‘perfection’ of the ’50’s. It’s silly and irreverent, with slight undertones of the more serious issues at hand; much like a lot of pop music from post-war America. But that music is, ostensibly, just for fun.
Zur’s score, by contrast, is a little bit sad. It reminds us that the characters aren’t just caricatures in an impossible alternate universe. They’re people who are struggling to get by in a world that (as fantastical as it is) could be ours, as well, if we mess things up.
The 50’s tunes are great, don’t get me wrong–but adding some thoughtfulness to the atmosphere is something the setting of Fallout 4 really deserves. Especially given your protagonist’s circumstances: losing your family and the life you knew within what feels like minutes isn’t always going to be rollicking radio songs. Sometimes it’s going to be more like mourning.
I like the game’s pop music as well as its more thoughtful ambient score. The former tells you what your characters are listening to, the latter tells you what they’re feeling.