How Inon Zur made the year’s best video game score

The acclaimed composer sets strings to spaceships for interstellar adventure ‘Starfield’

You might not have heard of him, but you’ve probably heard him. Legendary composer Inon Zur has written a long list of scores for films, TV shows and video games over his almost 30-year career. But he’s best-known for the latter, creating music for Middle-Eastern fantasy Prince Of Persia, the role-playing Dragon Age series and more. Since 2001, he’s also soundtracked Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout games: post-apocalyptic, futuristic adventures set hundreds of years after nuclear war. When we meet, in a boardroom at Bethesda’s swanky London office, awards glitter in nearby glass cabinets. Zur’s music has helped to win a fair few of them.

His latest project is Starfield, a science fiction role-playing game where players can create their own character and explore space. With hundreds of planets to explore, Starfield is Bethesda’s biggest game yet. It’s also Zur’s greatest undertaking.

“I was striving to create the ultimate space chord,” he says, his eyes lighting up in excitement. Starfield is his best work to date, he says. “It has brought everything I know, all of my technique and inspiration, to one place.” He wanted Starfield’s soundtrack to be an “impressionistic treatment of the symphonic sound,” and used a mix of traditional and non-traditional orchestra sounds, mixed with synthetics, to create a “woven and intertwined” new sound. The result is phenomenal – hours of larger-than-life music that conjures visions of interstellar adventure.

Inon Zur by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

Though Zur has spent seven years on Starfield and immersed in sci-fi, he was actually raised in one of the few places untouched by Star Wars mania in the 1980s. Growing up on an agricultural settlement in Israel, Zur’s first job was driving tractors in a grapefruit orchard. Yet music was always his calling. Smiling, he remembers a childhood surrounded by song. His parents loved classical music, and by the age of four, Zur could harmonise vocals with them whenever they sang. At eight, he learned to play the piano – though he admits he wasn’t a “very good” student. “I didn’t really want to listen to, or read, the notes,” he says. “I just wanted to write my own!”

At 18, Zur was drafted into the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). “There was no music there,” he says, more seriously. After an “intense” four years of mandatory service, he was determined to return to his true passion. He enrolled at the Academy Of Tel Aviv to hone his musical abilities, but found that his drive to learn the “nuts and bolts” clashed with his tutors’ teaching style. While they focused on “high ideas” and conceptual theories, Zur wanted to learn skills that would let him dive straight into a music career.

In just three months, he was allowed to move up to the Academy’s third year programme, but it still wasn’t practical enough for him – and after getting married in 1990, he moved to the United States with his wife. “We came to the US with nothing,” Zur recalls. “But looking back, we were fearless. We rolled with the punches.”

For five years, Zur studied and played gigs, bar mitzvahs and weddings around Los Angeles, while his wife attended school. Yet his heart was set on composing, specifically for film and TV. He finally got his break while playing piano for his local synagogue, when a member approached him to make music for a documentary. Through that, Zur landed a job writing for children’s TV shows such as Power Rangers and Digimon on the Fox Family Channel. He describes the job as a “Hollywood” version of his basic training in the army, and through “five or six weary years,” he honed his craft and learned to work with live orchestras.

Inon Zur by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

During his first years in America, Zur learned to never say no to a gig. Yet he broke his own rule in 1996, when he was approached to score a video game. At the time, Zur had little experience with gaming and believed he was destined to go from TV shows to films. But when he learned developers were pursuing the sort of orchestral sound he was keen to produce – and better, had a budget to pay for them – he took the plunge.

In 2000, a series of Star Trek video game adaptations were released with songs by Zur. Though his job was still to create emotion through sound, he found that his gaming scores needed to be “more complex, more sophisticated” because gamers paid much more attention to his music than TV show viewers. He even started receiving comments. “Some of them were good, some of them were not so good,” he says. “It didn’t matter: people cared.”

“My composition world is one before Fallout Tactics, and one after”

One year later, Zur’s life changed again. Developer Micro Forté introduced him to Fallout through its first spin-off, Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel. “They said: ‘Forget what you know about music. This is after the [nuclear war], everything is flattened. People are just starting to leave vaults. There are no musical instruments, there’s nothing.’”

After Brotherhood Of Steel, the Fallout series went on hiatus for several years. Meanwhile, Zur became one of the biggest composers in gaming. He brought the sound of BioWare’s fantasy worlds to life in Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age, scored Ubisoft’s iconic Prince Of Persia series, and created the music for Crytek’s seminal shooter Crysis. Yet Fallout soon returned under a new developer, Bethesda Softworks, and Zur was tasked with soundtracking its comeback.

Inon Zur by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

Fallout 3 was a testament to how far Zur’s skills had come. Its music was critically acclaimed, landing Zur his first BAFTA Games Award nomination, and its brassy main cue is one of gaming’s most iconic scores. Since then, Zur has received another two BAFTA nominations, with his latest being for 2015’s Fallout 4. It’s a series Zur feels “so fortunate to work on,” and he credits Brotherhood of Steel with changing the way he thinks about music in gaming. “My composition world is one before Fallout Tactics, and one after,” he says. “It was a turning point for me.”

Zur also has high praise for Fallout director Todd Howard, who has become one of his closest collaborators. In 2016, just months after Fallout 4’s release, Howard invited Zur back to Bethesda’s office. The topic he wanted to discuss, Zur says in hushed tones, was Starfield, the studio’s next ambitious project. At the time, it didn’t have a name, or any artwork – just Howard’s description. “He said it’s a space game, but it’s more of a philosophical space game,” says Zur. “It’s not about fighting aliens. It’s about exploring, and asking questions. It’s a dialogue between the developer, the game, and the player.”

Zur was enthralled. The very next day, he began creating music for Starfield. It was based purely on his conversation with Howard, but “90 per cent” of the songs he created in those moments ended up in the game. That includes the central notes of its main theme, which he recorded on piano for NME last year. He throws his hands up, wishing he had a keyboard to demonstrate those original notes for us now.

Inon Zur by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

Instead, he settles for humming a few notes from ‘Into The Starfield’, the game’s gorgeous main theme. It’s an inspiring call to adventure, evoking the thrill, beauty and danger of exploring the unknown. He points to ‘Planetrise’ – with its shrill highs, brassy lows and rollercoaster tempo – as an example of his wider approach to Starfield. As he describes the track, his excitement blends with the track’s rhythm. He talks faster to discuss its quicker melodies, draws out the word “slow” while describing its lingering notes, and drops to a whisper during a “drone” that’s meant to drill into listeners’ ears.

Just as Zur’s imagination is captured by the thought of exploring the galaxy, he wants Starfield players to find their own meaning in its songs. “You cannot really conjure or grasp what’s in space, but you see what your imagination sees,” he says. “Does it matter [if it’s really there]? What do you feel? What do you think? That’s what I tried to do with the music.”

“It has nothing to do with talent – it’s the ability to tell a story with music … For a composer, it starts from emotions and imagination”

Zur admits it sounds “very philosophical,” but his is an approach that’s woven into the essence of Starfield’s soundtrack. “The score puts you in this place that does not ever give you resolution, satisfaction, or even a sense of achievement,” he says. “It’s only this wonder, fear, terror, and awe. You can take it and do whatever you want with it. It’s the beauty of Starfield.”

Jerry Goldsmith, the musician behind Alien and Star Trek’s soundtracks, influenced Zur’s direction. So did ‘The Planets’ creator Gustav Holst and Star Wars composer John Williams. Yet Zur was set on telling his “own story” in the genre, and his prompts from Bethesda were kept deliberately vague. Instead of detailing how an exact scene would play out, he would be told how the studio wanted players to feel. Sometimes, Bethesda would briefly describe a certain scenario, such as landing on an icy planet alone.

Inon Zur by Rachel Billings
Credit: Rachel Billings for NME

“When you’re a trained composer, you are taught to translate and transform these emotions and thoughts into music,” says Zur. “It has nothing to do with talent – it’s the ability to tell a story with music, like a writer would write a story, or a painter could paint something beautiful. For a composer, it starts from emotions and imagination.”

These abilities have taken Zur from a grapefruit orchard in Israel, to the stars. He’s now one of the most accomplished composers in gaming, and believes Starfield is his “best achievement to date”. In our four-star Starfield review, we agreed, calling it “one of the best sci-fi scores ever created”.

As for what’s next, Zur says he has “two or three” upcoming projects that he’s excited to reveal. He can’t say what they are, but at their mention, his eyes twinkle in that now-familiar way. “The future looks interesting,” he teases. “Let’s put it that way.”

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