For over two decades, composer Inon Zur has brought our favourite games to life. Since stepping into the world of video game scores in 2000, Zur has been the sound behind many of our beloved noughties gems – including Baldur’s Gate 2, Prince Of Persia, and Crysis to name a few.
But for many gamers, Zur’s long-running collaboration with Bethesda will stand out the most. Zur has scored every single one of the company’s post-apocalyptic Fallout games – from 2001’s Fallout Tactics to every single one of the series’ later 3D entries, including that special trip to New Vegas.
For those of us who have braved Bethesda’s rad-soaked hellscapes without our Pip-Boy radio stations blaring, Zur’s scores are likely to be one of the most memorable parts of our journey. Like the wastelands he scores, you never know exactly what you’ll get from Zur’s work on Fallout – from the fear of running into your first Super Mutant Behemoth to fighting to determine the fate of the Mojave, Zur never fails to capture the emotion behind every moment.
Though one of Fallout’s most iconic features is the vintage radios filled with real-world bops from the ’40s and ’50s, Zur tells NME that he is “pretty adamant on writing music that has nothing to do with the radio stations,” and at times will even create a score that plays “in contrast” to the radio’s music.
“But every now and then I will sneak in an element, maybe a guitar riff or a few chords, from one of the songs into the score,” admits Zur. “I challenge players to listen to the radio stations and find where I planted these secret gems – where I’m hinting at one of the songs – in the scores. The first one who finds these gets a personal tour of my studio!”
While Fallout‘s radio stations are filled with poppy cheer and lovesick ballads, Zur’s scores are anything but. Take the main theme to Fallout 4 – while it begins with a fragile beauty, it avalanches into a determined, brassy crescendo. It plays to the gravitas of Bethesda’s devastated worlds, but doesn’t linger on the universe’s darker side – it’s a rousing call to action, one that inspires adventure and a dash of hope. Just like Zur’s decision to stay away from leaning into Fallout‘s vintage side, the decision to hone in on our emotions, rather than entirely on what’s going on in the game, is a conscious choice.
“The worlds that Bethesda are creating are multi-dimensional, they are very, very deep and you can find many emotional aspects in their world-building. One of the things that Bethesda is really good at is building a multi-layered experience. They can capture a dark landscape with scary events but still evoke hope in your heart, or create the urge for exploration and excitement for embarking on a new adventure.”
That’s an angle that Zur – and Bethesda – will continue to explore in Starfield, the studio’s upcoming open-world RPG set across the universe. It’s shaping up to be Bethesda’s biggest title yet, and Zur says it will carry many of Fallout’s themes with it.
“Much like Fallout, Starfield has even more of these themes and experiences. On the one hand, what motivates us to leave and explore the universe and the dangers of discovering other unknown worlds but also the excitement of a new voyage and hope for the future is exhilarating.”
Though Starfield won’t grace our consoles until next year, eager fans have already had their first taste of its soundtrack with ‘Starfield Suite‘, an exhilarating piece that captures everything that makes space so captivating to us. We were treated to ‘Starfield Suite’ while Bethesda was yet to share any gameplay of Starfield, and likewise, its opening movements was Zur’s first experience with the game. Nearly a year later, the magic of ‘Starfield Suite’ is still alive – and you can listen to a solo rendition from Zur below.
“I composed those cues before I even knew the full vision for Starfield, so they were inspired by just the notion of the exploration, mystery and wonder of space,” Zur points out.
“After I visited Bethesda Game Studios in early 2016 I wrote these two pieces based purely on this premise and using my imagination, I did not see any concept art or know the story yet. It was essentially music that was shared with the artists for inspiration, and so they found themselves creating the game’s art and design aesthetic along to this music.”
“Most of the time I take into consideration the story, the art design, the motivation of the characters and so on, but in this case, it was a unique chain of events whereby I wrote music that was just inspired by the idea behind Starfield,” Zur continued. “The suite is based on the main theme, which itself was an interesting journey as it was not initially the main theme. Originally, I wrote another main theme which evolved over several iterations but the version we ultimately went with took another direction that became the now recognized theme with the six-note motif.”
Decades before Starfield was announced, sci-fi blockbusters and sweeping scores have gone hand-in-hand – with John Williams’ iconic Star Wars theme coming first to mind. However, Zur wants Starfield‘s score to stand with its own character.
“When people think about orchestral music for sci-fi, they tend to automatically think of Star Wars because it’s so prominent in our pop culture,” acknowledges Zur. “Subsequently, anything else that is written for sci-fi and is orchestral in style finds itself in this realm to some extent. My music was not born out of nothing as I am inspired by great composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and others, and I’m sure some of these influences are subconsciously present in some of the music I wrote.”
“But I think once you hear the full array of music for Starfield, you will appreciate that there are many components to the score that are very, very different and hand crafted for Starfield,” he adds, saying he “really can’t wait” to reveal more of Starfield‘s music.
As Zur prepares for next year’s release of Starfield, he reflects on his two-decade collaboration with Bethesda. Zur says working with Bethesda is “very different to working with many other studios,” and praises the creativity he’s been allowed to explore with Starfield.
“With Bethesda, they very much give me the freedom to be inspired and follow my own instincts, rather than asking me to follow this or that direction. We’ve been working together for many years now and both [Starfield audio director] Mark Lampert and [game director] Todd Howard always ask me to do what I think creatively, and if they do hear something that steps outside of what they envision then they will be sure to tell me. They trust my artistic judgment and ability, and always welcome my point of view.”
“It’s a wonderful collaboration,” adds Zur, who says that his history with Bethesda has “definitely” affected how he’s approached scoring Starfield.” After 20 years of working with Bethesda over multiple projects we’ve both grown to know each other very well,” explains the composer.
“We know what to expect from each other but we are also eager to surprise each other! We are really motivated to develop our collaborative partnership and to push the creative boundaries higher and higher. We take every chord that we work on together as a stepping stone, a benchmark that we can stand on to make our next advancement. Sometimes we’re referencing interesting elements from previous projects – Fallout, The Elder Scrolls: Blades – as a starting point to develop new ideas. The way we approach artistic attributions is very similar. Usually it’s more philosophical, how we try to encapsulate the emotion in the musical piece rather than describing what the player is doing on screen.”
With a formidable body of work behind him, Zur is looking forward to what’s next. Beyond Bethesda, the composer would love to take a shot at scoring James Bond, and is keen to revisit Prince Of Persia – which he says would be “very exciting to me as a composer.”
But right now, it’s all eyes on Starfield – and Zur couldn’t be prouder of his latest score. “I feel that Starfield is my best score to date, although that does not take away from any other scores which I have composed for Bethesda,” says Zur. “I think that each of the scores for the Fallout series and others have their moments and uniqueness. But as a whole piece of work, I believe Starfield shows more of my maturity as a composer.”