Checking the Score: Wasteland 3 Reconstructs American Mythos with Folk Covers

While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.

Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.

A few weeks back, Wasteland 3 came out to much anticipation of long-time fans. The previous installment of the franchise came out in 2014 after a decades-long hiatus and seemed that it would wrap up the Arizona Ranger’s story. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, this third installment was revealed last year that showed off a slicker, more modernized Wasteland for a new generation. One thing was sure, the new title looked good (it ended up playing good), but nothing prepared me for how good it sounded. Just like the title’s announcement, the soundtrack hit me out of left field like a ton of bricks. Wasteland hasn’t ever been known for its music — most isometric games aren’t. The title received an overhaul of its aesthetics that help further flesh out Wasteland’s universe, but this new soundtrack is the cherry on top that ties everything together. I didn’t get a true sense of the title’s identity until I heard carefully selected classic music tracks covered in a folksy-grunge fusion. Each new track, played in key moments of the title, kept surprising me over again. To say the least, I wasn’t ready for such a perfect soundtrack to come out of a Wasteland game. More importantly, the use of classic folk hymns in the soundtrack help pave the way for inXile to reconstruct the American mythos in a wasteland setting. Yes, centuries have passed since the atomic bombs dropped, but this is still America — so how would an American Wasteland sound? Let’s take a listen to some of the tracks that helped give the title a fresh identity.

I fell out of my chair when I heard this track for the first time. No, that’s not hyperbole. Early in the game, our Desert Rangers are ambushed on their way to Colorado by a group of raiders. It’s our first introduction to the title and it sets a strong tone for the game. As we approach the end of the level, the Big Bad Guy shows up and starts to monologue about how we’ll all be sorry for crossing his gang. In the middle of his joyful monologue-ing, however, one of our NPC allies decides to blow his head off and initiate combat. I fell out of my chair because never would I have expected to hear such a soulful, folk rendition of the Christian hymn “Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.” With a beautiful organ and choir, it’s a track that stays true to its hymnal roots while being contemporary. This cover is one of the first in an impressive list that is carefully dropped during important moments to give identity to the game. To hear this track during our first major fight is symbolic of our baptism into the game. Wasteland 3 can be unforgiving to the novice Ranger and the title doesn’t shy away from its bloody content either. This track is a perfect selection to help set the tone for the rest of the title.

After that initial song, it seemed that the OST went back to the more ambient noises we’ve traditionally heard from the title. There’s a main battle theme which is there in the background when we engage with common enemies. Except that wasn’t the last of the surprises. Soon I found myself saying, “What the fuuu—, ” as a grungy, edgey cover of “Down in the Valley to Pray” came on as we took down a rebellion of aggressive rich kids that sided with homocidal raiders. Once again, the track’s composition fits neatly into this major story mission and leaves a striking impression. The vocals for this track are really what makes it so memorable. It’s gritty and grunge-y to help elevate the title’s themes of brutal survival. Sometimes we’re not able to talk our way out of conflict. Sometimes the wasteland asks us to kill or be killed. To continue to use classic folklore tracks in the OST helps flesh out the myth of our Colorado Rangers in this new America. It also touches on various themes found in the game’s narrative of attempting to begin anew. This particular folk song began as a slave hymn coded for escape, and then became a popular song during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War. So here we can see the deliberate choice in using this track to “reconstruct” the American narrative.

The musical hits just kept coming and they didn’t stop. Finally, I nearly flipped a table when I heard the haunting rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” play during another key fight. The irony of this track playing during this particular encounter being that we were fighting to free a slaver and a warlord (whom I killed anyway). But the irony is purposeful here as we continue to see the pattern of the American mythos being renewed and retold in the wasteland setting. The stark contrast between this hymn and the bloody battle on the field is beautifully juxtaposed. Once again we hear the element of story-telling in the vocal stylings, almost as if it is narrating our current encounter. The straining vocals also lend themselves to the source material well in an almost prophetic way. It’s a gorgeous rendition of a classic folk hymn that gives Wasteland 3 the identity it needs.

Wasteland 3 is a title that contains all kinds of surprises for new and returning fans alike, but nothing will surprise the player quite like this banging soundtrack. This soundtrack had no business being so good, but it is. As someone who gets emotional responses from music, I wasn’t even remotely prepared for this OST. It’s an ingredient needed for Wasteland to create its new identity after all these years. These gorgeous renditions of folk hymns capture the American spirit in a contemporary format needed to give life to the Wasteland. Through the use of these folk songs, inXile was able to give new meaning to classic American myths while still honoring them. There are so many tracks we didn’t mention here (like the Wang Chung cover that almost made me collapse again). Even if you haven’t played a single Wasteland game, this OST is deserving of your attention.