Remembering David Bowie's Nomad Soul

New angels of promise.

Looking back, it's a surprise that David Bowie was only involved in one game. It's somewhat less of a surprise that it was 1999's Omikron: The Nomad Soul, the game that introduced David Cage to the world, and still stands as an example of 90s gaming spirit. It's a genre-busting game with as many personalities as Bowie himself, flitting between first-person shooting, adventure, puzzling and fighting. It's bursting with ideas and birthed in a booming industry where anything suddenly seemed possible, without being weighed down by the experience to draw the line between what could be done, and what maybe shouldn't be.

Much of Omikron falls into that latter category. It's mostly terrible, but also ambitious and unforgettable; an arguably harder trick to pull off. In a game full of craziness about souls jumping between universes and a weird mix of Blade Runner and off-beat European SF designs and sexuality, it's interesting that it's best remembered for Bowie's contributions: its theme, New Angels of Promise (later re-released with the name 'Omikron' replaced with 'Suspicious Minds'), and two characters - virtual entity Boz, and the lead singer of a band called The Dreamers.

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Bowie lent his face to the game. As you can probably tell. The clue is his face. He was also technically in the old Labyrinth game, but not really.

Despite this being a time of eulogising, it has to be said that Boz is not one of the great game characters of all time. Bowie's performance is flat, and not helped by having to deliver some of the game's silliest concepts - notably that Omikron, the game you're playing, is actually a trap in our world to draw gamer souls to the demon Asteroth. "The game you're playing at this very moment," Boz yawns, leaving the question open about how Asteroth felt about it being rebranded as simply 'The Nomad Soul'. Must have been an interesting marketing call.

Exactly how much input Bowie (alongside Bowie's long-time collaborator Reeves Gabrels, of course, though he didn't get anything like as much in-game attention) had on the game is at least slightly hazy. Bowie joked in an interview at the time that the key factor was that he still look 24. "That was my input. Then for weeks they kept sending me sketches. No. No. No. Yes. That one!"

In practice though the two ended up much more involved with at least the musical side - his two characters, the concert performances you can attend during the game, and into the otherworldly nature of Omikron music. It's not a Bowie game, it's a Quantic Dream game, but his presence did have impact.

Both Boz and the lead singer of The Dreamers have definite roots in Bowie's career-long focus on transformation and reinvention; be it metaphorically, through dimensions, or in reality, through changing styles, fashions, or simply the natural movement of time, as with The Next Day.

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Nobody can say David Cage doesn't do great 'bits' of games, even if 'actually telling a well plotted, ideally non-inadvertently creepy story' still eludes his grip like a greased up squid.

The Dreamers aren't simply intended to be Bowie in a chilly costume, but a reflection of Omikron music and culture - its fashion, its tastes, what this strange city that dared to have locations like strip-clubs and characters who had sex back in 1999 would find not just interesting, but new and compelling. The primitive technology hasn't been kind to the individual sequences, but they were a core part of establishing Omikron as a place with its own beat and history.When Omikron came out, and for a good while after, diegetic music was considered part of the experience, absolutely, but not necessarily a key part of the world - a cultural touchstone that helped define it; to say something beyond how deep the pockets of the licensing departments ran.

At this point, games really hadn't learned much about using real-world music at all. I don't mean to talk down the era's many brilliant, amazing musicians creating fantastic original game music - believe me, my iTunes library is stuffed with their work. As with so much though, this era saw a big cultural wall between games and more respectable/established forms of entertainment, to the point that short of accepting money to use the occasional track here and there (and very rare tie-ins like Trent Reznor handling the music for Quake), the height of cross-media collaboration was garbage like the Make My Video series on Sega CD and a gaggle of licenses that make a virtual David Bowie gyrating around in his underpants look positively sane.

And goodness, were they bad. Revolution X for instance, in which the world is saved thanks to four bored singers who can barely deliver a single line to camera. Queen: The eYe, a totalitarian adventure game it's hard to imagine the band even being aware of, never mind caring about. KISS: Psycho Circus, a shooter mostly notable for being what the Daikatana team quit to make instead, which really says a lot. Ed Hunter, an Iron Maiden rail shooter with all the raw power and badass credibility of a Belgian soft jazz CD. Elsewhere, licensed music would typically be limited to a track here or there, like Ripper's somewhat tortured use of Don't Fear The Reaper or (rolls dice) The Bitmap Bros licensing an instrumental copy of Doin' The Do for Magic Pockets. Not exactly a new frontier.

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What's Omikron's story about? Uh. Look over there, a three headed monkey!

Omikron is not a game that belongs in this company. It's a game that everyone involved genuinely felt like they cared about, even if late 90s technology and the sheer ambition of pulling off so damn much was fighting against them from the start. It's an adventure game! No, it's a first-person shooter! No, it's a beat-em-up! Where you play this guy! Or this girl! Or anyone else in the game who touches your corpse! And it's break-the-fourth-wall meta! And! And!

But that's secondary to what it was trying to do, and what the interviews at the time were quite right in predicting what needed to be done. "What we were trying to do more than anything else is provide an emotional heart to the game," said Bowie. "The one thing I did find going through the games I viewed before going to work is that a lot of the games have a cold emotional drive."

Now, to be sure, that wasn't revolutionary thinking within the games industry, with designers like Peter Molyneux long having talked in terms of games making the player cry, and games like Planetfall largely having built a reputation from accomplishing that way back in the days of pure text. However, it was still a very valid accusation to throw at the games of the time, and looking forward to a point where it wouldn't be the care still fairly unusual from the outside.

Likewise, while it might not seem revolutionary for Bowie and Gabrels to spurn the idea of just slapping pre-composed music onto the work, that is still the trend that still continues today, with 'known' artists mostly being used to either flesh out in-game radio stations, or for individual gags and references. Exceptions like having the band Health do much of the music for Max Payne 3 remain exactly that, with game composers predominantly coming from TV/cinema instead.

Omikron certainly didn't revolutionise the gaming world or change much about how people worked, but really, it didn't have to. It danced along to its own beat and left it up to the audience what, if anything, they took from it as a game and as a musical collaboration. Good game or not, it was an interesting game - one fearless in execution and considerably ahead of its time. It's hard to think of one more suited to Bowie's presence... even if his contribution is now honestly better watched on YouTube than actively sought out in its quirky home dimension.

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About the author

Richard Cobbett

Richard Cobbett

Contributor

Richard writes words for a living, but you know that already. He loves puns, wants to ban all spiders from games, and isn't quite as cynical as you think. Follow him on Twitter.

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