Man, cancer sucks lately.
The recent deaths of many beloved celebrities and rock musicians has been devastating for fans all over the world. Last month, we mourned the loss of Lemmy with the Motörhead game. This week, we can honor David Bowie for the same reason.
I fully admit, I am not a Bowie fan; outside of Ziggy Stardust and a few songs here and there, most of Bowie’s music is not on my radar or playlists. No doubt the man was talented, but it just wasn’t for me. That being said, his own death, a few days after the release of his final album, Black Star, was a big hit to the music world; it is undeniable that Bowie touched generations with his music for forty years, a testament to his own legacy as a rock star.
Much like Lemmy before him, Bowie has been involved in video games as well. In a gesture to honor Bowie, Omikron: the Nomad Soul was re-released on the PC for free by Square Enix and has given the title new life and recognition for the first time in 15 years. It is cheating a bit in featuring Omikron this week, mainly because people have no doubt heard of the title by now due to current events, but the history behind Omikron, along with the gameplay, are well worth a discussion.
After all, Omikron is the first game developed by Quantic Dream, the studio behind Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the U.S). Their high concept, story-driven titles are both celebrated and maligned at the same time, as Quantic Dream pushes the boundaries of games further each time, offering cinematic storytelling and interactivity with a sense of hyper-realism and high concept gameplay through acting, motion capture, mechanics, and presentation. Ironically, none of those games may even exist, if it weren’t for Omikron itself, and the determination for Quantic Dream founder David Cage.
Cage was a professional musician that freelanced soundtracks to television and video games, including titles such as TimeCop and SuperDany. Around 1994, Cage was feeling unfulfilled about his musical scores and began writing what would be a 200-page script for a video game idea he had, titled The Nomad Soul in his spare time. This would rekindle a passion for writing and video games as he found less passion in composing music.
As the script took shape, Cage began shopping it around to friends and other companies to see if it would possibly be made into a game. He received some praise for his ideas, but many early backers felt the game was impossible to create. According to Cage, “I had got into the recording business just as CD-ROM took off, where studios realized they had enough space to put recorded music into games. That got me a few contacts, and one day, I sent them my script. The feedback was good, but they all said my idea for the game was technically impossible. I hate when someone tells me something is impossible. I can’t stand that. I never have. I thought, okay, let’s do it and see if it is impossible.”
Cage would spend the next few years gathering capital and setting up a new company. In 1997 he founded Quantic Dream, and through this, Cage was able to hire a few friends for a six-month period to develop a prototype of The Nomad Soul. Cage remembers the early development process, working on the prototype in a windowless sound booth around the clock for that time period. “I had two sound booths,” said Cage. “I used one during the day for my day job, because I still needed to make money for this thing to work, and we filled the other one with a few desks and computers.”
The team continued to pitch the game in turn, but failed to get any traction, until Cage met with Eidos Interactive, who at the time was coming off the success of Tomb Raider on the PlayStation One. Cage would strike a deal with Eidos after pitching The Nomad Soul, leading to the title being officially developed by Quantic Dream from 1997 to 1999.
Omikron itself is not it’s real title, but rather added to The Nomad Soul due to lack of confidence in the product itself. Cage notes that “The US always have problems with my games,” which is evident in the high-concept they all tend to have. Omikron is no exception, as the plot involves the player becoming embroiled in a murder mystery by Omikron investigator named Kay’l 669 as he tries to solve a series of murders by a serial killer in the city of Omikron on the planet Phaenon. But through this, a major plot point in the game itself is revealed by breaking the fourth wall to include the player in the investigation, as his soul is literally on the line in the world of Omikron.
That part of the game is not just a gimmick, but rather the crux of the plot. It is eventually revealed that the main antagonist is a demonic figure who lures souls from other “dimensions” to Omikron to harvest them. Kay’l tasks the player in setting a trap for the demon, as their soul is next to be harvested by virtue of playing the game itself. Through this game of cat and mouse we learn that the player has become a Nomad Soul, a being who has the power to change bodies at will. This in effect also changes the game as well, as reincarnated characters start with no progress, forcing players to play catchup just to survive in the game.
To say the least, the plot is a cyberpunk fever dream, hitting all the beats you would expect in such a setting from corrupt government and officials, anti-establishment sentiment, and clever use of technology, mythology, and gameplay mechanics to navigate the world of Omikron fully. In terms of the plot, Omikron is a knockout example of a high concept working and using video games to make that concept work. Taking gameplay and turning it into a plot point was unheard of in 1999 and is still a rarity to this day. But, it worked, and it also gives the player a more intimate incentive to participate in the world of Omikron as they discover more about the setting and past history and become embroiled into the current events of the game. It is, quite literally, the personification of a chosen one in its purest form.
Much of the game eventually turns into an ultimate battle between good and evil, with the Nomad Soul becoming the tipping scales in a war against the demonic forces controlling Omikron. Toying with mythological ideas in a cyberpunk world certainly adds more uniqueness to Omikron and another layer of context regarding the player’s role as the “chosen one” even further. Much of the game has you eventually working for a group called the Awakened, who are led by Boz, a being trapped inside a computer and voiced by David Bowie himself. This is where the nature of the game’s mechanics takes on new meaning, as Omikorn becomes a game about the player being the hero and directly involved in the game world.
Bowie’s involvement is not only with the Boz character, but on the game’s soundtrack and some of the game’s design. Part of this is a second cameo by Bowie as the leader of an illegal underground band “The Dreamers” who play songs not only written specifically for the game, but would have lyrics changed for his subsequent album release in 1999, “Hours…“ In total, the soundtrack and Bowie’s involvement became a major selling point of Omikron, adding another layer of promotion to the already ambitious title.
Unfortunately, Omikron is a game that is too ambitious for its own good. The biggest problems stem from the gameplay aspect of Omikron being so choppy compared to the rest of the game. It has variety for sure—combat sequences are 3-D fighting games and FPS sections, there are numerous parts that are point and click adventure, and even some puzzle games thrown into the mix. Most conversations follow an RPG-style system where you can ask different questions in various tones. The uneven gameplay led to Omikron being somewhat of a mixed bag. It certainly had impressive visuals for the time and a variety of gameplay, but the title itself had a slow, often languished pace that didn’t allow the gameplay parts to mesh fully, leading to a flawed experience overall.
Omikron would not be a massive success, something that Cage also admits to in his interview. A planned release for the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 would be cancelled, and the Dreamcast and PC versions would fail to reach beyond 600,000 units sold worldwide. The game did, however, pave the way for a more successful title in Fahrenheit, and later would help pave the way for Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls. Much like those games, they are experimental in how they allow players to interact with the story being told, giving Quantic Dream a unique niche in the AAA game market. They continue to make games for Sony exclusively, with their next title, Detroit: Become Human, coming sometime in the next two years for the Playstation 4.
As for Omikron, there was an attempt to create a sequel to the game in 2006, but the title fell through as Quantic Dream worked on Heavy Rain instead. In the wake of Bowie’s tragic death, the game is now receiving new recognition. It does rightfully deserve a look, as it showcases not just the talents of Bowie as both a musician and voice actor, but of the talents of Cage and his team in their infancy. It is amazing that from this complex game rested the fate of a studio that has, for better or worse, had a direct impact on the growth of video games. Quantic Dream still has trouble selling titles in the AAA market, but their titles are also imaginative enough to go against the tide of what conventional wisdom would tell them to make. Omikron: The Nomad Soul is perfect in that example, as it showcases the high-concept, high story ideas Quantic Dream is known for in the last fifteen years.
I hope you enjoyed this weeks Games You Never Heard Of. If you have any suggestions or comments, leave them below or contact me on twitter @LinksOcarina. See you next time.