Throw me tomorrow, now that I really have a large medkit…
We’ve seen how in the nineties novelists got involved in the development of videogames but that’s not all: popular musicians got involved as well. Looking back now, we really missed the boat: back in the 2000 not only Queen had released their owen adventure, but David Bowie was writing the soundtrack for and appearing in said videogame. Eidos gave a lot of credit to Quantic Dream, the studio headed by David Cage, for their first game, The Nomad Soul. The team would subsquently go on developing arguably better titles like Heavy Rain and, most recently, Detroit: Become Human. Let’s find out if this game still holds up or if it’s a crash course for the ravers.
Omikron bye, ta-ta!
The city of Omikron on the planet Phaenon is under attack by an unspecified enemy force, a police officer by the name of Kay’l reaches out through your (yes, YOUR) monitor to call for help. The player will inhabit his body while trying to solve the mystery of the serial killer running around the city, along with finding out why Kay’l has been framed for the murder of his partner. The moment where the main character reaches out for the player’s help, breaking the fourth wall, is probably the main reason why The Nomad Soul is still remembered today. The whole nomad soul mechanic is a brillant idea, giving a whole new layer of respect to “guy in his underwear playing videogame in front of a monitor”. To be honest, the same idea can be found in a mediocre 1997 sci-fi italian movie, Nirvana: in Gabriele Salvatores’ movie, a videogame character, frustrated with his existence, reaches to his creator for help. But since this is a game, that brilliant idea could and should have been used to greater effect, instead it’s just there to set the premise for the whole “shifting bodies” mechanic.
Give me money for a change of gameplay
The Nomad Soul, at its core, is an action adventure game featuring an especially vast open world to be freely explored. The “virtual reincarnation” idea means that it is possible to possess any “body” in the game as the main character, until they die or get bored. While it might sound as a fantastic design idea, it comes out as being little more than a gimmick: everyone plays basically the same except for a few fighting stats, there’s no change in the main story regardless and the city doesn’t have many great places to explore. This overall design “concept vs reality” will be a rather common feature in future Quantic Dream titles, especially Fahrenheit / The Indigo Prophecy. Still, the main problem, made even worse by 1999 technology, was the ambitiousness of making a free roaming action adventure in 3D with shoehorned fighting and FPS sections. Quantic Dream must have thought the fighting part was such a good idea, since it also rears its ugly head in Indigo Prophecy. Should one found those sections in that game tiresome, in Nomad Soul they’re even worse. Not even setting the difficulty to “easy” will make much of a difference since, in the FPS sections, enemies tend to shoot from a distance that the game hasn’t rendered yet. Or, worse, they spawn behind the character and shoot in the back. Looking up the very definition of “badly aged game mechanics”…
Sneak’s a bit and sometimes you die
While appreciating the ambitiousness of making an open world adventure/fighting/shooter game in 1999 is easy, it’s clear this went a bit over Quantic Dream’s capabilities. The game should have been deeply focused on the interesting sci-fi plot, touching on subjects like Orwellian-control of governement and life beyond death. Instead, the player is busy dying from randomly spawning enemies or spamming the punch and kick buttons to defeat a demon, thus the “pretty plot goes to hell”. The adventure gameplay is slightly better, even though it does sport some of the typical frustrations of its time. The inventory is managed through a sort of Fallout-like Pip-Boy smartwatch, the “Sneak” which allows you to empty your inventory, sell things that aren’t needed or just delete them from existence. Typical nineties adventure design means the player never gets told if an item is actually required, so the player might end up drinking a beer and then realizing, five minutes later, it was an item needed to drug the lieutenant. While it’s true there are multiple approaches to puzzles, fighting will usually end up as the first go-to method to bypass obstacles. There’s no way to find out how much health is left until the main character is stuck in combat, which means it is possible to die almost instantly as soon as you enter combat. Also, the save system is limited by how many “save rings” you possess, which was a really awkward choice for a game that was first released on PC (later on Dreamcast).
Only for you, I don’t regret, that I was Quantic Dream’s child
As one might have guessed, the involvement of David Bowie in the game was mainly for advertising reasons, his contribution doesn’t sound like it came out of a parallel world. This might explain why most of the songs, still very good, ended up on the Hours… album, the one where Bowie seemed to reflect on his getting older. Actually, most of the songs the player will end up listening to on the soundtrack, were composed by Xavier Despas. Listening to Bowie’s Hours on its own, there’s no clue at all that most of the songs came from a videogame, which I guess, makes sense. Interviews at the time mentions how the english singer was working closely with Quantic Dream and, well, forgive me if I sound a little skeptical. This is clearly not the soundtrack to Labyrinth. Nomad Soul also features the appeareance of the first “virtual actor”: there’s a band, the Dreamers, whose singer has the Thin White Duke’s likeness, awkwardly playing songs from the album, like Seven. And no, you can’t play with Bowie as the main character, like you would in Apocalypse on PSX starring Bruce Willis and his comically bad lines.
We are the dead FMVs, we take the blame
Beside the English singer’s involvement, The Nomad Soul featured an interesting, if slightly flawed, array of design choices. As an experiment in virtual storytelling, breaking the fourth wall, giving freedom to the player, I think it’s mostly a success. Quantic Dream’s vision was way ahead of its time, in an era still reeling from the indigestion of FMVs with more “real actors” than one can count, David Cage decided to go with virtual actors. The “nomad soul” mechanique wasn’t utilized to its full potential, but it was still unique, even though the plot didn’t really serve that idea. The technology, while dated by today’s standards, was amazing and the game shines with it’s futuristic/Philip K. Dick atmosphere, giving the player a real “detective on the job” feel. Most of the gameplay flaws could have been easily fixed for a better game, had the studio kept on its course.
Seeing my future to let it go
Quantic Dream unfortunately never really fixed the flaws. For the mentioned subsequent project by Quantic Dream, Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy, released in 2005, they would swap the FPS gameplay with quick time events, another badly aged game mechanique. They also stripped away the open world, taking away the player’s freedom. Gone was the big city to explore, instead the main characters are stuck inside houses and offices. While the first ten minutes of the game looked ripe with possibilities, everything else is pretty much a plot already written, little changes with the player’s input. One thing Cage retained from his first experience, though, was the “virtual actor” idea. When years later Sony ended up giving him a big budget, Ellen Page and Willem Defoe, among others, were cast and their likenesses put in game.
Cage also decided that the perfect balance design for his kind of“interactive movies” was just that: an action adventure with quick time events. This idea resulted, also, in flawed experiments like Beyond: Two Souls, arguably the worst game they’ve released so far, with a disjointed plot, bad use of virtual actors and limited gameplay.
The game can be found on GoG and it’s pretty easy to run on most modern machines, even if some people reported crashes when trying to save. There is one ideal candidate if you want to play a much better gameplay experience similar to the gameplay hybrid: Beyond Good and Evil, also found on GoG. Obviously, the latter is lighter in atmosphere, even though the situation is much more dire. The player is given some freedom to explore but not as much as Quantic Dream’s title. Still, it has aged surprisingly better, featuring memorable characters and different, fun, gameplay styles in one package, even though I was never a big fan of the overtly long stealth sections. That is definitely one game I will be showcasing on the blog.
Thanks to Stephan Venker for the box shots of his Nomad Soul collection!