Throw me tomorrow, now that I really have a large medkit…
On the blog, I have already talked about how, in the nineties, several novelists got involved in the development of videogames, but that was not all. Several popular musician got in the business at well, at first just for the dreaded “multimedia product” of the mid 90s, when everyone was jumping at the possibility of making a CD-ROM, later also in videogames. Looking back now, we really missed the boat: back in the 2000 not only Queen had released their own adventure game, but David Bowie was writing the soundtrack for and appearing in a futuristic interactive experience. Eidos definitely 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 to develop arguably better titles like Heavy Rain and, most recently, Detroit: Become Human. Let’s find out if Omikron 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 (underlined, 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 what is going on with Kay’l framed for the murder of his work partner. The moment where the main character reaches out directly for the player’s help, breaking the fourth wall, is probably the main reason why The Nomad Soul is still remembered today. Except for the involvment of David Bowie, that is. The whole nomad soul mechanic is a brillant idea, giving a whole new layer of respect to “guy in underwear sitting in front of a monitor playing videogames”. To be honest, the same idea can be found in a pretty average 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 an excuse 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, well, one gets bored. While it might sound as a pretty interesting and unique design idea (one that later titles like Messiah did not seem to do much with it either), it is revealed 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 of whom one inhabits and the city does not feature that many great places to explore. This problematic transition from blueprint to actual gameplay concept will end up being a rather common issue in future Quantic Dream titles as well, 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 really a brilliant idea, since it also rears its ugly head in Indigo Prophecy. Should one found those sections in that game tiresome, I am sorry to report that they are, unfortunately, even worse in The Nomad Soul. 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 graphical engine has not rendered yet. Or, worse, they spawn behind the character, shooting directly in their 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 ambitious design 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 and exploration gameplay are slightly better, even though they still do 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 full interaction with the 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 (yes this time for real), fighting will usually end up as the one obvious go-to method to bypass obstacles. Ironically enough, there is 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 as soon as combat is entered. Also, the save system is limited by how many “save rings” one possesses, which was a rather awkward choice for a game that first saw life on PC (being, later, also released 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 overall project of Omikron seemed to be mainly for advertising reasons: his contribution doesn’t sound like it came out of his actual involvment with the actual development of the virtual world of The Nomad Soul. This might explain why most of the songs, while pretty good by Bowie’s 90s standards, would end up exactly in the same form on the Hours… album. I am sure everyone remembers that one, where Bowie seemed to reflect on his getting older. In reality, most of the songs the player will end up listening to while playing, were composed by Xavier Despas. Listening to Bowie’s Hours on its own, there seem to be, honestly, little to no connections to the videogame at all, which I guess, in a way 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. The Nomad Soul also features the appeareance of the first “virtual actor”: the Dreamers band, which the player will find randomly in a bar, the singer has the Thin White Duke’s likeness, awkwardly playing songs from the album. And no, naturally it is not possible to play with Bowie as the main character, like one would in Apocalypse on PlayStation, starring Bruce Willis and his comically bad lines.
We are the dead FMVs, we take the blame
Still, despite all of its problems and the English singer’s involvement, The Nomad Soul does still feature 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 would call it 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, instead, with virtual ones. In a time when 3D graphics were still pretty much incapable of making anything “virtual” look like reality. The characters are not digitized versions of real people, but fully textured 3D models. But yes, sadly the “nomad soul” mechanique wasn’t utilized to its full potential, but it was still unique, even though the plot did not really seem to be designed around that idea. The technology, while dated by today’s standards, was well ahead of its time 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 sequel and overall better designed title, had the studio kept on its course.
Seeing my future to let it go
Quantic Dream unfortunately never really seemed to have any intentions of fixing the flaws. For the mentioned follow-up project helmed by David Cage, 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 pretty much boring houses and offices, for the most time at least. While the first ten minutes of the game looked ripe with possibilities, opening up myriads of alternative roads for the player, the rest of the game is firmly stuck on rails. The plot is basically set in stone and little will change 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 of design for his kind of “interactive movies” was not that of a virtual world fo explore, but a limited action adventure with quick time events. This idea resulted 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 Nomad Soul 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 one is looking to play a much better gameplay experience, which uses a similar 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! Sadly, Stephan has recently passed away, still thanks eternal to him for his support in writing this. GoG links on this page earn a small commission.