As tributes and remembrances roll out today, we will hear a lot about David Bowie — as a musician, as an actor, as a public speaker. And, maybe, as a … video-game character. Back around the turn of the century, Bowie made video-game history (well, video-game-history footnote, at least) with an appearance in Omikron: The Nomad Soul, an odd hybrid of a video game for the PC and ill-fated Sega Dreamcast. Developed by Quantic Dream, Omikron featured Bowie’s musical work and, in what it claimed was a first for the industry, the entertainer’s virtual likeness.
Some context: Bowie had always been fascinated with science fiction and cutting-edge technology, an obsession he demonstrated over and over again in his choices as a musician and actor, and the 1990s — and the rise of the internet — were a particularly fruitful time for this passion.
In 1995, Bowie and producer Brian Eno reunited to make Outside, an industrial-influenced art-cyberpunk concept album for which he wrote a short story and invented a new set of characters; for years, he teased the possibility of releasing sequels with more material from those sessions — “documenting,” he proposed, “the last five years of this millennium,” one at a time.
Outside’s legendary sequel, Contamination, never materialized, but Bowie’s fascination with the internet continued apace. In 1999, he recorded what press releases enthusiastically described as the “first cyber song,” co-written with a lyrics-contest winner from Bowie’s six-dollar-a-month fan site, BowieNet. Streamed over RealAudio, the song was called “What’s Really Happening.” Here he is talking about it on a show called Internet Tonight:
And here’s the song itself, later featured on his album Hours (the cover art for which fits exactly into the early-web aesthetic now embraced by vaporwave and the DIS crew):
And there was Omikron. It’s unclear exactly how Bowie hooked up with the developers, but during the 1999 Electronic Entertainment Expo, when promotion of the game was in full swing, an executive with Eidos, the game’s publisher, said that Bowie “spent two hectic weeks in design sessions with us in Paris.”
Bowie would play two characters in the game: The first, Boz, is a cyberbeing who exists within computer networks. (It seems slightly odd only until you stack it up against Bowie’s many other personas, as well as his early adoption of the World Wide Web.) Elsewhere, Bowie appears with collaborators Reeves Gabrels and Gail Ann Dorsey in a virtual band that performs in bars around the city. (Supermodel Iman, Bowie’s wife, also appeared in the game as one of the city’s residents whom players can reincarnate as.)
Speaking about his appearance at the time, he said:
Coming across my digital alter-ego in a dark street is not necessarily my idea of fun - but to anyone else who comes across my character in the game, well, I think they’ll judge my performance in terms of its cinematic characterization like one would any dramatic performance. So, lucky for those digital creations in there who don’t have real-life counterparts to be analyzed! The game has turned out to have a very cinematic feel, with the music adding emotional depth to the playing out of the drama.
So, lucky for those digital creations in there who don’t have real-life counterparts to be analyzed: The game has turned out to have a very cinematic feel, with the music adding emotional depth to the playing out of the drama.”
Sadly, the drama didn’t quite cut it. Omikron takes place in a city of the same name (“the interactive love child of Blade Runner and The Fifth Element,” as the New York Times put it), in which a player navigates the futuristic setting. Its “Nomad Soul” subtitle comes from the game’s central mechanic: being able to switch bodies and characters at will. Reviews of the game, both contemporary and retrospective, are less than glowing, calling much of the game half-baked.
But more important to Bowie fans, he’d written music for the game. Bowie said, “I moved right away from the stereotypical industrial game-music sound. … My priority in writing music for Omikron was to give it an emotional subtext. It feels to me as though Reeves and I have achieved that. We both worked closely with Quantic Dream to come up with eight new songs for the game.”
Those songs would later end up on Hours, alongside the very first “cyber song.”
Omikron hasn’t aged well — graphically or structurally — but it helped kickstart a growing mainstream interest in games, and celebrity interest in being involved in them. Maybe more important, it stands as another artifact of Bowie’s thirst for experimentation and change — and his love for the artistic and transformative properties of technology and the internet. “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg,” Bowie told Jeremy Paxman in 2000. “I think the potential of what the Internet is going to do to society both good and bad is unimaginable. I think we’re on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.”