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Time May Change Me: David Bowie and Omikron: The Nomad Soul

August 5, 2014  |  10:00am
Time May Change Me: David Bowie and <i>Omikron: The Nomad Soul</i>

Every time I thought I’d got it made / It seemed the taste / was not so sweet—David Bowie, “Changes,” Hunky Dory, 1971

We’ll all be right, we’ll all be right / We’ll all be right in the now—David Bowie, “We All Go Through,” Omikron: The Nomad Soul Soundtrack, 1999

A redheaded guy with a too-spherical face and extremely widely-set eyes jumps through a pixelated hurricane of a portal and immediately starts in with a fast-paced, confusing speech about transferring my soul into his body in order to enter his dimension and perform some urgent mission. After what seems like an intentionally vague cut-scene featuring both a monster and a bipedal robot, I am knocked several feet by one of countless identical hovercars, losing about eighty percent of my health.

So began my attempt to revisit Omikron, a half-written symphony of a virtual city and a nearly impressive failure of a videogame.

One of Omikron’s most touted features was the inclusion of three styles of play: third-person adventuring, head-to-head fighting and first-person shooting. Each is broken in its own elegant, low-level way. Omikron’s most significant in-game text, including municipal signs, is set in a typeface that is part stereotypical Egyptian script, part Mr. Saturn from Earthbound, and nearly unreadable. The city’s curiously plentiful bikini-clad asses are rendered angular and unconvincing, even by the standards of the day. Omikron’s status as a police state is the crux of the game’s first act, but the security at the city’s police headquarters can be entirely circumvented using a drugged cup of coffee and a pornographic magazine.

All of the above points were lost on me in 2002, during my first tour of Omikron. I was stuck whiling away summer vacation at my parents’ house, and my copy of Omikron was less a collection of bugs and half-baked ideas and more a decent-sized well of things to do that weren’t eating snacks, trying (with moderate success) to fool myself into liking the era’s lunk-headed brand of straight edge hardcore, or talking to internet friends. In fact, I enjoyed the game so much that I bestowed upon it the greatest honor available to me at the time: A couple of weeks later I rented it a second time in order to finish it. Almost exactly 12 years later, it appeared on a GOG sale and effortlessly coaxed a nostalgia-coated tenner out of my imaginary digital wallet.

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Omikron’s largest enduring legacy is the involvement of David Bowie. Bowie lent his voice to two in-game characters, wrote a few of the songs on Hours specifically for the soundtrack, and supposedly had some input on story and design. Whether he had a direct influence or not, Omikron leans heavily on the half-formed, paranoid “David Bowie future stuff” vibes that fly quite successfully in an unhinged film like The Man Who Fell To Earth, but which fall to earth (or whatever planet this is) extremely quickly in a videogame that demands a more fleshed-out universe.

Another way Omikron was influenced by Bowie: It permits the player to switch bodies nearly at will. As one progresses through the game, they’re apt to find themselves behind the eyes of a surprisingly wide variety of thieves, tough guys and squares. In 2002, I was a year away from moving to college and finally grabbing some of the freedom that had been eluding me as a carless, suburban internet teen. I played as the original weird-looking cop for as long as you possibly could, until the game executed him and my soul was forced to inhabit someone else. My sticking with the cop makes sense in retrospect: From an identity standpoint 16 year-old me was pretty content with band t-shirts, Dreamcast games and blue Gatorade. My fear made sense: Lack of change creates fear of change. When it came, would it be like one of David Bowie’s, coming off as simultaneously effortless and revelatory? Or would it be more like one of Omikron’s genre changes, where everything would suddenly cease to work as expected and become absurdly, unfairly difficult?

In 2014 I inhabited as many Omikronians as I could in hopes of making the game more fun, which did not work. I live in New York now, and it’s arguable that the only defensible reason for me to try to cram myself here was an inclination towards the sense of potential and variety of human experience that this place offers. Nobody has any job security. People are always arriving or leaving. Change is a constant, which is another way of saying that it’s easy to cop out of committing to very much.

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David Bowie’s ability to suss depth out of that kind of transience—his fluctuating personalities and wholehearted, sincere embrace of boogaloo dudes, queen bitches and rock and roll’s most frivolous traits—played a huge part in setting him apart from his peers, who mostly seemed concerned with acting like they were carved from marble and making grand gestures towards history. Bowie’s ability to pivot on a dime was, among other things, the result of the new social and cultural freedoms afforded by the post-hippie era in which he came up, but his bold-faced commitment made him The Thin White Duke instead of Skinny Coke Haircut Dork.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul’s transience (a generous way of saying the game spreads itself too thin) was, among other things, the result of technological freedoms afforded by increases in storage space and processing speed. For whatever input Bowie had in the game, however, he was unable to contribute his trademark monomania. Instead of doing one thing really well and changing that thing extremely frequently, Omikron just does a lot of different things poorly. Whether you’re a musical genius, a fourth-tier videogame or some boogaloo dude in New York, maintaining a good balance of structure and churn is hard, but it pays off.

Aside from (reluctantly) fond memories of playing it until sunrise, I’m unable to rouse the source of the goodwill I ever had for Omikron. Like my love of blue Gatorade, or a time when you could con maybe the coolest person of all time into contributing to your terrible but well-intentioned videogame, or the Let’s Dance era when Bowie had a blonde perm and wore suspenders all the time, that part of me is probably gone for good. After guiding an Omikronian poetry student to death by hail of gunfire for the eighth or ninth time in a row, I pulled the chute and impulsively went out drinking with a friend I’ve had for years and a friend I just met a few weeks ago. We took a chance on a bar we don’t go to very often; the music sucked but they were playing The Warriors, so it was fine.

Joe Bernardi is a writer and web developer living in Brooklyn. His words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. He’s got both a Twitter and a blog.

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