Why I Wish David Bowie Had Been More Involved with Video Games

Would David Bowie have put his own distinctive stamp on the gaming world the way he did with music and film if he had just gotten into the medium?

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29 January 2016, 12:00am

David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, from 1986's 'Labyrinth: The Computer Game.' Screencap via YouTube

When David Bowie died on January 10, the grief that ran through you, without ever personally knowing the man, was just as real as any you'd experience when a close relative passed. Nobody had the right to tell you otherwise. If you grew up in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, Bowie was all around you, whatever form he took. It was completely natural to feel a sense of loss when he succumbed to the most-dreaded of c-words. I know I felt it, immediately rendered numb at my kitchen table. Of course, his music was at the forefront of his output, influence, and impact, but he was an actor before he ever sang a note. He continued to express his passion for the stage and screen across his career. Some will always picture him as the Goblin King; others as the Man Who Fell to Earth, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, or Halloween Jack. More still, as an enigma that mortality could never reach. And though it did, you suspect time will never truly take him.

But this is no eulogy—there have been enough of those, and another from me isn't going to say anything you've not already read, touching tributes from the hearts of those who'd been more significantly touched by Bowie than I ever was. I don't own all his records. I only saw him play live once, and I can't remember all that much about it. Rather, these words are tinged with a different kind of sadness, regret, for what Bowie didn't achieve in his lifetime.

Bowie in 'Omikron: The Nomad Soul'

When news of Bowie's passing broke, game sites were quick to publish a couple of paragraphs on his contribution to the medium, almost exclusively focused on 1999's action-adventure affair for PC and Dreamcast, Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Bowie both appears in the game twice: He lent his voice and likeness to the renegade Boz and a nameless singer in a band called the Dreamers, and he contributed music for its soundtrack, alongside regular collaborator and Tin Machine colleague Reeves Gabrels.

The debut game from Paris-based studio Quantic Dream, headed up by founder David Cage, one of the most divisive directors in the gaming industry, Omikron laid down gameplay foundations for what followed after it, the likes of Heavy Rain, Fahrenheit, and Beyond: Two Souls. Which is to say: ponderous dialogue, a confusing plot, sci-fi interjections that derail any attachment the player might think he or she has with leading characters, and the general impression that this all might work better as a movie, rather than a game. OK, we can probably give Heavy Rain a pass from that kind of criticism—its flashes of future-tech funny business don't entirely spoil what's otherwise a gritty noir thriller about a serial killer, containing a pretty well-masked twist. But to cut a long story short, Omikron was not a particularly good game, especially if you played the port for Sega's near-death Dreamcast. Much of its publicity came not from Cage's ambition to create "interactive dramas" in the gaming world, but for the previously unreleased Bowie material on the soundtrack.

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Omikron's current publishers, Square Enix, offered it as a free download after Bowie's death, as a tribute. But a better game to play, to remember the man by, might well be 1986's Commodore 64 adventure based on the dark children's fantasy movie Labyrinth, in which Bowie played the primary antagonist, the aforementioned Goblin King, Jareth. I'm not about to get into the plot of the film—you can watch it for yourself and revel in the terrific Jim Henson puppetry, which as fine as it was couldn't turn his final movie as director into a box-office hit. But its video game tie-in didn't completely adhere to its story.

For one thing, you weren't cast as a young Jennifer Connelly—the player could choose his or her name, sex, and favorite color at the game's start (in the mid-1980s, amazing, eh?), which would then generate an on-screen avatar. The player is then sucked into a labyrinth, the labyrinth, through a cinema screen, and has 13 real-time hours to find and defeat Jareth. As well as being interesting for deviating from its parent picture, Labyrinth: The Computer Game is also noteworthy as the first title developed by Lucasfilm Games, later LucasArts, which would go on to make The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, and more. Plus, it was co-designed by The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams.

Bowie was more actively involved in the making of Omikron than he ever was with the Labyrinth game, but for someone so enthralled by technology, so demanding of himself to not just move with musical trends but to spearhead them, I find it disappointing that his time working with Quantic Dream didn't lead to more interactive adventures.

Speaking at a late-1990s press conference for Omikron's then-publishers Eidos, he told the assembled reporters, "My experience with computers goes back a long time." He added: "I've played Tomb Raider, and like every other hot-blooded male, I was in love with Lara." He expresses enthusiasm for contributing a soundtrack specially commissioned for a video game, and talks about the process of becoming a character in it. But throughout the video, above, Bowie kept the potential of gaming at arm's length. At that point in his life, he clearly saw gaming as more of a tech discipline than a genuine form of art, flexible to fit almost any inspiration, saying that the point of doing the music was to "provide an emotional heart to the game." Today, some of the most affecting video games barely have music at all.

Bowie understood film, and bent the medium to suit his ideas for what it could mean to people. Music flowed through his veins, and he let it run both simmering and ice-cool across 27 studio albums and so much more. He wasn't always the maverick-spirited pop polymorph some are quick to paint him as—he arguably blossomed fullest beside compatible artists, visionaries and engineers, like Ken Scott, Brian Eno, Tony Visconti, and Nile Rodgers. I can't help but feel that he would have done the same in gaming, given the chance, which in turn makes me wonder if his experience on Omikron actively put him off future projects.

David Cage is a single-minded creative, a man who still wants to connect video games to motion pictures, even though his own form argues that he shouldn't. But games are capable of so much more, of a far deeper emotional resonance and greater heights of innovation than any passively consumed media, like film and music. We see this every year: in Gone Home, Journey, Actual Sunlight, The Last of Us, Spec Ops: The Line, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, Life Is Strange, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. And that's without dipping even the tiniest toe into the really wild stuff, of no precedent whatsoever, at gaming's fringes. I can picture Cage speaking to Bowie between takes, telling him how he sees gaming evolving: into Fahrenheit, into Beyond: Two Souls. Games where you're a distant director, not a central player. The story happens around you, your palpable influence on it minimal. The fourth wall remains strong. You can forgive Bowie for running a mile in the opposite direction.

'Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain' screenshot by Steve Haske

VICE's number-one game of 2015, as voted for by our gaming writers, was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Hideo Kojima's final Metal Gear title prior to his departure from franchise owners Konami, The Phantom Pain is both a stealth-action masterpiece and a shameless love letter to the director's favorite musical artist, David Bowie. The first song that plays in the game is "The Man Who Sold the World"; later, the private military company that forms around the leading character, Big Boss, is called the Diamond Dogs. Kojima's a gaming talent out there on his own, undoubtedly capable of brilliance yet also of completely alienating admirers with a single tweet about a squeezable action figure. He exudes an aura of being able to do what he likes, when he likes, and whatever that is, nobody else will have made anything like it. The same could be said of Bowie.

Imagine, then, if it'd been these two who'd collaborated on a video game back at the end of the last millennium, or anytime since. What might Bowie have ultimately given the gaming world? What might Kojima—or Yu Suzuki, or Peter Molyneux, or Keita Takahashi, or Ken Levine, or Tim Schafer, or Shinji Mikami, or the Stamper brothers, or the daddy of the lot of them, Shigeru Miyamoto (and I could go on, easily)—have taught Bowie about games that someone like David Cage just couldn't express, because of the blinkers he's so eager to wear? When I look back at what Bowie meant to video games, I'm almost angry that Omikron is what he'll be most remembered for. The man deserved better; he just needed gaming's own Eno, or someone like him, rather than a guide who is to the widening of gaming's horizons what Michael Bay is the subtleties of the silver screen.

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