Why Are Video Games Obsessed With Bathrooms?
Read this excerpt from Heterotopias 003, a zine about games, architecture, and ideology.
All images from issue 003 of Heterotopias
The Heterotopias project, which connects games and architecture through studies and visual essays that dissect spaces of play, exploration, violence and ideology. You can get Heterotopias 003 here.
When you flush the toilet in a video game, what are you in the middle of? The question wouldn't be worth asking if there weren't that many video game bathrooms. But there are many: bathrooms have appeared frequently in video games since at least the mid-1990s, and they've evolved in realism and aesthetic complexity right alongside the evolution of 3D spaces themselves.
In his essay on "Infantile Sexuality," Freud made the controversial claim that, as children develop, their erogenous zones move from the mouth to the anus to, finally, the genitals. A Freudian would find it hard not to see the first wave of video game bathrooms as the products of a kind of industry-wide anal phase, shaped by potty humor and an almost excessive fascination with poop. Duke Nukem 3D was arguably the first first-person shooter to feature a 3D environment that felt real, weighty, and interactive. It was also the first first-person shooter to feature a bathroom—an incredibly detailed bathroom where you could open and close the stall door, inspect your churlish face in the mirror, and invade the privacy of an alien trying to defecate. In The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, one of the most memorable sidequests features a hand reaching out from the depths of a toilet in search of "Pa-Pa-Pa Paper, please!" In Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001) , a game notable both for its aesthetic innovations and bad taste, one of the boss fights takes place in the toilet-like cavern of the Great Mighty Poo, a fecal monstrosity that sings a song about itself.
As video games—and especially first-person shooters—evolved in graphical complexity over the course of the 2000s, however, digital bathrooms began to be built to serve different purposes. They moved on from being visual gags; they were conscripted instead into the project of realism. Even if they tended to be optional areas where you might pick up a health pack, or find an upgrade, or kill a stray enemy, or encounter a jump scare, that very optional-ness made them crucial to the game's performance of a believable space. When I asked him about bathrooms in more contemporary games, the designer Robert Yang offered an unvarnished and truthful account of them. Most are there to "signify expense and production value": "The fact that an in-game toilet is interactive, even though most game characters never need to pee or poop, is purposely wasteful to convey the developer's attitude toward details, to show that even useless details were important to them... and that's how much they love video games, and that's how much gamers should love their love of video games."
But the waste isn't a waste. Just as extras can make a film set feel populated, bathrooms can make a game space feel lived in, embodied. You could argue that they only rupture the diegesis by revealing the presiding, crafting hand of the developer at work—whoever it is that spent countless man-hours animating the lid of a toilet, texturing the disrepair of a stall door. But something about that feeling of effort expended—that feeling that a body was hunched over this space, laboring to make it real—gives the space texture and weight. Interaction designer and digital media professor Janet Murray described the effect: "It is almost as if the programmer within the system is waving at us, but doing so in a manner that deepens rather than disrupts the immersive world."
Over the course of the 2000s, video game bathrooms also evolved into key sites for what is (sometimes pejoratively) referred to as "environmental storytelling": places where you might find an audiolog telling a cartoonishly grim story, bloody graffiti on the wall, or a dead body sprawled in obvious, telegraphed despair. The BioShock series is notorious for this. Not long after you enter the underwater city of Rapture in the first game, you enter one of its bathrooms—a space of gilded disrepair flanked with neon signs for "GENTS" and "DAMES." A body lies crumpled beneath the rim of a dingy toilet. In it, a bottle of Old Tom's Whiskey—his last and only friend. It's a joke not so far from the toilet-alien in Duke Nukem. But it's also commodified poignancy: an encapsulated micronarrative, like Ernest Hemingway's "For sale: baby shoes, never worn," which relies on the bathroom's universal familiarity to deliver a quick dose of pathos.
BioShock Infinite took a big leap beyond its predecessor by presenting bathrooms not just as spaces of poignant squalor, but as spaces of racial disempowerment and state control. Its city among the clouds, Columbia, has segregated bathrooms: two for WHITES, two for COLOREDS & IRISH. Like any corresponding image from the era of Jim Crow, they present hard-to-stomach dichotomies that remind us of the state's sheer invasiveness under a regime of white supremacy—its power to control the body; its power to marginalize through inescapable humiliation. Open the door to the Coloreds & Irish men's room and you'll see a black man mopping, head down, under a sign telling him to mop. Enter the women's room on the whites side and you'll see gilded sinks and luxe red curtains on the stalls.
But Infinite's earnest attempt to represent bathrooms as sites of racial violence only underscores its representational limitations. These aren't bathrooms you have to use; they're not bathrooms you use as bathrooms. Thus, you're never subject to their exclusionary regime and humiliating power: you approach them as 3D images, like a tourist walking through museum dioramas. They are evocative, sure, but also fussy and over-designed: like the propaganda that covers nearly every surface of the game, they are there to be scanned from the comfort of an ironic distance: read, not experienced; seen, not felt.
If 'real-life' bathrooms are notable for being both necessary resources and potent ideological actors (and those two facets of bathrooms are always intertwined), video game bathrooms would seem to be the opposite: the vast majority of them are totally unnecessary, and because they're unnecessary, they don't have the same kind of power over their users. They can be meaningful, poignant spaces to walk through, but they don't engage the social self: you don't feel nervous or comfortable, exposed or reposed, humiliated or relieved—or somewhere in the middle: just fine, maybe—on the cold of the porcelain bowl. You don't see your face in the mirror. You don't feel your body, in satisfaction or revolt.
But there are some video game bathrooms that try to capture that feeling—or a feeling, at least. There are some that try to represent the complex social and psychological negotiations, enabled and frustrated by architecture, that take place in that space. What follows is an investigation of three of them.
From the modernity of Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, through the potent mix of fear and sexuality in Robert Yang's The Tearoom, to the overwhelming detail of SOMA, you can read the rest of this piece, and see the virtual bathrooms it discusses, in issue 003 of Heterotopias. Launching today, the issue as a whole deals with how game spaces represent and reflect back on reality, with features on the The Last of Us and the Anthropocene, the architecture of GTA V, Killer 7's perverse reality and what Mirror's Edge Catalyst can tell us about urban inequality.