Screen Robot explore that most memorable and creative of videogame spaces; the toilet
Of all my great memories of Duke Nukem 3D, the one that particularly sticks with me is my first toilet experience in the game; turning a corner to see – quite literally – a bog-standard alien facing me, only to find that I was in fact looking into a mirror, and that I had to do a quick U-turn to blow the bastard away. Once the deadly deed was done, I proceeded to take in my surroundings.
That Duke toilet featured all the amenities you’d expect in real life – sinks, bogs, hand-dryers and vents – and yet there was something impressive about seeing these innocuous features in a 3D game environment. I could go for a piss, open cubicle doors, and blow away hapless shitting aliens along with the toilets I’d catch them sitting on (not to mention douse myself in the subsequent fountain of toilet water to regain health). After admiring myself in the mirror from all of two possible angles – face-on and slightly diagonally – I discovered a hidden vent in the top corner of the room, which led to an entangled stripper who I had no choice but to put out of her misery; the whole experience was infinitely more rewarding than peeping through a glory-hole. The sentimental significance of the toilet was not lost on Duke developers 3D Realms, who fifteen years later opened Duke Nukem Forever with Duke taking a leak in a urinal, which you could control to your own mild amusement.
Since the days of the Duke, trivial interactivity in videogame toilets has become something of a tradition. The ability to flush a toilet, turn on a tap, or (least interestingly) switch on a hand-dryer continues to be seen in such AAA releases as BioShock, Deus Ex, Fallout, as well as indie titles like Gone Home. These actions rarely have a purpose that progresses the game or advances your character in any way, and yet they are crucial reminders of player agency; the ultimate indicator that you’re in control of your avatar in relation to his/her surroundings, and the fact that you’re in an interactive environment created for your perusing pleasure.
Toilets also serve as technical exhibition rooms. 3D Realms were being shameless show-offs with that first Duke 3D toilet, while the flushing-and-refilling water in the classy BioShock Infinite bogs was a twee touch, designed to make us say ‘How charming.’ One of the most prominent images from Doom 3’s marketing – a game that inaugurated a new generation of first-person shooters – was based in a toilet; a blood-smeared chrome restroom, complete with a pinkie demon feasting on an obese zombie. Walking around a Doom 3 toilet allowed you to appreciate the impressive rendering, flickering lights, and other graphical niceties. Not that you’d be spending too much time playing with the sinks or admiring the fine polishing job on the taps, as for every medkit or ammo pack you’d find in a cubicle there’d be an imp or pinkie demon in the next one ready to pounce. This was Doom 3’s style through and through; true to its roots, it’s a game that strengthens you with power-ups and weapons, and immediately forces you to use them. While the shock factor of these ambushes eventually faded, they always felt most powerful in the restroom, where we instinctively think we’ll get some respite.
The Silent Hill series too is fond of its bathrooms. In Silent Hill 2, the game begins with James Sunderland’s sallow face in the mirror of an observation deck toilet. The camera then pans up from behind a murky urinal as you take control of James to begin his bleak, nightmarish adventure. The game literally opens with the urinal taking centre-stage! Far from the absurd restrooms of Duke, there are no damsels in distress, defecating monsters or piss opportunities in this toilet. The observation deck toilet is simply a dilapidated, ruined space – an expression of James’ tortured psyche perhaps – that sets the tone for the rest of the game. Not so much a sense of imminent danger, as lingering dread.
Toilets also serve as technical exhibition rooms. 3D Realms were being shameless show-offs with that first Duke 3D toilet, while the flushing-and-refilling water in the classy BioShock Infinite bogs was a twee touch.
Subsequent games in the series build on the bog. In Silent Hill 3, you can get poor protagonist Heather to rummage through a grotty latrine, only for her to back out, accusingly look at the camera, and ask you ‘who would do such a thing.’ This would only happen if you had a memory card in your PS2 containing Silent Hill 2 data, where James’ foray into shitty waters yields him a wallet. This rare comedic moment is outweighed by the far more ominous scenario where knocking on a cubicle at the Central Square Shopping Center results in someone knocking back; a simple but unsettling defiance of our expectations of what to hear when we knock on a toilet cubicle in real life (usually a sheepish ‘go away,’ or embarrassed shuffling followed by an awkward silence as the hapless defecator cself-consciously clenches his ass-cheeks).
Later in Silent Hill 3, you can return to the same toilet once you’ve moved over to the Otherworld. This time when you knock however, the knock back is accompanied by the door opening, where you’re greeted with a blood-splattered cubicle; a nod to the Hanako-san Japanese legend, where knocking on the third cubicle in a school toilet three times spawns a vengeful spirit of a Japanese girl.
On the other end of the scale, the videogame toilet can be a trove of bonuses, power-ups and vents – conveniently designed for humans to traverse. The segregated toilets of BioShock Infinite are not only a reminder of the regressive social systems that exist in Columbia, but are always guaranteed to provide you with health, salts and – in one instance – edible potatoes floating in the limpid loo waters; all washed and ready to eat. Equally helpful – but decidedly less dignified – are the toilets of Fallout 3, from which you can slurp irradiated toilet water to regain 3HP at a cost of 18 radiation points. Before you get all judgemental, just think what you’d do in a post-nuclear wasteland?
Deus Ex: Human Revolution seems to enforce the highest standards of sanitation with its lavatories. They’re so clinical that you can’t even open the toilet lids; you can merely flush them, and watch the LED indicator change from red to green. In perhaps the most amusingly true-to-life scenario of any mentioned in this article, snooping around in the ladies’ room (like any curious gamer will do in any game that gives you such an opportunity) will get you scolded by your superiors; a tradition that continues from the original Deus Ex. Scout around the bogs a bit though, and you may find vents; these act as a crucial means of transportation in Deus Ex, leading to offices, computer terminals, or quite simply other toilets to perv around in.
No matter how many sordid toiletary trysts you may have had, or whatever crystallised substances you’ve snorted off the cistern, the way in which games have utilised this most sacred of spaces is unique to the medium. Of course games also use them in simpler ways, such as shitting to save in No More Heroes, or going for a pee in Heavy Rain that’s so mundane and realistic that you almost feel awkward watching the character go about his most natural business.
But these aren’t the experiences that stick in our memories. Videogame toilets have been used in such wild and creative ways over the years, that they’re an example of art going one better than imitating life, and transcending it; turning the most everyday of spaces into a place of exploration, fear, and fun. The canon of videogame toilets has reached a point where just about every toilet door we open, we rightfully have a sense of giddy expectation as to what awaits us behind it…
… and whatever that may be, it almost certainly won’t be shit.
Now, to distract you from that awful, irresistible pun, what are your most memorable videogame toilet experiences?