On Programs & Powder Rooms
Public restrooms have always fascinated me. These seemingly mundane, unpleasant, and often unsanitary facilities are really quite marvelous examples of utilitarian, and often aesthetic, design. In modern Western society, an individual encounters countless examples of restrooms during his or her lifetime. Each usually provides the same basic functions - some type of human waste receptacle (most commonly toilets and urinals), some means of affording privacy to their users, and a means of washing and drying those users afterwards. Yet, despite the myriad bathrooms we each have used, each one has always been just a little bit different. Each has possessed these core features in varying numbers, has had them arrayed in an assortment of locations, and these features have accomplished their purposes in slightly differing ways (the soggy roll of paper towels found lying on the floor vs. the Dyson Airblade™ mounted beside the sink). The particular quality and arrangement of these core features contain a lot of information about that facility’s environment. Restrooms project a certain feel, and it is possible to deduce a great deal about the values and priorities of a given establishment simply by examining its bathrooms.
The same is true of the restrooms we find in video games. Ludological lavatories do not, of course, fulfill the same function as their real world analogs, but while they do not provide a functional solution to a necessary human need, they instead serve as backdrops for exploration or battle while evoking particular aesthetic reactions in the player, and reinforcing the essence of each particular game’s world. Throughout the short history of video games, digital toilets have been quite successful in fulfilling their artistic goals. Many have left lasting impressions on our psyches, such as fond memories of dropping into battle among the stalls of GoldenEye 007, or of surprising a bloodthirsty alien wrestling with his “duty” in Duke Nukem 3D. The use of bathrooms to create unique, meaningful, and world-reinforcing player experiences is continued in the design of modern games. Below, we will examine several recent games whose restrooms illustrate this use of restrooms in video games.
An addition that was requested by fans of the original Mass Effect, Mass Effect 2’s Normandy features two small washrooms, one for each gender. Their design is stark, cramped, and affords little privacy, with each room’s sole door instantly exposing any occupants. This fact perhaps reflects the crew’s unique employment situation in ME2.
The bathrooms are, however, immaculately clean. So immaculate, in fact, that one doubts if they have ever been used. No one seemed to during my play-through - I suspect everyone was too busy saving the galaxy. Joking aside, I did enjoy this concept, that the team of heroes I was learning about and adventuring with were too busy researching, fighting, and just plain-old living to spend all that much time in the restroom. Both the rooms’ existence and their evident disuse helped to further deepen the game world and it was much appreciated.
Meanwhile, the Citadel’s Dark Star Lounge also possessed a public restroom. This one did actually feature someone using the facilities. Well, more accurately, someone considering using the facilities. I presume the Turian pictured below is trying to trying to work through the same quandary I am - Whether those are toilets, urinals, or both? The Mass Effect series is known for forcing its players to make difficult decisions, and its restrooms appear to be no different.
In addition, the lounge’s sole restroom appears to suffice for both genders. While I appreciate this future’s egalitarianism, I imagine that Miranda’s watchful eye isn’t helping move the process along.
BioShock 2’s restrooms serve to both reinforce and play with the game’s eclectic setting, and pay particular homage to Rapture’s battle against the hostile aquatic environment. The city’s elegant Art Deco design elements and vaulted architecture are being torn apart and warped by the ocean’s reclamation of Andrew Ryan’s erstwhile Randian utopia. While this process can be observed throughout Rapture, the oceanic infestation and decay seems to be gaining particular ground in the city’s bathrooms. As can be observed in this screenshot, several unique forms of decrepitude have taken root, including seaweed, phosphorescent coral, and a fish, as well as a torrent of seawater.
What I find particularly whimsical about the BioShock series’ restrooms is the attention its designers have given to the games’ sinks and toilets. When activated, each displays an attractive and realistic water effect. The simulated fluidity of the water is a treat to observe, and I particularly love the irony of flushing a toilet at the bottom of the ocean. This attention to detail allows me to relish this experience, and it is only heightened by the small splashes of realistically-rendered water.
Fallout 3’s restrooms reflect a good example of a common video game trope, i.e. the heavily damaged bathroom, often of a dystopian future. The facilities of Fallout 3 are decimated, filled with trash and grime, their walls dirty and chipped, where broken stalls and shattered porcelain abound. This only seems fitting, as this destruction was the result of a nuclear apocalypse. However, the game is able to emphasize a dichotomy between what was and what is now by making it evident that many of its restrooms started out quite nice, luxurious even. Note, in this screenshot, for example, the bathroom’s molded ceiling and marble floor tiles. The ruin of a magnificent bathroom is apprehended all the more by the players, and serves to underscore the epic scale of Fallout 3’s eviscerated landscape.
However, what really sets Fallout’s bathrooms apart is a mechanic that dates all the way back to the bathrooms of Duke Nukem 3D. That is, the ability of the character to regain health by drinking water from the bathroom’s sinks and toilets. This is very handy for the adventurer on the go. If injured, he need only pop into one of the wasteland’s many bathrooms to recover his or her health. But there is a price to pay - The dirtier the water, the more radiation the player gains as he or she drinks, neatly tying this convenient player option right back into the game’s overarching dystopian aesthetic.
In many ways, real life public restrooms are themselves quite similar to video games as a medium. Living as avid gamers in a modern technological society, we have each played countless games. These games often include elements and mechanics that are the same or very similar – shooting aliens, power-ups, tricky jumps, levels, extra lives. Just as is true of restrooms, these elements are constantly rearranged, recombined, and occasionally reinvented, yet the products that result are always slightly different, often quite fascinating, and occasionally truly marvelous.