Drinking Radioactive Toilet Water – The Importance of Bathrooms in Video Games

29 11 2008

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Trader Vic's at the Plaza

To anyone who has ever accidentally wandered into a bathroom while tripping on psychedelics, the power of that room to act as a conduit for deeper understanding of one’s self is undeniable. Looking into a bathroom mirror while tripping can trap you like a deer in headlights.  Suddenly you’re caught, unable to move, think, or even pee.   My own tale involves wandering into the Trader Vic’s tiki bar bathroom in the Plaza Hotel after a long, sweaty (and oddly bloody) day of tripping balls and playing Frisbee in Central Park.  My bowel was telling me I needed a pit stop, but once I entered that cool, quiet room with fancy marble and big, unblinking mirrors – plus the octogenarian attendant eyeing me with well-placed suspicion – there was no way I was capable of producing anything more than conspiracy theories and a dusty dribble of pee.  After a few minutes pretending that I was busy and trying not to completely melt into the toilet, I hastily scurried out of the bathroom and back out onto Central Park South where my inner monologue could be directed at others, and not on myself.  Phew… That was a close call.

Life in DC

Life in Fallout's DC

Recently I was scavenging supplies in Megaton, a shantytown just outside of Washington, DC, taking a fetid drink of radiated water from of a filthy toilet, when I suddenly came down off of both Jet and Psycho, two drugs to which I’m currently addicted, and had to take a moment and just reflect on my life.  And it my dawned on me…  This is just like that other time at trader Vic’s when I was tripping and bloody.  The only difference is that Trader Vic’s bathroom was in a fancy New York restaurant, and this one was an outhouse in post-apocalyptic DC, in the game Fallout 3 on the Xbox 360.  But in both cases, it’s the experience of facing myself in the isolation and solitude of a bathroom that I begin to see both myself, and the world, in brutal and unflinching clarity.

Duke enjoying the view

I realized that depictions of bathrooms in videogames offer an interesting perspective into the evolution of interactivity, realism and meaning within games.  Who can forget the thrill the first time you saw your character reflected in a bathroom mirror, or the ‘magic’ of the first actual time a toilet flushed?  The first game to turn the bathroom into more than just textures for me was Duke Nukem 3D, a pioneering FPS game that tried to make as much of the game world interactive as possible.  The bathrooms offered working lightswitches and sinks, as well as urinals and toilets that flushed (along with a satisfied grunt from Duke himself).  Duke was also capable of getting a good long look at himself in the mirror – then still a unique opportunity for an FPS game.

Bride cleaning the toilet in The Sims

Bride cleaning the toilet in The Sims

Game bathrooms have become more commonplace and useful since then, evolving into a zone where spare ammo and health packs can usually be found, as well as the requisite hidden-enemy-in-toilet.  Sometimes bathrooms offer a secret passage or escape.  That’s why you have to open every stall door – every time (it’s same equation in horror movies).  On the other end of the spectrum are games like the Sims, which effectively turn the bathroom, and all basic bodily functions, into core components of game play.  While this might make for a less-than-thrilling game mechanic, it nonetheless is an interesting effort to inject realism into a game about the minutae of daily life. 

Preys next-gen facilities

Prey's next-gen facilities

One interesting aspect of game bathrooms is how they can be used to gauge a game’s art, design and graphical detail.  Things like running water, flickering lights, reflections on metal, tile and glass can all be challenging to realistically render, especially when they interact – like in a bathroom.  Over the years, checking out a game’s bathroom was an easy way to quickly determine a game’s visual quality and style.  The opening scene of Prey, one of the earliest “next gen” titles on 360 takes place entirely within the bathroom of Jen’s bar, a dusty joint on an Indian reservation.  The first thing the player sees is a reflection of his character in the dirty mirror.  A quick investigation of the rest of the bathroom shows a new level of interactivity and detail – water flows into sinks realistically, air dryers work when pressed.  Even the condom machines have turning coin mechanisms.  Outside, the bar contains a working TV, juke box, Pac-Man coin-op clone and poker machines. 

Odd Sculptures in a Ruined Rapture Bathroom

Another recent standout of beauty, functionality and design are the gorgeously decaying bathrooms in Bioshock’s Rapture.  With their retro art deco styling, rotten walls dripping with water and submerged floors, you could practically smell the mold growing in them.  

In Fallout 3, the functionality of the bathroom is taken a step further by providing a resource needed to live – health-boosting water.  But it does so in a double-edged form – the water is radioactive.  Individual small doses are not too bad, but drink too much and the radiation accumulates in your body over time, forcing you to consume anti-radiation meds to which you will undoubtedly become addicted.  So every time you look at a bathroom or toilet in Fallout, you ask yourself  “How badly do I need that drink of water?”  Health management forces you to consider what kind of player you want to be: Methodical and patient, or quick and dirty?  Clean or addicted? Unexpectedly, the Fallout 3 bathroom has become the location where self-reflection and moral choices are faced – just like that time in the bathroom at Trader Vic’s on Central Park South.

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Why Won’t Mirror’s Edge Make Me Vomit? I Wanna Be Sick Too.

25 11 2008

After reading the mostly stellar reviews of Mirror’s Edge, I was intrigued by a unique theme popping up around the interwebs.  Something about ME was different – and people were getting sick because of it.  It was not the seisure-inducing  flashing epilepsy lights associated with anime of years past.  No, this was something different, affecting videogame reviewers and bloggers with remorseless consistency. Although fimiliar, something in the game’s first-person perspective was screwing with people’s sense of self.

The subtle but distinct visual style of ME, which adopts the  conventions of FPS games, now includes seeing your limbs onscreen.  Seen mostly in glimpses while jumping, sprinting and rolling, but nonetheless ever-present, these limbs of yours convey far more information than the static gun-in-hand perspective seen in almost every previous first person game.

Until recently most games dealt with embodiment issues by largely ignoring them. Subtleties, such as a player’s sense of self, were secondary to game-play mechanics, therefore most first and third-person characters usually have the agility of a Roomba – able to navigate a proscribed area with ease, but stumped by a seemingly innocuous curb or pile of rubble.

Over the years, and especially in the recent console generation, the sense of embodiment and locomotion have been addressed by a number of games with great success.  Assassin’s Creed and  Crackdown both left me with a new perspective on architecture, feeling like I could ably scale any building in RL (currently untested).  But these games are played from the third person perspective.  Mirror’s Edge offers similar locomotive freedom, but seen from the first person perspective – from the eyes of your character, Faith.

When combined with the frantic rooftop chases, dizzying heights and leaps of faith (clever, or coincidence?) the unique visual perspective creates one of the most intense and visceral game experiences in a long time.  So intense that many reviewers focus on the nausea, vertigo and yes, even vomiting.

*It’s worth noting briefly that I have a fair amount of experience with issues of video games, embodiment and identity, having just received an MFA in conceptual art with a thesis  titled “The Emergence of the Mediasapien.”

So down I sit with Mirror’s Edge, ready for the salivating, the queasiness, the vertigo.  In short – ready for an EXPERIENCE.  I turned down the lights, cranked up the audio, sat a little too close to the 36″ LCD and played the shit out of that game.  I partied too hard, ate too much junk food – anything to give an edge to the sickness.  But it never came.  I played and played, but never got sick, never threw up. Never even burped.

What a letdown.  Here I was, a game-thrill otaku playing what is arguably a paradigm-shifting title, doing everything short of downing Mentos and Diet Coke trying to experience the bleeding edge of digital embodiment.  And yet here I am, with a bout of rock-solid intestinal fortitude not seen since the Counterstrike era.  What gives?  Was I trying too hard?  Am I too game savvy, too experienced in the ways of the pixel?  Did that childhood problem with my inner ear leave me immune to dizzy spells? I don’t know.  I only know that this game, while great in every other way, simply won’t make me sick.