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

29 11 2008


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.




One response

10 04 2009
Fallout 3 as Economic Stimulus Model « The MediaSapien

[…] thoughts on Fallout 3 and the value of bathrooms in video games. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)No TitleDetails about Fallout 3: […]

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