Idle Musing: The Joy Of Bodily Functions

By Jim Rossignol on April 27th, 2012 at 12:00 pm.


Occasionally – just occasionally, mind – games choose to add some of our real-world bodily functions to the characters we control in them. Hunger, thirst, even nausea and sewage creation. For some reason, this is peculiarly satisfying, and as such is almost always popular with players: as most strongly evidenced by the popularity of The Sims, with its filling bladders and exponential human smelliness. But it is not just in the human-petting genre that we find such earthy processes: from Stalker’s insatiable hunger for bread and sausages to San Andreas’ hilarious obesity problem, games occasionally deign to amuse us with the things that we wrestle with every day.


I suppose there are two motivations for mimicking real bodily functions in games (rather than abstracting them with stats such as dexterity and hit points) and the first of those is that they are funny. Yes, it’s a fun joke for Duke to take a pee and get some health back. Such are our inhibitions that we find an easy laugh in pooing, weeing, vomiting, and even sneezing, at least where the sneezing produces some kind of mucilaginous projection.

Basic body function comedy has always been a part of gaming – you only need to think back to the 1987 title How To Be A Complete Bastard, with its wee-o-meter and fart-o-meter, to be sure of that.


The darker side of the body-comedy trend is seen in things like people walling up Sims so that they can never get to the toilet, or in the use of pissing as a faintly horrifying attack in the Postal games. Then we reach the aspects of bodily processes which are not funny at all: starvation, drowning, and serious injury.

These processes mark the second reason for games to mimic bodily functions. That is to create game systems that are immediately comprehensible, while at the same time resonating with our experiences. Sleeping in Bully, for example, acted to underline who the protagonist of the game was: a kid. If he didn’t get to bed early enough then you’d pass out from exhaustion. The patches that added sleeping back into Stalker: Shadow Of Chernobyl, meanwhile, added in another layer of atmosphere: climbing into a sleeping bag and watching grim, moody dream clips as the time passed. It was unsettling stuff. Atmospheric, but also visceral, because it tapped directly into human things: tired, cranky children; strange nightmares in lonely paces.

Indeed, why should I feel a glimmer of satisfaction at being well stocked with cooked food as my Minecraft character waddles off into his cubic wilderness? Because the alternative – starving to death in a cave – is so bleak, and so threatening. It’s a shortcut into real experiences. Games in which we must take precautions against even these most basic of needs are games which challenge us to pay attention, to plan, and to reap the rewards of our preparation and our caution, when we are caught in a difficult spot. They are also games that speak directly to us as normal human beings.


Some games gather all these kinds of mechanics up and put them at the heart of the experience, and the consequence from this sort of design method can yield contrasting results. At one end of the spectrum you get life simulators (like The Sims) and at the other you get tough, dungeon-survival things like Legend Of Grimrock, where eating and sleeping must be dealt with if you are to stay alive. These games, which seem like they have nothing in common, share a fundamental principle in trying to put the needs of guts and brains at the core of their feature set.

Bodily functions, then, are like a foundation stone to certain kinds of game design. We lean on what we know about ourselves to tell stories, or to craft experiences that make sense. From stilling the breathing of your character in a sniping game, to the starving Minecraft Steve, bodily functions furnish worlds that would otherwise lack depth. Every game, you might argue would benefit from a bladder. Indeed, think of how much better the Mass Effect series would have been if the team had needed to nip to the loo before heading down to combat the enemies of life.

Now that would have been something.

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48 Comments »

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  1. CaspianRoach says:

    I always wondered how do the aliens on Normandy excrete if there’s only a human-based toilet on the ship. Do they hold it in till the next port?

    • unangbangkay says:

      Well, with the exception of Asari (human ladies in all but hair and skin color) and Thane (with that V-neck suit it’s no wonder he always sounds like he has excess phlegm), all the aliens on Normandy dress like they’re in spacesuits, so they could just be going in their clothes and putting bags out the airlock or something.

      • leokhorn says:

        “Could you come by later? I’m…… in the middle of some calibrations, right, calibrations.”

      • Apples says:

        Well, Tali almost definitely is.
        The worst thing about the Normandy toilets for me is that there are no cubicles, just open toilets, even in the ladies’! Thank God Shep has her own personal one.

      • westyfield says:

        Sorry to be Buzz Killington, but the reason Thane wears that open-necked shirt is to avoid any build-up of humidity on his chest, which would aggravate his Kepral’s Syndrome.

    • Grey Ganado says:

      Since they are all mostly humanoid and genetically engineered by the same race I’d think they’d be able to use similar toilets.

  2. brat-sampson says:

    I’ve never seen a game-toilet I haven’t flushed/attempted to.

    • Mike says:

      Not to be confused with: https://twitter.com/#!/kbsgametoilet

    • MuscleHorse says:

      Indeed. I remember some years back playing CS (can’t remember if it was recent enough for it to be source) running into a bathroom and trying to flush the toilets. My friends who were watching thought I was weird for doing it and then I explained it was just something I tried in every game. They gave me the same look.
      On a related note, I leave any tap, shower or bath running if I can.

      • Ergates_Antius says:

        In one of the early CS maps (a Hostage map – with a house in. I forget the name), the toilet in the bathroom had a turd floating in it. It exploded if you shot it.

        • Fanbuoy says:

          Yeah, I remember that. Was it de_dirt? The one in like a desert setting? I know it’s kind of irrelevant, but it bothers me..

        • fitzroy_doll says:

          CS_Militia

          edit: ah beat to the punch by Pork Pie

          • f1x says:

            CS_militia was an awesome map, a bit of camping from the house windows/etc but actually not too bad

            among my favourite along with CS_assault

      • Berzee says:

        You’re like the bad guys from Home Alone!

    • Ninja Foodstuff says:

      This is true for me too, but in real life.

  3. Mr. Mister says:

    Gotta remember old Imp’s More Complex Needs (New Vegas and Fallout 3 mod, http://goo.gl/Ju5DH ). Seriously, that thing scares me:
    -Fullness
    -Calories
    -Hydratation.
    -Protein
    -Nutrients
    -Stimulants
    -Alcohol
    -Appeal
    -Sleep (with down-time hours).
    and so on, with dynamic rates.

    • Cooper says:

      The problem with that mod is it’s too abstract. It turns bodily functions into direct abstract game mechanics.

      Jim’s right in the sense that we tune into directly relateable bodily functions quite easily. I have bugger all idea what my current ‘protein’ level is; but I can damn well tell you when I’m fatigued because I haven’t been eating properly / the right type of food…

      • Mr. Mister says:

        If being able to read “abstract” information bugs you, you can configure it to only show you what you usually “feel”, including mood.

        Gotta say that this guy’s work should have given him a Health Science/the hell it is called honorarium title/the hell it is called. It realy is based on real life data; ALL of (non-fictionall food) it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      It think that one is now also available for Skyrim.

      • Mr. Mister says:

        Yep, I was just too lazy to search for it, since his Skyrimnexus user profile was offline (?).
        http://goo.gl/R1kFN
        Obviously the Skyrim version seems even more complex than New Vegas’, with blood (for vampires) and both physical and mental fatigue as new stats (stimulants got replaced by coffeine).
        BTW, I always found funny how it seems to be the only ocurrence in videogames history where you can get electrotyte unbalance by ovrhydration.

  4. Oof says:

    “Indeed, think of how much better the Mass Effect series would have been if the team had needed to nip to the loo before heading down to combat the enemies of life.

    Now that would have been something.”

    Yes. I always wondered why Bioware never bothered with the bathroom they’d inserted on the ship. There are toilets and showers. Do something with them.

    • Premium User Badge

      RedViv says:

      Of course this means that it was planned to be added in future DLC, and the inclusion of these in the actual game only proves how heinous this scheme is.

      Am I doing this internet person thing right?

      • Fanbuoy says:

        You’re well on your way, but you should probably top it off with “The devilspawn that is EA just want money to run their death camps for infants!!1!”. Or something similar to that effect.

        • frightlever says:

          Nonono. Ahem… (…)!

          Those liberal, commie EA devilspawn only put restrooms in the game so’s the homer-sexuals would have someplace to hook up.

          • Phantoon says:

            EA? Liberal? Guffaw!

            Same company that claimed there are no homosexuals in star wars, then did a heel turn when they realized how incredibly bad for PR that was.

    • MuscleHorse says:

      My Shep used her personal shower with Traynor ;)

  5. constantino says:

    Making my party pull an all-nighter in Ultima 7 used to distress me enormously, to the point that if I couldn’t find a suitable bedroll or place to let them sleep I would have to quit and play again another game. Also the Avatar’s meals would have to be accompanied with some kind of drink or I’d get a headache.

    That was 15 years ago, my imagination sadly has mostly withered away and been replaced with explosions, gunfire and zombies.

  6. Caspian says:

    Thank you for introducing me to the word ‘mucilaginous’ – Although I doubt I will have much opportunity to use it in every day conversation, just knowing it exists has brightened up my week a tiny little bit!

  7. HexagonalBolts says:

    It would be really interesting to look at these ideas with some literary theory / philosophy. In fact I recall an article being posted in the Sunday round up about the body in the Binding of Isaac that involved Julia Kristeva on the body.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abjection

    • field_studies says:

      Neat. I haven’t heard of her work, but I was going to say that this article reminded me also of Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger …and then there it was referenced in that same section of the wiki as Kristeva. Hah.

      Finally got around to trying the Binding of Isaac, and while I don’t see myself playing it much (for the same reason as with Bastion—the style of gameplay itself), it’s quite something. One thing that John doesn’t much focus on is the presence of (or lack of) the fallible body in games… for a medium so full of blood and guts and the abstracted ‘health’, the body is rarely represented as something inherently dysfunctional and objectionable. Isaac has this in spades. And playing it was one of those experiences of seeing something and, by seeing it, suddenly recognizing its relative absence (in other games).

  8. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Bodily functions can be a nice addition to a game, but only in moderation. For example, I don’t think that including a drink mechanic in Grimrock would have done the game any good. Having to manage the food adds a nice feeling of urgency, but anything on top of that only adds tedium, without providing any benefit.

    Also, I think that Mass Effect should have included potty breaks during missions.
    *Select party member who can take a leak now, and defend them while they pee*

    • Fumarole says:

      Dungeon Master had thirst as well as hunger and didn’t suffer because of it. In fact, it created an interesting player choice – use flasks for potions or fill them with water?

      • Premium User Badge

        Bluerps says:

        Ah, you’re right. I didn’t think of that.
        Still, I think the game is fine with having only hunger.

  9. Apples says:

    I always liked the eating and drinking mechanic in WoW, even though I never used it much. You had to actually sit down and stay still to do it so you couldn’t munch fifty apples in a sleep hole like Skyrim. It’s something that I wish had been in the base game of STALKER – even with the Complete mods you could stuff a whole loaf in your gob while fending off a Bloodsucker, and that made no sense because that was a game in which even opening the inventory did not pause the game.

    It’s a shame that eating mechanics usually end up being a mild annoyance in which you have to press a button every few hours. F:NV on hardcore was terrible for this, I could have set up my own post-apoc grocery with the amount of near-weightless food I was hauling, so it added nothing to the game.

  10. Deccan says:

    Managing my Exhaustion and Hunger in the first few days of Pathologic could be somewhat harrowing. I think I even starved to death in my sleep once, before I fully knew how everything worked.

  11. Strangerator says:

    I always enjoyed the Ultima Underworld series’ take on hunger and exhaustion. I’d always wind up designating a separate bag in which I’d place my day-old bread, fish, and random plant-life gathered from the dusty floors. Then you would chow down until the Avatar was satiated. Then of course you’d have a bedroll, and do things like find a room and close the door, then lie down hoping a giant spider doesn’t decide to snack on you while you sleep.

    As mundane as these tasks seem, they can create a variety of gameplay experiences that would otherwise be avoidable.

  12. Heliocentric says:

    Half of pathologic was exploring and wonder, the other half was selling bullets to buy bread and desperately trying to not get sick.

  13. disperse says:

    By the end of a round of Space Station 13 the station is inevitably covered in feces and blood. There are a few bathrooms in crew quarters but they are rarely used as players who are sick with a space virus tend to go in the halls.

    I actually wish they took it a step further and periodically gave your character the urge to eat or go to the bathroom. Having to go to the cafeteria or bathroom would give traitors opportunities to get to players who otherwise lock themselves in their offices and never leave.

    I never played The Ship but didn’t you have to go to the bathroom in that game?

    • Redd says:

      As an occassional janitor aboard SS13, I welcome the arrival of an ever moving digestive system inside every crewmember with open jaws.

      • disperse says:

        That’s quite the image.

        There’s nothing more frustrating than being a janitor aboard a station with a clean crew.

    • Chelicerate says:

      On the Baystation server, there’s a need to eat. Most people simply swing by the cafeteria, grab something, and eat whilst they’re doing another job. But there is the requirement! At least, if you want to move at any decent speed.

      They remove feces though.

      • disperse says:

        Toady One also refuses to put a need for your dwarves to empty their bladders and bowels into Dwarf Fortress. There was a huge thread on the forum requesting it simply for the needs to create massive underground sewer systems.

  14. PaTr0N says:

    When considering aliens, this comes to mind :)

    http://goo.gl/OQEsU

  15. YourMessageHere says:

    Always did find it fascinating exactly what food got included in games. Like the sausage and bread in Stalker – sausage I can sort of understand, but bread needs to be fresh, especially the bread in the game which appeared to be halves of baguettes. So somewhere in the zone there’s a bakery…

    Certainly in the likes of Stalker and System Shock and so on, it always seems to be snack foods, though – protein bars or crisps. There’s never ‘instant tuna and pasta bake’ or instant cup ramen or whatever, let alone leeks or eggs or anything that might actually mean cooking. I rather admire WoW with its cookery thing where you learned recipes for healing food items, although I always thought they missed a bit of stealth education there by not making players learn real recipes they could actually follow to make real food.