Toilets. Great, aren’t they?
Why did toilets become such an important part of games? Long after Hitchcock used a bog in the Bates Motel to shock, horrify and titillate, the porcelain throne has lost any power it once had in that vein. Characters in games other than The Sims rarely actually need to empty their bladders or bowels so the toilet is not a functional object. It can be used for a spot (or spatter) of toilet humour but even the subgenre to which the loo gave its name doesn’t rely solely on jokes about pooing and weeing.
So what are toilets for and why are there so many of them?
1) They make a place immediately more believable
Think of all the places you’ve been today. If they had nothing else in common, I bet they all contained a toilet. Hopefully there was a toilet in the building you woke up in and if you then travelled to work, there’ll most likely be a toilet there as well. Maybe you went to a cafe for lunch – you better believe there’s a bowl connected to a series of pipes that you can empty yourself into somewhere around the place.
If you decided to go for a Monday night top-up (that’s a post-work pint or two), you might even have the great joy of stepping through the shimmering layer of pish in a pub toilet before releasing a stream into a rusty urinal, not even bothering to avoid the splashback. If you’re really lucky, there’ll be a piece of gum or a fragment of deoderizer block to steer around the urinal. Catch a train home afterwards and – BAM – there’s a toilet right there in one of the carriages so that you can leave a trail between the tracks.
Toilets are everywhere. And so it makes sense that if a level designer wants to make a space seem more believable, a toilet is a fine addition. Imagine the first level of Duke Nukem 3D, that beautiful cinema with the projector room, arcade and screen. Would it have seemed half as realistic if there hadn’t been a toilet? Did it even matter that there was only one screen and that the arcade was hidden inside the ceiling? Not one jot. But take out the toilet and the whole thing seems so much more like a bunch of rooms with city-like textures pasted on them rather than an actual place that could exist in an actual city.
2) They’re scary
Maybe something has survived form the time of Psycho. Nipping to the bathroom is rarely a pleasant break during a horror game – whether it’s the sense of intruding in a private place or the agonising tension of kicking open one cubicle door after the next, horror games often have terrifying toilet scenes.
The frightening aspect of the bathroom break is often linked to point number one, above. Early in Dead Space 1, there’s a lav off to one side of a corridor. I can never remember if it’s necessary to go in or if there’s just some ammo lying about the place, but I do remember absolutely wanting to avoid it. It’s the familiarity of it – although the ship already seems lived-in, the presence of those rooms, with a layout familiar to anyone who has ever used a public toilet, suddenly brings everything into focus.
This is a real place. People have died here; real people who read magazines and played on their phones while they were pooping. They might have been space-scientists who got up to all kinds of stuff that I’ll never understand, but now that I have seen where they sat and shat, I know that they are like me. And that means I too might die here as well.
3) No, but seriously, they’re really fucking scary and you need to play Silent Hill 2 (again)
Silent Hill 2’s psychological shocks are backed up by a world that sometimes feels like a series of orifices. Toilets are portals to another place, carrying effluence down into regions that you’ll later find yourself trudging through and sometimes threatening to regurtitate their contents. They are entrances and exits. The game begins in a public toilet and there are several important crapper-related scenes throughout.
“There was a HOLE here. It’s gone now.” The toilet’s terrified autobiography.
4) There are mirrors to look at
If I see a toilet but cannot flush the toilet, I am going to be pretty fed up. Ideally, I’ll be able to raise and lower the lid as well as flushing, but the flush is the bare minimum. Why bother putting a toilet there at all if I can’t have the satisfaction of pulling on its chain, or yanking its handle.
The unflushable toilet isn’t a dealbreaker on its own. Put a non-interactive toilet in a room that also contains a non-reflective mirror and there’s going to be trouble though. In a first-person game, the bathroom mirror is a perfect opportunity to introduce the player to the face they’re going to be perched behind for the next few hours. Even better if the character has just hopped out of the shower and has to wipe away the condensation from the surface of the mirror, revealing the face and creating a sense of body awareness by showing the arm and hand in motion.
Four reasons to love what my grandma used to refer to as “the facilities”. They’re places to take a good long hard look at yourself while taking stock of where exactly you are, and then shitting yourself. Metaphorically and otherwise.
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