Toilet, or not toilet? That is not the question. Why would you even ask that?
To my knowledge, a games journalist has never won the Pulitzer prize. This article is my sincere attempt to remedy that.
So, how come I can always flush toilets in video games?
We are all accustomed with the things, generally, we are able to do in games and the things, generally, we are not. Sure, there are outliers one way or the other, but it’s usually pretty easy to guess the level of interactivity offered by any given game. I am likely, for instance, to be able to press the big red button, or open the colourful door at the end of a corridor. On the other hand, I am unlikely to be able to clean the windows, or create an excavation in the sidewalk and perform extensive repairs on any gas pipelines running through. More to the pity.
There are a few factors which go in to what is and what isn’t interactive: one is the time and effort required to put in the interactivity. Adding a library to your game is one thing; making each book readable is quite another. (Just ask Dan Brown, who is yet to produce a single readable book.) The second factor is how important said object’s interactivity is to the game’s immersion.
Immersion, for those of you not accustomed with the popular vernacular of games criticism, means ‘a thing in games which I like and which I don’t like to be absent because I like it to be present.’ A solid tip for games development: if you are at any point asked if you want your game to include immersion by a Microsoft Paperclip-style widget, be sure to click ‘yes’.
Some things are interactive by necessity: doors, for one. But if we are to be thoroughly immersed, then we need certain, superfluous bits of interactivity. Gone Home understood this well, allowing us to fiddle about with damn near everything in spite of its significance. Admittedly Gone Home had only the titular home—albeit a ridiculously palatial home—to fill with fiddle-friendly goodies. Put this in the context of a huge open world and you’re left with a commitment that not even Sean Murray would be comfortable making.
I’d like to take this image break as an opportunity to personally apologise to Sean Murray for the unnecessary and hackneyed joke previously. He seems like a lovely man and does not deserve the faux ire of someone who has no real interest in No Man’s Sky anyway. That is all.
So developers need to practise discipline when coding for interactivity, that much is clear. Certain things need to be interactive for the player to progress, doors for example; other things need to be interactive in order to build a more cohesive world which feels real.
But—he asks, arms raised to the sky and tears flooding down his cheeks—why toilets?
The ability to click on a toilet and hear the familiar whoosh of water flooding down the U-bend is mind-bafflingly pervasive, spanning a vast array of video games which could not be further from one another in almost every other respect. The only genre which seems to flout this porcelain prerogative is horror, and that’s only because the toilets are often filled with a metric tonne of unidentifiable gunk, which happens to be another thing I’ve never understood. Is the reaction supposed to be “Oh heavens, the possessed corpse of my father is on my tail, rabid dogs are clawing at the door, a malevolent poltergeist is shattering windows about the house and now, to top it all off, the loos are filthy”? But that’s by the by.
The lavatorial ‘woosh’ has never cemented my belief in the virtual surroundings. Never have I thought “Well, the four-headed turquoise aardvarks seemed incongruous, but just look at the action on that dipstick!” The only thing that an accurately replicated toilet tells me is that a) the development team consists entirely of children, and b) the ‘flush’ sound effect is either really cheap or so old that it’s in the public domain. (After all, the flushing toilet was invented in 1596 by one John Harington. Bit Cultures: teaching you about faecal transportation, one article at a time.)
Inventor of the flush toilet John Harington, pictured above, can also boast the most impeccable facial hair of any man, ever. No wonder he was known as Queen Elizabeth I’s “saucy Godson”. That’s an actual historical fact, by the way.
It also tells me that video games are, by and large, juvenile. No matter how much they contain thematic depth or adult subject matter, no matter how much we talk about them in terms like visceral engagement or, lords preserve us, ludonarrative shitting dissonance, video games still occupy that space vacated by Dennis The Menace. The plasma gun aimed at a necromorph’s vestigial limb is simply a slingshot levelled at the unsuspecting backside of an elderly neighbour, the Emperor really has no clothes, and a toilet is just a toilet.
You have just read around 750 words about virtual toilets. That needed pointing out.