In 1732, Jonathan Swift published a poem called “The Lady’s Dressing Room” about man named Strephon snooping through his lover Celia’s room. Swift opens the poem by telling the reader that after five hours of preparation Celia’s beauty is equal to a goddess’s. Understandably, the love-struck Strephon is excited to take her out for a night of Renaissance breakdancing and eagerly steps into her dressing room in search of her.
Inside, he sees everything Celia shed or masked to gussy up: her discarded eyelashes, mounds of dead skin and dandruff, rags coated in oil and snot, trays of makeup made from animal intestine and powdered deodorant clumped together by dry and miscolored sweat. Strephon whirls in her filth and doubles over from the smell coming from a cabinet at the back of the room. He approaches the source of the smell, a toilet, and reaches into the black in horror to find that “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (118). From then on Strephon is unable to look at women without seeing the oils, flakes and grease that cover them.
The point of Swift’s satire is that men of his vain upper class so expected women to look divinely beautiful that their expectation replaced reality. According to Swift, the men of his culture were so repulsed by the very natural reality of human bodies that they were incapable of dealing with them. I bring this up because, like Strephon, game audiences almost never need to confront the abject. If ever they did, I suspect they might be as incapable of coping with it as Swift’s Strephon, who swore off human contact after seeing the stuff his lady-love is made from.
By “abject” I’m using Kaitlin Trambley’s definition of the term from this essay, where she uses it to refer to the nasty necessities of the human body like blood, mastication, excrement, menstruation, ejaculation, decomposition, drool, sweat, body odor, disease and all the other uncomfortable gross realities of piloting a meat-mech. Most games create a space where the abject qualities of human bodies don’t exist or they’re kept at a distance or they’re transformed into something aesthetic.
Games represent injury as a red filter over the screen, a clean KO or an inconvenient limp; all of which are inconsequently corrected by a moment of quiet reflection or a small dose of an affordable and available drug with no side-effects. In most games, dead bodies disappear when they give up the ghost or they become rag dolls that flail about weightlessly. Bodies don’t decompose or leak or stink and blood is a bright red watercolor that evaporates or splatters against a wall and dries instantly, keeping the same color and consistency.
Likewise, food is absorbed in a single crunch and immediately bumps up a health bar. It doesn’t rot slowly, attract flies, cause allergic reactions, diarrhea or even release a deluge of endorphins to satisfy a craving. In videogames, “immersion” promises “visceral” experiences where players “live the experience” but despite the back-of-the-box buzzwords, games typically fail to convey a sense of physicality. Avatars simply aren’t expected to have the same tangibility of actual human bodies.
Granted, it would just be really poor design if the Mario bros. had to stop and catch their breath and wring the sweat from their hats after sprinting for a minute. Similarly, nobody wants their RPG hero to throw out their back from a single sword swing, and we simply could not stomach a sex scene that accurately depicted the awkward and messy reality of actual intercourse. Some games benefit from distancing themselves from the physical and often enough it makes sense that characters are incorporeal. But removing the abject entirely limits the kinds of experiences games can be about. Overwhelmingly, videogames fail to translate the clumsiness and messiness of real human bodies, even in games that directly deal with body limitations.
For instance, as Wander delves deeper into the forbidden land of Shadow of the Colossus, he becomes paler and sicklier; black veins bulge in his face and neck and he quietly, doggedly pursues his next objective even as it becomes obvious that his body will succumb to the taint absorbed from each vanquished colossus. Similarly, Miasmata’s Dr. Robert Hughes combs the island of Eden looking for the herbs that will cure the mysterious disease that advances as he explores more of the abandoned wilderness. But both of these characters get stronger as they get sicker. Wander’s health and stamina gauges grow the more colossi he slays and Hughes concocts herbal remedies that make him more physically fit. These are games based on an isolated protagonist’s deteriorating body, but they fail to convey their main premise. Both protagonists move, run, and climb clumsily in their respective atmospheres—which is appropriate enough—but their bodies improve as they approach death. Their failing bodies actually become more capable as they die.
It isn’t that the games don’t justify the protagonist’s increase in strength: Wander consumes a dark, demonic power and thus distances himself from his human weaknesses and Hughes consumes plants that stave off his illness with the power of science. The gradual improvements of these characters are narratively justified, but imagine a different design choice. Imagine if the weaknesses that these characters had to live with made them, y’know, weaker?
Imagine if Adam Jensen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution needed regular doses of an addictive substance so his body didn’t reject his cybernetic implants. Everybody else in the game’s world needs regular injections of just such a thing. Adam—in channelling his biblical counterpart—is the first of a new race of human beings that exists in the image of his creator. But I can’t help but envision a version of DE:HR where Adam’s body isn’t biblically privileged, where his body will fail without regular chemical treatment. Imagine if failure to get medicine would cause his implants to fail, or if he depended so much on medication or his implants that, without regimented upkeep, his hands would tremble, his vision would blur, or his bowels would violently purge sludge through whatever pipes it could escape. What if the player had to occupy a messy, gross body with a chemical dependence? What kinds of decisions would the player then have to make to control their own physiology? What sidequests would they stoop to take for a shot of the good stuff to keep their cybernetic, superpowered body operational?
Occasionally a game will experiment with failing bodies. Metal Gear Solid’s Snake catches a cold that betrays him when he tries to keep silent, and Batman in Arkham City loses health due to a plot-induced poison. But in both cases, the character’s disease is more a gimmick that pads out the length of the story. Neither of these characters must struggle with any long-term consequences of their failing body. Players and their controlled characters navigate the game world in sickness in the same way they would in health. Granted, MGS4 is about a rapidly aging Snake fighting his own mortality, but his diseased body functions as well as it did in the PS1 era. Snake just takes a cold pill and is as good as new, and Batman still punches as capably as ever before a swig of a magic potion gets him back on track.
Even those avatars that aren’t ill or injured barely seem like they’re occupying a body. Real bodies shudder when they’re cold and sweat when they’re hot; they get weak when they lack food, and they drain poo when they’re overstuffed with it. Videogame characters have sex, but it is never awkward or messy; they may die, but their corpses never decompose. The abject is almost universally erased.
I’m not calling for someone to make Jizzturd: A Game in Three Acts and, again, I personally would hate a fighting game that resembled two people actually fighting rather than the stylized choreography the genre instead portrays. But one wonders how almost the entire medium has eschewed the physicality of human bodies entirely. It isn’t even that technical restraints prevent proper portrayal of bodies.
Several events in The Walking Dead stand out as good examples of a game showing human bodies as physical things. The zombified body of a starved little boy is a disquieting abomination because the boy is too weak and pathetic to hold his own weight. It speaks to the horror of starvation. He reminds the game’s cast and players how much their bodies depend on regular caloric intake and that they’re always only a few days away from shrivelling into waxy skeletons. Even little touches, like the shiner left on protagonist Lee’s cheek after an altercation with a fellow survivor is left in place for over half the series, reminding the player that they control a real person with significant physical weaknesses. Also, in the opening hours of the series a cut on Lee’s thigh slows him to a clumsy hobble.
To this point I’ve talked about human physicality as if it’s solely unpleasant. But Merritt Kopas’s text-based Consensual Torture Simulator is still able to be a game about bodies without being about how icky they are. CTS, unsurprisingly, is about torturing somebody that wants to be tortured for sexual gratification. Both the topping player-character and their unnamed girlfriend are told in so many words that they enjoy what they’re doing, but they must achieve their mutual goal (make your girlfriend cry) within the constraints of their bodies. Not only must the player gauge the stress they’re putting on the person on the bottom, but they must gauge the fatigue placed on the player-character’s body. The game is founded on the interacting of two bodies and both the prose and mechanics of the game convey the physicality of the two characters.
Both The Walking Dead and Consensual Torture Simulator stand on their text, so it isn’t as though developers need to design every avatar with a lifelike circulatory system just to convince the player that characters are people. Simply emphasising the physical limitations and requirements of characters is enough to make them physically believable. About halfway through Wild Arms 3, protagonist Virginia’s parents ask her how her adventure has been and she replies that things are good, despite the party’s “countless cuts and bruises.” One line of dialogue is all it takes to remind the player that beneath the party-management and gamey resource balancing these characters occupy real bodies.
Very few games, especially (and probably unsurprisingly) those developed with three A’s, shy away from physiological realities. It isn’t that this is never appropriate—the bloodless death of Aeris Gainsborough has far greater impact than the torture porn Maria Santiago is subjected to—but squeamishness from the developer dilutes the themes of games that deal with illness, violence or addiction; it obfuscates the horrible realities of death and the beautiful realities of living. At the very least it would be a shame for game audiences to end up like Jonathan Swift’s Strephon fleeing “The Lady’s Dressing Room”.