Just why are video game bathrooms so uniquely terrifying?

So you're a space marine. You have a countenance akin to that of a roadblock made of beef. The only thing grimmer than your enemies' chances is that granite-carved perma-scowl on your face, and the only thing heavier than your brow is your guns. You carry a lot of them. Probably like, 13, or something. Maybe even 23. It's no big deal.

You've spent the last four hours tearing through the various alien and demonic denizens of your chosen space-base home with the vim and vigour of a combine harvester made of angry wolves. The cold, grey corridors are painted with viscera; the only kind of redecoration you'll stand. Cold, grey metal is the most manly, badass and space mariney of furnishings. The only bright colour you like around you is the red of your enemies' insides.

You see an open door further down the corridor. You get excited. Open doors, whether literal or metaphorical, are always symbols of opportunity. For you, it's the opportunity of more things to kill. If there is a metaphor, it's just a metaphor for killing more things.

But then you get closer, and you see the sign outside the door. You realise that it's a bathroom. You drop your guns, sit down, and have a little cry, contemplating whether or not you can just jack it all in and live in this bit of corridor forever. Because video game bathrooms are, always have been, and always will be, absolutely fucking horrific.

Why is that? Why is it that whatever genre of game we're playing, whether first or third-person, horror or pure action, entering a bathroom - public or domestic - fills us with a nameless dread we cannot quell until we get out? Why, of all the terrors and challenges we might take on throughout the course of a game, do well-plumbed amenities always feel most threatening?

Is it the cramped nature of the layout? Doubtful. Air vents are much smaller - and pathologically packed full of wretched, skittering beasties - and we take them in our stride on a regular basis. The smaller the space, the more effective the shotgun. We all know that. No, there's something much deeper going on here. Several things, in fact. Let's face it, even in a game as resolutely, relentlessly mean-spirited as P.T., in which soul-nibbling nightmare filth can and will assault you from every which direction whenever the hell it damn well likes, no part of that endless corridor loop is more upsetting than the point that you have to pass the bathroom door.

No part is more relieving than the moment that you get past without event. No part is immediately more resurgent in stress than any instance of having to turn back around to look at it. Not even the pitch-black room with the talking bag of guts. And that’s just being near a bathroom. Not even being in it. It’s not about space.

So is it the inherent fixtures and fittings that do it? They're certainly part of it. Mirrors are innately troublesome, primed to launch behind-the-back, corner-of-the-eye jump scares at any given moment. And of course, they come packed with an innate subtext of distorted reality, able to present a version of our immediate vicinity as twisted or subtly, uncomfortably tweaked as they like. We always fear mirrors. And that's without even considering the psychological games they can play with us in real life.

And in the public bathroom, there's the matter of stalls. In-built closets for the sheltering of closet-monsters, they make the video game bathroom - with the infuriating justification - the cheapest and nastiest room of all. And it’s not just the potential for ambush. It's the fact that we have to investigate those doors, knowing that we might unleash unknown horrors upon ourselves, at the closest of range, with every tentative press of the action button. Survival-horror games - with their limited resources and constant demand of foraging - play with this particularly well, manipulating our long-term need for assurance, our standard-issue hunter-gatherer instincts, and our bog-basic completist gamer tendencies to make us unlock our own potential doom over and over again.

But this also goes beyond the physical. Otherwise every reflective surface and every storage locker in every video game we play would have the same effects. But they don't. Out in the corridors, in the research labs, in the mess halls, they just don't mean the same things. It's not simply the physical components of a bathroom that are troubling, but the holistic, ambient distress innate to the room that contains them. To work out why, we need to think about what bathrooms mean in the real world. Because in the real world, they resonate in a lot of different ways.

First of all, there's the decor. Those tiles, that pristine, cold sterility, with its clinical, surgical connotations, opens up all manner of subconscious thoughts of bodily invasion, of blood, and cutting, and physical change. If the video game bathroom in question is smeared with the gore of previous victims, all the more so. This is then amplified by the real-world bathroom's nature as a private place of intimacy, the two concepts butting heads to create a hell of an uncomfortable subversion.

And there's all the function of the real-world bathroom. It's a place to get clean - to even relax while doing so - but by that note it is also a place of dirt and impurity. One of cleansing, but also of the need to cleanse. And moreso than that, there are the less pleasant reasons to be in a bathroom. The reasons of illness. Of the particular illnesses which cause your body to rebel against you, which cause messy, repellant, unpredictable and aggressive symptoms over which you have no control.

At those times - when your mental and bodily selves are at loggerheads, the source of your physical presence in the world becoming a separate, untrustworthy and malicious entity - the only place that you're going to be is in a bathroom. They're the arena for all of your most painful and distressing battles against yourself. You know this - all of this - instinctively, whenever you step into a video game bathroom. Consciously or not, all of these thoughts and concepts swill around in your mind, filling the room with all kinds of implicit dangers, tangible and metaphysical, making the area far more unpleasant than the sum of its grimy parts.

Will any of this help you in your next encounter with one of gaming's dread conveniences? Probably not. Understanding your enemy is half the struggle, but it is only half the struggle. The problems with video game bathrooms are too profound and fundamental to just, ahem, shake off. The only advice I can give you is to open those doors quickly, back off immediately, and always, always have a shotgun ready. And try not to look at the mirrors. Those mirrors are absolute bastards. That's really, I'm afraid, all you'll ever be able to do.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.