The sewer: why are games so fond of flushing players down the drain?

The Sewer

After traversing slums and museums, graveyards and forests in Naughty Dog’s acclaimed survival horror game The Last Of Us, you come to a large metal grate set in a stony hillside, the water cascading from its lip pooling at your feet. You lift the grate and your party clambers into the darkness, where flashlight beams rove over the rusted, mossy interior of a pipe with a murky stream at the bottom. It opens out into an improbably elaborate industrial complex of larger pipes and stained concrete chambers, festooned with lush sunless vegetation and sunk in deep pools. Strewn about milk crates, bedding and lawn chairs suggest the remnants of subterranean society, and rats squeak startlingly in dark corners. There are duct covers to pry open, screeching valves to be turned, sluice gates to be opened.

In the post-apocalyptic world of The Last Of Us, the necessity of utilising such an unusual and unsavoury passageway is perfectly logical. But even without a clear rationale, gamers have learned not to think twice about descending into the sewers and tromping through god knows what to get to where they’re going. Bizarrely, when you think about it, the sewer has been an archetypal videogame environment since the dawn of the console age. Of course, in videogame sewers, human waste is nowhere to be seen, euphemised as poisonous water or fumes. But the concept is still kind of rank. We might pause to consider the enduring appeal of playing, as it were, where we do our business, especially when we could be visiting a much more pleasant forest or tropical level.

The appeal may be mostly for game designers, who find in the sewer an ideal framework for their mazes and switches. They can be a handy narrative means of getting players into secure locations, and their waters, whether they work as flowing conveyor belts or insta-death pits, offer possibilities for expanded gameplay mechanics. But like escort missions and perfunctory stealth segments, sewer levels seem to be more often tolerated than relished by gamers. They usually feature drab, generic colours and textures, but when you’ve seen one sewer, you’ve pretty much seen them all – and they have a reputation for being tediously difficult, with hard-to-navigate lookalike corridors and status-effect-inducing enemies or environmental effects.

The sewer may be the most iconic videogame location that’s nobody’s favourite. Dark Souls creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki confessed to us that “during playtesting, there were many players who didn’t like The Depths [the game’s sewer stage], so we created a method of clearing the game even if you don’t clear The Depths”.

Just as you expect to slide on ice, sewer levels have developed their own stock logic. In games from Eternal Sonata to Final Fantasy XII, the sewer serves as a rat-killing training ground, because nothing prepares you to summon gods and face down ancient evils like bashing rats with a wooden stick. In games from Batman: Arkham Asylum to MGS3: Snake Eater, the sewer serves as a daunting maze. Nowhere was this aspect rendered more notoriously than in Final Fantasy VIII’s Deling City Sewers, a nightmare of split-up party members, identical rooms, locked gates and baffling waterwheel-riding mechanics. Sewers are filled with deadly water in games from Blaster Master to Castlevania: Circle Of The Moon; poison gases or foes in games from Pokémon to Half-Life 2; and hindering darkness in games from Silent Hill to Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

Videogame sewers can be useful for expanding a game world’s sense of scale, serving as a cramped and dungeon-like underworld for a city’s more spacious overworld without resorting to a fantasy setting. But ironically, the gritty realism that sewers provide is an illusion based on sheer fantasy, just like military-industrial complexes with volatile explosives lying around everywhere in the open. The labyrinthine engineering feats in games freely conflate the concepts of sanitary sewers, where human waste is jettisoned and storm drains siphon off rainwater from city streets. In reality, sanitary sewers are far too small for a person to fit into the pipes, much less go adventuring. They also show up in fantasy games ostensibly set long before the industrial revolution, with no toilets anywhere and palatial underground marvels to rival the Cloaca Maxima in Rome found beneath the shabbiest little villages.

Perhaps our videogame sewers succumb to fantasy because they were forged in fantasy. The rise of the console era of games coincided with the rise of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mania and a generation of young geeks who saw sewers as thrilling places where Chelonian assassins wielded the sai and ate pizza with smoking-hot newscasters. Let’s not forget that one of console gaming’s first and most influential mascots was a plumber who leapt down sewer pipes to discover not pitch-dark corridors and
filthy water but strange and magical lands.

The sewers in contemporary games may not be that whimsical, but they still require ample suspension of disbelief. It seems like we’ll be sloshing around in them for as long as mazes-and-switches gameplay is in vogue. With the exception of superlative outliers such as The Last Of Us, the best you can hope for is that the relieved sigh of escaping a sewer is worth the exasperated groan of being sent into one.