Bathing is a well-used trope in film and TV. The “shower of angst,” for example, is usually a stand-in for an emotional moment happening to our hero. It might make us empathize more with the person lowering their head under a flow of water. A few video game bathing scenes over the years have let players see new sides of male protagonists, which is helpful given that men don’t tend to emote all that well in games or in popular media in general.
After surviving the bombing in the beginning of 2016’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Adam Jensen spends some time recuperating in his apartment. Outside of a few scripted sequences, there isn’t much you can do in Jensen’s apartment that can’t be done in any of the other apartments you can break into in the game. In the scene after the bombing, though, the player has the option to make Adam take a shower.
The shower shows us a part of Jensen we might not have imagined before: his feet. Unlike other augmented people, whose robotic limbs hang out of torn-off pant cuffs or sleeveless shirts, Jensen is usually fully clothed. Here, we see him undress and step into the shower. Detail is lavished on parts that are regularly concealed: the camera pans over the textured bulbs of his calves, the unnecessary ornamentation around his ankles. The camera pulls out and, through the steamed glass, it’s suggested his entire lower body is augmented, though the details are tastefully covered over. His body is like a human body, in a lot of ways. Except for his feet.
Jensen’s feet look like strangely-jointed high heels, angling up bizarrely. It’s unclear how they even fit into the boots he usually wears. His soles clang loudly against the shower floor, a foreign sound, like he’s showering in shoes. Jensen’s feet are jarring and weird, but they’re intimate too. We learn a little more about his body before it’s hidden away under his clothes again. It changes, ever so subtly, our notion of who this character is.
Last year, when we first saw footage of this scene prior to Mankind Divided’s release, we asked the creators of the game about this scene and its intent. Over e-mail, Jean-Francois Dugas, Mankind Divided’s executive game director, and Mary DeMarle, the game’s executive narrative director, shared this:
The shower scene takes place in Jensen’s apartment sometime after the game’s fast-paced beginning. It’s a few hours after a terrorist attack on Prague’s central train station. Jensen was present when the bombs exploded and could have been killed in the attack. We wanted to use his apartment to allow the player time to connect with the main character. To take a moment to breathe and begin to feel for the person they are playing. We also wanted to give weight to the events Jensen and the player both just experienced, to feel the burden of the world on their shoulders. To establish Jensen as a human who is heavily augmented in a world that is turning against people like him. The shower scene helps to express these ideas in a very short yet powerful moment. There are few optional ‘hidden’ scenes like this throughout the game in which we are expressing something about our character.
Later in this scene, Jensen collapses on the couch with a mug of coffee, and we get another moment that indicates how different parts of Adam’s body may be from ours. He’s clad only in a pair of tight, stylized pants. His bare chest is a strange mix of perfect and flawed, crossed with scars and ports whose purposes aren’t clear. Oddly, he doesn’t hold his coffee cup by the handle, even though it’s hot enough to steam. His hands must not feel heat.
All of these moments in the shower and apartment might be discomfiting to players, but they indicate the opposite for Jensen. While we might find his body jarring, he seems at ease with it, in a way we haven’t really seen before. In the preceding game, 2011’s Human Revolution, Jensen smashes his mirror when he first sees his augmented body. In Mankind Divided he’s had plenty of time to get used to it. He doesn’t seem bothered by it anymore; he’s shirtless when he talks to Sarif over video chat or with Pritchard in the System Rift DLC. He seems comfortable in his skin, or at least resigned to it.
There’s a lot of talk about how women’s bodies appear in games and what the depictions of those bodies communicate. We see men’s bodies less, but we do see them, often when they’re bathing. There’s Jensen and his shower. There’s also BJ Blazkowicz’s bath flashback in Wolfenstein: The New Order, in which the player can trigger a brief cutscene of Anya bathing BJ after the Nazis take over the hospital. This bath recalls a sense of powerlessness just when BJ has become powerful again after waking from his comatose state. Like Jensen’s shower, BJ’s bath gives him an unexpected depth, something also explored throughout The New Order via its voiceovers.
The most famous guy-taking-a-bath scene in modern gaming might be the tub scene in The Witcher 3, which has turned into a meme. Geralt’s initial bath scene also lets us see a male hero’s more vulnerable side, though Geralt of Rivia is unclothed so often in CD Projekt Red’s game that the nudity alone is not that shocking. Geralt’s infamous bath scene is a dream; the scene starts with Geralt sleeping on the ground before jumping to Kaer Morhen with Yen. The first shot of the tub is suddenly interrupted by Geralt’s feet flopping out of the water, and the shot lingers on his soles. It’s not quite Adam Jensen’s angst-shower; his relaxed posture belies peace he hasn’t yet earned through the game. There’s a brief moment of danger—a monster slithering into the tub with him—but it’s quickly revealed as a loving illusion. This bath shows Geralt as someone who can appreciate bodily pleasure, a quality the player sees in brief flashes throughout The Witcher 3’s main quest and, in a very different light, in the Hearts of Stone DLC.
Geralt has another bath when he arrives in Nilfgaard, but it’s the opposite of this one: a moment of duress rather than peace. Women bathe him; he stares at them bemusedly, not quite helping but not quite resisting. He’s being groomed as a power play, and not much of his body is visible. It conveys a similar powerlessness to BJ’s bath, contrasting the powerful, violent man we’ve played between the first bath and this one.
Geralt’s unclothed body is a regular feature in The Witcher 3, including during a quest in a bathhouse and in the game’s numerous sex scenes. In the sex scenes, Geralt grins or begs or gazes or frowns or dozes off as he courts potential lovers or hires sex workers. Geralt doesn’t have Jensen’s shame, or even his resignation, though he also has a weird body. He seems so happy to be in his skin, even in its scarred, mutated state, able to celebrate it where Jensen is not. Where Jensen’s tendency to hide his feet after we’ve seen them might indicate regret, Geralt’s willingness to pull off his boots (and the rest of his clothes) at any occasion show a capacity for joy that complicates his usually stoic demeanor.
These video game showers, baths, and occasional love scenes give players glimpses of the more secret parts of men’s bodies.They don’t speak volumes, but they do convey more than some overwrought dialogue might. Through their wordlessness, through their focus on usually unseen parts of male bodies, they let us know these characters differently. There’s little point to having a video game character take a shower or bath, but these scenes stand out, giving us welcome insight into the male characters we play.