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"996 Tech: The Great Equalizer"

by Steven Harmon

Recently I attended the 2024 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco and had the chance to play 996 Tech, an alt ctrl toilet racing game. The moment I laid eyes on the porcelain-plastic thrones before me I knew I had to interview the team behind such a conceptual masterpiece. I interview Shiloh Guo, Yue Krystal Huang, and Zhuoran Ma of 996 Tech.

Follow Shiloh's work here: shilohguo.github.io

Follow Krystal's work here: yue-huang.com

Follow Zhuoran's work here: zhuoranma.com

Q: Tell me about yourselves and the project

Steven: All right. Well, thank you so much for being with me and letting me interview you. This is the team of 996 Tech and I want to ask you to introduce yourselves and your role in the project.

Yue Krystal Huang: Okay. I'm Krystal and I'm doing physical computing and all the physical parts in this project.

Shiloh Guo: I'm Shiloh.

I'm doing the Unity development and the 3D art.

Zhuoran Ma: Hi, I'm Zhuoran. I'm doing the game UI, programming and also fabrications.

Steven: So, open question to anyone in your own words, for those unable to play the game at GDC, can you please give a pitch of your game?

Zhuoran Ma: Sure. So, our game is called 996 Tech, which we are inspired by the idea of 996 Schedules, which means that people will work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, which, unfortunately, this kind of overwork culture is becoming more and more common within workplaces nowadays.

But employees also have their way to fight back, that they will go to restrooms to slack off at work. So our goal of the game is to really challenge the toxic working culture and to promote the idea of pay to poop norms. The game itself is a two player racing game where players will sit on the toilet seats and use plungers as controllers.

And For the game itself, they (the players) will be racing with the toilets within the office settings where they will collect poops and throw poop at each other. And really the final goal is both the players would rush into the CEO office. And that's like the whole experience.

Q: Where did the idea come from?

Steven: So I just want to ask, where did the idea come from? Like, did a few of you have a job in the office previously and use the bathroom as an escape or did the name come before the toilet inclusion? I'm just curious, you know, how it came to be conceptually and aesthetically, whether it was, you know, for a class project with a theme or, or more just original idea.

Like, I just want to hear the origin story.

Yue Krystal Huang: So our project is actually from our personal experience Zhuoran and I worked as an intern in many companies before, and we saw a norm that they tend to make workers work over time. Sometimes we see intense work time from 9 a.m to 9 p.m 6 day a week. This is actually where our names come from, 996 Tech. And so, when we work, when we as interns saw this kind of norm, we want to bring out these social issues, and we decide to make a game out of it.

Shiloh Guo: I'm a student and although I never worked, I still feel like 9-9-6 when I go to school in my (previous) educational system because they like a teacher used every type score to measure you like a KPI into the, in the career.

I also go to school from 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM even on Saturday. So even though I'm a student, but I also care about the overtime workplace. Because they definitely have a similarity between this system. For example, during work, your boss maybe watch your computer and to evaluate your every behavior.

So that's why I think it's too easy for everybody to go to the bathroom as a relief and as an escape.

Q: Why make using the toilet multiplayer?

Steven: So, on to that escape. Escaping the toilet for, you know, some peace at work is a very solitary experience. You know, a very solo withdrawal. But you've made a two player more social bathroom game with no divider or separator.

Why? Why make it a multiplayer experience?

Yue Krystal Huang: This is a very good question. So we made it as a two player game to add a sense of playfulness to the game and you can play this game with your co workers and have a chance to bond with them and also even play with your bosses and win over your bosses over our game.

Shiloh Guo: For me, I think pooping is not a lonely experience. But it is a shared, relaxing experience because everybody play on phone when they go to poop. So they can use the internet to chat with each other. That's not in the workplace. So in society, it can create a comfortable connection to another people. That's why we create a two player competitive game, because they say, somebody may say, "we want to poop together", so that kind of creates a pooping together culture.

Zhuoran Ma: As for me, I think washroom is a place where, like, everyone is equal and dealing with basic bodily needs. And while the act of sitting on the toilet seat is normally quite private and personal, when two people sit side by side on the toilets in a public space, the boundary seems to be torn down.

Steven: That's, that's very interesting. I never thought about the the bathroom as such a social experience until now. But it is true. I, I do text one of my, my close friends when I'm on the toilet. I, I make a joke that whenever I'm on the toilet, I think of them.

Q: Why add throwing poops & collectables to your game?

I did want to ask about the throw poops action you mentioned earlier.

Was that some holdover from like arcade racing game attacks like Shells and Mario Kart, or is it more from like the behavior of monkeys slinging their poop, or was there more any meaning behind that action that goes along with the actual conceptual side?

Zhuoran Ma: I think one of our considerations is that people are usually pretty obsessed with poops.

And we really want to use poop as a playful element to bring laughter to the general audience. This can also reduce the awkwardness of people having to sit on the toilet seats in public. And hopefully this can also draw people's relationships closer.

Shiloh Guo: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting question.

For example, the behavior drop and the object shit. So combine them together, it can create a pure childish behavior. And also it is the most simple aggressive behavior. You can directly feel the impact about your behavior to another person. It's kind of a strong interaction between your and another player that builds a player together and make the game more interesting.

Steven: I have a question following up for Shiloh. What was the reason for adding collectibles? And why, why were poops the collectible? Did you consider pee as sort of its own power up as well? Or was there reasons for its absence?

Shiloh Guo: Oh yeah. First of all as a game designer, I think to add something collectible makes the game more interesting and competitive because the poop have two function in the game.

First of all, you can drop poop to decelerate another player and you can flush your toilet. As you say in our game, the poop is not simply a poop, but an emoji poop.

So everybody can figure out the meaning of our game that the poop is only the funny element. So, this is already become a (pop) culture, so it's easier for people to get through the culture and to making fun with it.

Steven: I just want to ask another follow up question in terms of this culture concept.

Q: What is the culture of the game?

You mentioned on your site that you based the level design and environment art off of real life offices to create a new culture on top of it. And in your own words, what would that culture be of the game? And how has that depiction of toilets within the culture changed over the course of the development?

I noticed there was some sort of like cart like aesthetic in the earlier builds to a more recognizable toilet design later on. If you can kind of just cue me in on, on what that culture is that you try to create.

Shiloh Guo: Oh yeah, my game is kind of an office fantasy. You can drop poop, and drive in a toilet, and to destroy the wall, and mess up everything. It's really nonsense but also straightforward goal to the player. I think the setting of the story is not that important. I see a lot of player to interpret my game in different way. They say, I want to become a CEO or I just want to poop. People have a lot of secret impulse, and we make those (secret) impulse become true.

People can get some freedom in the bathroom that they cant in the real life, they can play on the phone or chatting with other people and feeling relief. In this game, the freedom is born from the toilet, and they will create more freedom to another place.

Yeah, that is the culture of 996.

Q: What expectations on toilets/work culture do you feel you've subverted?

Steven: Thank you, that was a great answer. So, Krystal, I want to ask you did the controllers primarily, correct?

Zhuoran Ma: Yeah.

Steven: So on your site, you described your work on 996 tech as a part of a queering controllers practice. Using the embedded associations of these objects, merging those with the existing literacy around traditional game controls, and altering them.

What did you want to say in the alteration with the controller design of this game? And what do you feel like you've subverted in people's preconceptions regarding toilets or even work culture in total?

Yue Krystal Huang: I do think toilets as a medium could bring people together and bring equality. Everyone from different backgrounds and cultures, we all have to use the toilets to do our business. Toilets bring them to an equal place where they are equal and also keep the discussion about the 996 toxic work culture keep going.

Q: Why give away expensive souvenirs?

Steven: Zhuoran you did the game UI, right? I think a big part of the immersion of 996 Tech for me when I was playing at GDC was the fact that players were provided their own custom lanyard and badge in the style of the game's UI, and you know, that's a pretty expensive, memento for the hundreds of players playing the game at GDC. Why was that important for the team to include in your opinion?

Zhuoran Ma: So, for people who haven't played, based on the time players reached the final lines, we will offer them a position within our fictional 996 tech company and also provide them with corresponding employee badges. And if players have exceptional achievements, we will also give them like prizes, ranging from stickers, t shirt, and even like goods. (tissue wages, crochet poops, etc.)

And also, apart from that, we decorate our controllers, adding cushions to the toilet seats and placing toy poops within the toilet bowls to strengthen the narrative aspect of our game. So our goal here is to really design a complete and engaging experience, and to form this kind of unique community and culture where players are fully immersed in the storytelling of our game.

For example, an employer managed to win over her real world boss in a game and earned the CEO badge herself. This kind of like validates our design principles in really impacting real life dynamics using our game.

Q: Did you think of representing different types of toilets??

Steven: Nice. Was there any talks to represent different types of toilets?

You mentioned customizing the look of them to be more comfortable. But like different types of toilets in the game diegetically with different handling tradeoffs. For instance, like a squat toilet or maybe a toilet with rails that's more accessible.

Zhuoran Ma: Yeah, we decided to focus more on sitting on toilets. We think that those shapes are more universal in terms of use. And also, considering the transportation that we need to take all of our controllers to GDC.

We eventually decided to use portable toilets as the final form.

Q: How did you GDC-proof the controllers?

Steven: So this is a question to anyone involved, I think Krystal and Zhuoran about the fabrication and the, you know, physical computing. But what were the difficulties in transporting and sort of rebuilding and maintaining these controllers in an expo environment where they have a lot of wear and tear?

Did you experience a lot of challenges with getting the game to consistently run for different body types or weights or just over, over the course of the day falling apart?

Yue Krystal Huang: Yeah, this is a big issue when, before we came to GDC, we were actually speaking with our professor who did alt ctrl GDC before.

And he advised me to bring a lot of spare parts to GDC and change them wherever you can. So we bring a lot of spare parts. And but we still encounter some issues with glue drying because glue dry needs time. Sometimes we close our booth to wait for the glue to dry.

And also, speaking of transportation, we actually choose the portable toilets because we could fit them into our suitcase. Yeah, I think it's It's very great learning experience; bring a lot of spare parts and be mindful of the glue dry time, I guess.

Q: What is next for the game?

Steven: Well, I'm just curious, like, what's next for 996 Tech? Any plans on continuing the development for arcades or desktop or mobile consumer release version?

Yue Krystal Huang: Yeah we definitely see this project being in arcades type of form but we are also considering turning this game into, like, MR games By wearing a headset the player could sit on their own toilets to play our games.

And when you play our games, you can also get your business done. But we definitely see this project going forward and in different forms. And we are discovering new forms and playtesting in this stage right now.

Q: What is next for you individually?

Steven: So for each of you individually, what's next?

How does this project to influence your artistic practice and journey?

And what's next on the horizon?

Yue Krystal Huang: So I'm Krystal and I will be pursuing my master's degree in design next. I'm graduating this following May and my focus will be doing projects that highlight innovations and engage audience of different backgrounds, more projects that have social impact like 996 tech.

Shiloh Guo: Yeah, for me, I'm a Shiloh. Before I'm doing the job more like a virtual artist, but in this game I have opportunity to experiment more positions like level designer, concept artist, and environment artist. So I mix a lot of techniques together to create a really coherent player experience. I think it's a really good thing to do as a game designer. So in the future, I would like to become a game producer to make a lot of games.

Zhuoran Ma: I think my pathway will be more towards being a multimedia designer and kind of leaning more towards game UI. If I am fortunate enough to be a part of the game industry, but I think the whole experience really motivates me for designing independent games in the future.

Steven: Well, that's great. I look forward to seeing more of your independent games in the future.

Yue Krystal Huang: Yeah, thank you.

Q: What is your personal relationship to toilets?

Steven: So I would, this is part of the interview where I ask the same questions to everyone just because I, I think they yield some interesting answers, but I wanted to ask for each of you or anyone who wants to answer what is your personal relationship to toilets?

Yue Krystal Huang: Great question. I'm Krystal and I really enjoyed my time on the toilet. I think it's really private and also I can play on my phone for a while to not feel guilty about it. Yeah.

Steven: Does playing on the phone on the toilet feel better than if you were just playing on your bed or anywhere else? It just, is it more comfortable?

Yue Krystal Huang: I don't know, it's less guilty, like, well, I could sit on the toilet watching TikTok, feel not guilty about it.

Steven: Because you couldn't be doing anything else with your time, like you couldn't possibly be working or, okay, I see, I see.

Shiloh Guo: For me, the bathroom is my favorite place anywhere. It's my (spiritual) harbor.

So no matter where, no matter which time, no matter any experience, it's a complete freedom because it's not easy to find a place that nobody can watch you.

That's why the bathroom is so important. Because it really brings you a really holy human right that nobody can interrupt.

Steven: So for you, you would say that it's like the only truly private place in your actual life that you get to escape to. Yeah,

Shiloh Guo: That's true.

Zhuoran Ma: And as for me, I think toilet serves as an ideal refuge for physical and mental relief. And I guess the physical aspect is quite straightforward, but in terms of the mental perspective, a washroom is always like a perfect spot for me to cry and freely release emotions whenever I have a sudden mental breakdown in public space. And no one would ever know.

Steven: That's like, that's a great point. In college had a list of my favorite bathrooms and a separate list of my favorite places to cry on campus. And there was a lot of overlap. So I could definitely see that being true.

Yue Krystal Huang: Yeah, that would be so nice to have a map like that-

Shiloh Guo: yes!

Yue Krystal Huang: Perfect spot to read.

Q: What values do you think toilets present in games?

Steven: What values, culturally, politically, do you think toilets present in games overall for anyone who's seen other toilets in games?

Zhuoran Ma: So as Krystal aforementioned, we believe that toilets is a medium that suggests equality since we all need to go to restrooms to kind of fulfill the basic human needs. Regardless of our gender, race, social status, and etc. And, namely, toilets represent the cultural and political value of, breaking down the barriers among individuals.

Also, we think that toilets serves as a platform for making statements.

Steven: Do you think toilets are more useful in that communication of breaking down barriers because everyone has a knowledge of them beforehand, like everyone can relate to it, so it kind of starts the conversation at an equal space?

Zhuoran Ma: Yeah, and also, like an essential reason is that everyone basically needs to go to toilets, so at that space, it kind of creates, like, an equal, like,

Steven: A watering hole, quite literally.

Zhuoran Ma: Yeah, where, like, any conversation can happen, and, like, you, you can talk to anyone who is older than you, have different social experience than you, and in that space, everyone can make their own statements in a way.

Steven: Interesting. Do you find that people actually talk in the, in the restrooms frequently?

I'm used to men's restrooms, which are pretty silent but are the women's restrooms a lot more social?

Shiloh Guo: Yeah, I think it's a really social place in the high school, you know, a lot of a girl will like hanging out together in the bathroom. And that's like, I have secret, let's go to the bathroom, something like that.

So it's really intimacy and kind of create a privacy to a little group talking with each other.

Zhuoran Ma: Yeah, I think, so for my experience maybe going to bars, there will be notes taken on the toilet seats, like encouraging notes, saying "you can!" (make it) ,"you need to be more confident", "you are doing your best", "you should give yourself a break."

It's all those warming words that strangers write on the walls in the toilets that make you feel really moved, warm, and motivated, which I think is kind of magical in the toilets as conversations taking place across time and space.

Steven: That's, that's lovely.

It's kind of like Dark Souls or Death Stranding. It's leaving persistent notes for the future generations of poopers. That's really nice. I don't think the men's toilets are so nice. But I did see some, like, environmental storytelling going on at one of my school's restrooms when I was in college.

But that was more for gay cruising, which is a whole other thing.

Q: What values do you think toilets present in games?

Steven: But alright, so my last question, I ask this of everyone are there any interesting findings or discoveries that you've made in your time with toilets?

Yue Krystal Huang: I think the most interesting finding that we found doing this project with the toilets is the greater function of the toilets, it is a medium that brings people together and connect s everyone , everyone could share their private thoughts and also have the space to their own in the toilet.

Shiloh Guo: We all know that 996 Tech is kind of a heavy word, but our game create a fantasy above the reality, but in the middle of the imagination. And then people can, rather than seriously talking about a topic, but laughing and joking around to deal with this issue.

Steven: Thank you so much again for your insight. It was a great time.

Zhuoran Ma: Thank you so much for preparing these questions.