the artistry and psychology of gaming


Surgeon Simulator 2013

Surgeon Simulator 2013

The Good:
+ Intentionally awkward controls make for stupidly funny gameplay
+ Realistic physics, stylized visuals, and urgent music make the joke even better
+ Several clever tools, modes, and Easter eggs

The Bad:
– Unreliable difficulty prevents it from working as a straightforward game
– Doesn’t get a lot of mileage out of its sillier elements

From the moment I learned what Surgeon Simulator 2013 was to the moment I finished it, all I could think was, “Who is this game for?” It wasn’t until I intentionally murdered my patient with a power drill to the face for an achievement that I reached the conclusion: this game is for horrible people…horrible people with amazing, impudent, YouTube-ready senses of humour. This unholy child of Trauma Center and Octodad certainly looks the part of one of those inexplicably common Boring Profession Simulator 20XX games that I’m always surprised anyone actually buys. But the slightest bit of gameplay reveals it to be a gruesome game of comical butchery where you’ll excise entire ribcages, toss lungs out of an ambulance, and sever brain stems with a hatchet…and that’s if you’re playing it right. Unfortunately, the “game” part of this comedy game falls apart thanks to the very mechanics it’s built on, but it’s mostly forgivable because the game’s very existence is hilarious. Surgeon Simulator 2013 is one enormous ironic joke, and the fact that there are surely people out there who bought it expecting a genuine surgeon simulator is the punchline.

I don’t make that Octodad comparison lightly; your main enemies in Surgeon Simulator 2013 will be your own mouse and keyboard. You’ll use five keys – one for each finger – and every function of the mouse to guide the hand (yes, just one) of Nigel Burke, the world’s most incompetent and drug-addled surgeon, through various stylized surgical procedures under varying levels of surrounding chaos. How do you wield a scalpel or position a replacement organ when you move in the manner of a man recovering from paralysis? Well, poorly, that’s how, and it results in bizarrely entertaining scenes of timidly tapping at body parts using a knife held by your pinky, or desperately trying to remove a still-buzzing bone saw from a patient’s intestinal tract before he bleeds to death. But trying (and failing…mostly failing) to complete the game’s slipshod imitation of surgery is only one half of the joke. The other half is born from the complete disregard for human life and dignity that you’re allowed and even expected to show. Casually tossing aside the patient’s esophagus to make way for a new heart, creating intestine scarves for achievements, and losing your wristwatch in the patient’s chest cavity are all standard procedure for Surgeon Simulator 2013’s wonderfully brutal black comedy. The consistency and effectiveness of the humour is especially impressive since it’s derived entirely from gameplay, without any kind of identifiable scripted jokes – you have to play it to get it.

When I said the game was for horrible people, I was including myself.

But, while Surgeon Simulator 2013 dreams of being the next great comedy game, it will never reach the legendary status of QWOP or I Wanna Be the Guy, because while those games were designed to be comedies first and video games second, Surgeon Simulator 2013 tries to be both at once, and falls flat on its face when treated as a video game. A few days ago, I would have dismissed this criticism as reviewers not getting the joke of the game’s existence, but since playing it, I can see there’s quite a bit of legitimacy to it. By assigning letter grades based on player performance and placing the operations in a linear sequence, the developers have communicated that they expect the game’s challenge to be taken seriously on some level.

And yet, actually trying for a high grade is maddeningly frustrating. The physics-based gameplay means you can never perform actions consistently, certain tasks will leave you desperately wishing you could switch to your other hand, and the “correct” ways to complete each level are only found through accidents and trial and error. But the worst parts are the unwinnable moments where a slight mistake knocks a tool or organ into a position where they can never be recovered. These moments make the later levels – which feature the same procedures performed in a moving ambulance and in zero-gravity – into a nightmarish exercise in utter bullshit. Their concept is funny, sure, but you won’t be laughing when your replacement kidneys have floated up to the ceiling, never to return.

Wait! I need that to live!

I really wish the game had stayed the course with its dark comedy direction, because all of the aesthetic choices were obviously designed to reinforce the joke, and they perform this task exceptionally well. The graphics are just slightly stylized, giving a similar look and accomplishing similar goals to Team Fortress 2 – namely, removing the setting from reality to quell any morbid afterthoughts that might arise when humour and gore are paired together. And the music alternates between catchy, driving rhythms, and remorseful piano, both of which are equally hilarious due to their painful sincerity in the face of the increasingly silly and bloody gameplay. Even the realistic physics, which, on paper, only complicate the genuine challenge of the game, offer a layer of comedy in the same vein; scalpels gracefully soar through zero-g space even as you hack away with a hatchet, and there’s something inexplicably entertaining about watching Nigel numbly flop around his desk while trying to answer his phone.

The final things I like about Surgeon Simulator 2013 are how detailed it is, and how it never abandons its concept, no matter how ridiculous it makes the final product. The most obvious examples of this are the aforementioned ambulance and space modes, which, while frustrating to play, are undeniably clever twists on the game’s established mechanics. But the game uses its obtuse surgeon controls for everything, including its main menu, allowing the game to extract just a little more entertainment out of the mechanics while you fumble with floppy disks and phone numbers. Furthermore, the thematic similarities to Team Fortress 2 take on real significance during one of the game’s extra modes, which is one of the best (although unnecessarily difficult) crossover ideas I’ve ever seen. As for details, I like how each tool at your disposal has demonstrable strengths and weaknesses depending on the type of tissue you use it on and in what situation, and I’m especially fond of the ability to accidentally sedate or electrocute yourself, resulting in distorted visuals and reversed controls, respectively.

This is your surgeon on drugs. Yes, he’s holding the scalpel by the blade.

Despite this, I don’t believe the game travels far enough in its pursuit of the absurd. Once the cat was out of the bag and the game revealed its comedic intentions, did it really need to pretend to be a legitimate surgeon simulator anymore? Why are we given a hatchet in one level, but every other tool is an actual surgical tool? Why are we transferred into space, but then just asked to do the same procedures we’ve already done twice before? There is one final operation that plays the nonsense card for all its worth, but it’s locked behind an impossibly difficult puzzle, and is impossibly difficult itself, so it’s really not worth the effort. On a similar note, the fact that there are only three operations to perform, just in different situations, is equally disappointing. Finally, the game never finds any real justification for giving you control of individual fingers; you’ll pretty much always want to grip with all five at once.

While the game doesn’t stay in the direction that works for it, it’s still deliriously funny for the first hour, whether you succeed or fail (but don’t kid yourself, it’ll be mostly failure). It’s gratifying to play a true comedy game where the gameplay itself is funny, rather than a by-the-numbers challenge between setpiece jokes, as is the case with most games that use humour as a selling point. While the intentionally lurching, convoluted control scheme is decidedly incompatible with traditional difficulty, the premise is black comedy gold, and the developers should be lauded for following through with it in so many ways. The potential for a classic is in here; it just looks like we might have to wait for a hypothetical Surgeon Simulator 2014 to see it fully realized.

Score: 6/10

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