When people find out I'm a surgeon, they always ask me what the hardest part of the job is. It's breaking the news, right? You know: the waiting room, the expectant family, the nervous shuffling of feet.
No, I tell them (idiots). That's not actually true at all. The hardest part of the job is holding your claw hammer correctly so you can provide enough force to bash a man's ribs to pieces with one blow. That stuff really takes it out of you.
Still, breaking the news isn't easy, I guess. I've chiseled your husband's lungs out, but I'm afraid my electric drill got stuck on a kidney. I tried knocking it free with a coffee cup, but the cup got lodged in there too. Then his pancreas fell off without me even touching it. And I dropped a Coke bottle into his intestines. After that my scalpel became wedged in a plug socket for a few minutes. Then my wristwatch came loose. Are you paying by card?
Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an arm simulator - the arm just happens to be attached to a surgeon. That might explain why, much like John Wilkes Booth, atrocities ensue whenever I enter the theatre. That's why each post-op wash-up session reads like the granular confession of a rather spirited mass-murderer and why I have to play so many rounds of golf after work. I play golf to forget, see? So will you. I recommend a sand wedge. If you don't use it you can always eat it!
That last bit was a surgeon joke. I don't expect you to get it, which is why I helped you out with that exclamation mark. Surgeon Simulator is a joke game, as it happens, but its joke is a pretty good one. It takes place in a strange version of the world where medical school is composed of just two lessons: how to hollow your victim out, and how to stick some new stuff inside afterwards. Heart transplant, kidney transplant, a good old brain swap? They all come down to the same thing, really: get drilling, and then get filling. Ulp. There goes my wristwatch again.
This sort of task should be pretty easy, but there's always that arm to think about. It's your sole means of interacting with Surgeon Simulator's universe - you even have to use it in menus - and it's comically ill-suited to the job. You use the keyboard to control individual digits, the mouse to move you around, and then the mouse buttons to lower your arm onto your patient and to turn your dainty surgeon's wrist. Patients love that sort of thing, but it's probably still best to wait until they're anaesthetized, just to be safe.
Control-wise, it sounds like a flexible approach, but whoever the game's arm actually belongs to doesn't seem to be playing along. You'll flap that rubbery limb around like a convulsing fish, you'll grasp and grasp and grasp for a scalpel and come away with nothing, and you'll do terrible, unforgivably vigorous damage to your patients whenever you momentarily forget yourself or succumb to a twitch. It doesn't help that the game's world is riddled with clutter: alongside scissors, bone saws and those funny little pin things surgeons like, there are also hammers, drills, axes, beakers, bottles, notepads and even a clock radio or two.
Sorry, I've forgotten my train of thought. My beeper went off. Just lost another patient. I'm sure he'll turn up though! (He won't - he's dead.) Anyway, as with stuff like QWOP, the awkwardness is all part of the fun: the game's meant to be unwieldy, and your movements are meant to be sluggish and cumbersome. That's where all the morbid comedy comes from as you bust heads clumsily in the name of medicine. Besides, such a set-up allows each animation to convey a certain drunken swagger, a confidence that seems hilariously misplaced for a surgeon who's just unwittingly bashed their patient's torso to pieces with a paperweight while reaching for a pencil.
Tricky as it is, after a few patients/victims you'll find you can actually play Surgeon Simulator like a proper game, too. Once you realise that you don't have to put back most of the stuff you're taking out when you do an op (that's surgeon lingo: it's short for, "opportunity for some life-saving"!) you'll start to see this as a kind of dead-limbed speed runner where there are but two vital metrics to keep your eye on: There's the blood level, which takes a hit with every rib you chisel out and every lung you remove, and there's loss rate. This is boosted by accidental damage, and sees your patient's claret pumping away steadily over time. It's the loss rate that kills people, frankly. That and dropping bone saws into their ears.
Surgeon Simulator knows it's a bad game. To be entertainingly terrible is its ultimate objective. With its glitchy animations and unpredictable physics there are a few moments when when you'll wish it were better at being a bad game, perhaps, but overall it's still capable of providing a real comic tension as a patient's life ebbs away, as their kidneys refuse to come unstuck no matter how hard you yank at them, and as that sodding wristwatch goes tumbling into a vital cavity. Equally, when the initial trio of levels loses its ability to thrill, you have the option to do them all over again in the back of a speeding ambulance. As you lean into the screen and mutter darkly to yourself, you won't really feel like a surgeon necessarily - surgeons tend not to work their life-giving magic via an interface that has taken vital cues from one of those funfair UFO catchers - but you're definitely becoming a grim kind of specialist of some stripe, toiling away on one of the gooier frontiers of human existence.
You could read the whole thing as a comment on games' inability to truly simulate the real world, I guess - as Cart Life creator Richard Hofmeier recently said, the lens of games kills whatever's on the other side, and most of the stuff in Surgeon Simulator is very thoroughly dead indeed. It's probably better to look at this as an interesting strain of gateway drug for new audiences, though. It's a good laugh for the player - although there's always that weird You've Been Framed dampening effect which comes from something that's been set up to be amusing rather than something that's just naturally, accidentally, organically hilarious - but the real fun is being had by the people ogling over your shoulder. They'll stare at the chaos for hours if you let them. I think it's hours, anyway. I'm not sure anymore. I can't seem to find my wristwatch.