How to Save a Life
Most of us are well short of the level of education and subsequent anatomical knowledge required to successfully perform a heart transplant. Still, who wouldn't mind experiencing the awesome wave of heroic accomplishment that washes over a surgeon each time he or she saves a person's life? Surgeon Simulator 2013, a game from Bossa Studios, won't help you be a surgeon. It won't help you save lives, either. Hell, I'd even go as far as to say it has a negative influence on your personal knowledge of what invasive surgery actually entails. What it does do, almost in spite of itself, is haphazardly simulate the thrill of ripping a man's heart out of his chest and replacing it with another one.
Surgeon Simulator 2013 replicates surgery the same way Enviro-Bear 2010 simulates a bear driving a car; with one hand and deliberately obtuse control. You play as Nigel Burke, or, more specifically, you play as Nigel Burke's left hand. Each of Nigel's fingers are controlled with your fingers on the A, W, E, and R keys, respectively, while Nigel's and your thumb is left to the space bar. Yes, that's completely insane, and yet also sort of logical position for your hand on a keyboard. Nigel's hand moves around with the mouse, with the LMB in control of lowering it and the RMB dedicated to fine wrist movement. The end result here is something akin to QWOP meeting a toy crane game, only you have to use these tools to complete relatively complex life or death procedures.
Upon selecting heart surgery from the secretary’s desk were Nigel presumably works, you're transported to a prepped patient named Bob and told to perform a heart transplant. There's no step-by-step tutorial, no order of operations, and not a single surgical assistant. Instead, you're provided with a shit load of cutting tools and forced to experiment with everything. Ribs in the way? Why not try that circular saw looking thing, or maybe that hammer with an axe on the other hand, or what about the giant hacksaw over there in the corner? You don’t even actually have to effectively use the tools; merely grazing the intended area breaks the ribs into pieces. Surgeon Simulator 2013 is a game about experimentation by way of trial and error - and the challenge of competently controlling any of it.
Surgeon Simulator 2013's clumsy control is more of an endearing hook than a frustrating point of contention. It seems impossible, but, like rubbing your stomach and patting your head, an operational degree of control is gained with a bit of practice. Plopping Nigel’s hand down on a scalpel and watching him haphazardly pick it up like a cave man holding a pencil is both effectively hilarious and functionally acceptable. Hovering the hand over an artery and dropping it to replicate some sort of crude sawing motion looks absurd, but typically manages to get the job done. Playing Surgeon Simulator 2013 for a couple hours grants an almost expert level of control, but being a novice is almost more enjoyable simply because of how ridiculous everything appears when swinging Nigel’s dumb hand around the operating table.
It helps that Surgeon Simulator 2013’s proposed method of surgery is almost completely unrealistic. The rib cage can be removed with the blunt effectiveness of breaking it apart with a hammer and then the lungs can be ripped right out of Bob's chest with Nigel’s ungloved hands. Nigel doesn’t need to keep the discarded organs because they don't need to go back inside Bob. He’s there to transplant a heart and everything else is unnecessary. Most times, on the kidney transplant specifically, I'd tear out the intestines and drape them around Bob's neck like a ravishing red scarf because who cares, all he needs replaced or even returned are those kidneys.
Despite being mostly about goofs up to this point, there's a neat little game packed in Surgeon Simulator 2013. If you wreck Bob's guts too much he'll start bleeding, and if he bleeds out completely you'll murder the poor bastard and fail the surgery. Using some of the more risky tools like the laser cutter often results in Bob losing a higher amount of blood per second, but such is the associated risk and reward of using weapons-grade cutting tools. At the end of every surgery you're given a letter grade based on your performance ranging from a D all the way up to the esteemed A++, effectively making Surgeon Simulator 2013 a real game with tangible goals.
Surgeon Simulator 2013 was originally constructed in a 48 hour game jam and featured a single heart transplant, but the full retail release has granted two additional transplants, two kidneys for the second, and a brain for the third. Some additional tools are added to Nigel's selection, but the primary mission remains the same; find the most effective way to cut out whatever's necessary and slap the new organ in there as fast as possible. The brain is a particularly lethal exercise, as cracking the skull without damaging the meat inside is obscenely hard, but it's far from impossible. Some might feel short changed with just a precious handful of procedures available, but the blunt reflexes and control that define Surgeon Simulator 2013 pretty much eliminate any kind of tiny surgery, and Bossa probably exhausted what's physically possible without recycling challenges.
Spontaneity is perhaps Surgeon Simulator 2013's finest asset. Being physics-based game loaded with a ton of props, it's prone to numerous instances of accidental (and sometimes fatal) mishaps. Since Nigel's arms controls like your arm if it had been numb for three years, knocking all of the extraneous crap over on the operating table is a common occurrence. Likewise, accidentally dropping your scalpel, bone saw, or plastic spoon inside Bob's chest cavity is frequently unavoidable. From getting a scalpel lodged in your palm to accidentally administering hallucinogenic drugs on yourself, Surgeon Simulator 2013 is loaded with random and surprising tomfoolery.
Spontaneous disasters are increased tenfold once you unlock the option to attempt surgeries inside of a moving ambulance. The driver is (naturally) terrible at driving, so couple of seconds he takes a curb at full speed and sends everything in the ambulance, including Nigel's arm, off-kilter. In my experience this lead to a laser intermittently flying in an oval pattern over the patient, a cordless drill infinitely spinning around under its own power, and tools (including my replacement organ) scattered everywhere. Oh, and pray the back door doesn't swing open because that stuff isn't coming back. Is this hard, kind of unfair, and occasionally frustrating? You bet, but conquering these challenges and completing the procedure anyway is all part of Surgeon Simulators 2013’s infectious charm.
Obscene humor is the reason to play Surgeon Simulator 2013, and it delivers that asset in spades, but down the line it actually morphs into a legitimate challenge. After failing twenty or whatever times, I was sweating bullets the first time I managed to complete the kidney transplant. The sheer amount of things that could go wrong, not the mention the sloppy control, made for a true feeling of accomplishment upon completion. It's nothing like real surgery, obviously, but I did feel the overwhelming need to high five every one around and celebrate once I finally got it right.
Surgeon Simulator 2013 also boasts a hefty number of easter eggs. Many are tied to achievements - I unlocked “Time Lord” by having two hearts in Bob's chest cavity simultaneously - and often reward poking around at the game’s odds and ends. There's also a secret and amazing bonus procedure to be found after completing all the ambulance rides, the likes of which I don't want to spoil. Surgeon Simulator 2013 also boasts something of a narrative for Nigel, or at least has enough elements to build some kind of surgeon power fantasy for him in your head.
Half the fun is mentioning the premise of Surgeon Simulator 2013 to a buddy and then watching him or her come to grips with the outrageous task before them. It always delivers when inflicted upon friends, but I made a special exception when I asked my mother, a medical professional of thirty years and former participant in surgical procedures, to give the game a shot. Her immediate observations included the expected shock of, "What are you doing? You can't put the ribs back together!", and the anticipated criticism of, "Well, for starters you don't go through the front of a guy to get the kidneys out." Eventually, despite concluding the game, "feels like you have Palsy," she wound up having a ton of fun, and even complimented all of the organs being in the right place.
And there you have it. Surgery Simulator 2013 is a joke, and its creators are well aware of that fact, but it’s effectively the best game about completing surgical procedures with a phantom limb ever made.