Just like it was only a matter of time before new-millennium irony started to bleed over into games with the wave of “simulator” games on PC, it was only a matter of time before these cheap, wonky hot messes made their appearance on a console. Grant Surgeon Simulator this: At least it has a solid core of morbid humor that distracts one from the rest of the train wreck. That’s still not to say it’s good, and it should definitely make everyone worry about what’s next.
Surgeon Simulator is predicated on a single joke: that the simulator is so incredibly shitty at simulating anything that performing even the most basic human functions involving a hand is a comedy of errors. It’s so easy and tempting within the first few minutes of play to start praying to whatever god you hold dear that a teaser for a new Trauma Center is hidden beneath this mess, P.T.-style. But it’s not. The game gives you a bare framework of controls, a cluttered desk to practice them in, and you’re off to the races to perform a heart transplant.
Being a fan of Trauma Center, a legitimately great series of games, puts the player at a disadvantage. It makes one expect things like logic and reason that have no place here. Here, the human body is basically a fleshy Mr. Potato Head on the inside, where organs can pop out and be tossed to the wayside at will if they’re in between you and your stated goal. Not that the game tells you this while you control only a single, disembodied right hand with the manual dexterity of Jordan Belfort on Quaaludes. You will fumble around for hours on end, trying to get the controls to cooperate just enough to break a man’s ribcage apart, like cracking open a gruesome crème brûlée, and without causing him to bleed to death. Trial and error is the only way you get anywhere here, and the game is banking on the fact that the errors are funny enough to carry a couple sparse hours of playtime. It is, and yet it’s not. As mentioned, it’s still an objectively terrible game if you’re talking about what’s required to perform the goals the game gives you.
And yet, through those terrible mechanics comes the uncontrollable laughter. It’s the brand of laughter that has made Cards Against Humanity a go-to party staple. It’s the laughter of terrible people. There’s an audience for a game that allows you to toss a clock radio into someone’s open chest cavity and hit the PS4’s Share button, or fumble around for 15 minutes just trying to get a decent grasp on someone’s brain that refuses to detach and lolls around an open skull like the world’s most horrifying cup-and-ball. Success in the heart-transplant level just involves hollowing out all the organs and literally just tossing a heart in there, while the victory message splats on screen: “I’m sure he’ll be fine.” There’s a Doctor Who-related trophy to be had here that pretty much ruins surgery and Doctor Who for everybody.
The kicker is that, with patience and a light enough touch, it’s actually possible to develop a measure of skill and get the procedures done with minimal damage to your virtual patient. The tools are there for it; dozens of tools are there for it, in fact. And yet, the rewards for developing that skill aren’t nearly worth the Sisyphean effort. You can perform the same surgeries in a bumpy ambulance, in zero gravity, or unlock an alien autopsy down the road, but these are all stages of diminishing returns. Enjoyment is gained by how badly you fail, and the game forcing the player’s hand in that regard feels like a cheat.
Therein lies the problem. The game’s best moments happen through repeated, varied attempts at failure. It’s the cackling, cynical, modern answer to the old WarGames line about not playing being the only way to win. The only way to love Surgeon Simulator is to suck at playing it. It’s the gaming equivalent of Snakes on a Plane. The Samuel L. Jackson actioner was ultimately a more refined specimen of film than Surgeon Simulator is a game, but the ethos is the same, and what it portends is the same. The audience is there for this kind of title, judging from the success of Goat Simulator, Soda Drinker Pro, and their ilk, each with even less functional gameplay than this. The game is the gag, and in an age where games get wished into existence only through sheer force of wallet, one can’t help but wonder what happens when the jokes have no punchline, but enough people are still paying a premium to see someone tell it anyway.
Surgeon Simulator: Anniversary Edition is now available on the Sony Entertainment Network Store for the PS4.