I have to admit, character makes a venue. Air conditioning, a well-stocked fridge or a stunning view may all be ways to impress when it comes to interview appointments, but those are nothing compared to Bossa’s approach to style. Sat in the back of an aging ambulance outside of Earls Court, two gentlemen dressed as surgeons speak enthusiastically to me about their work.
In any other walk of life this would be ridiculous but the studio behind Surgeon Simulator has whole heartily embraced the quirkiness of their product. Anyone who has come near it will know that Simulator is very tongue in cheek. It is Operation for the modern era and with the whole team parading around in scrubs that sense of fun is clear.
“It was never serious. It was never more than a little stupid tool that was meant to keep us laughing,” says Luke, one of the four strong who originally created the game at a game jam earlier this year. “That was it. There was literally no intention to develop it further afterwards.”
“We just considered it an in-joke,” adds Tom, a fellow Surgeon Simulator developer. Though obviously proud and passionate about their game, there’s a hint of embarrassment in his voice. “We were in the game jam building in London and there was another team sitting behind us seeing everything we were doing and we were just laughing our socks off the entire time. They kept looking around thinking we were a bit weird,” he chuckles.
“We just thought people would look at it and go ‘what the f*** is this?’ but then when we presented it at the end everyone was just in tears laughing and shouting ‘use the hammer!’ It meant we couldn’t actually talk about the game as everyone was being so raucous.”
And come the end of the jam that could have been it for Surgeon Simulator. Despite the reaction from the rest of the teams, Luke still wasn’t convinced it was anything more than a joke shared between a group of sleep-deprived developers. “They were all in the room together; there was an infectious laughter. Still we uploaded it to our servers and that got passed around. First PC Gamer posted about it, Rock Paper Shotgun, and then the YouTubers jumped on it and by Tuesday it had millions of views. It was crazy.”
The purity of Surgeon Simulator is one of its finest qualities, born out of a group of friends coming together and thinking up something unique. If this had come from a triple-A studio then the somewhat clunky controls would no doubt have been user-tested into submission; for Tom, this is the very heart of the experience. “This is what it is. Take it and you enjoy it.” It’s a simple message and one that’s evidently heeded all over YouTube. “I remember the Rooster Teeth video where one of them’s doing the fingers on the keyboard and the other’s controlling the hand on the mouse. I had to pause it two or three times as I couldn’t get through it; I couldn’t breathe.”
With such coverage, Surgeon Simulator’s popularity has snowballed. Through word of mouth it has created a cult following and it now possesses an avid community. Despite a recent alien autopsy addition being hidden behind a series of puzzles, their fans’ ability to dig out such an Easter Egg impressed the team. “The original space surgery was a secret that you had to pop the floppy disk in to gain access to and we liked the reaction to that. Everyone was so excited that they found this hidden thing and we wanted to take that further and create a whole elaborate puzzle that the community would have to figure out together.”
In the end it took the community two days to get the answer. A lifetime by Internet standards. “The steam comment thread was 800 comments long with everyone hammering the game. We even got pictures where someone had drawn it all on a whiteboard and had all the links going between them all like some sort of conspiracy theory. It was so much fun to watch as they unraveled all the clues and got to it. The payoff was huge and seeing all the videos passed around was awesome.”
With the latest expansion released only last week, the team’s attentions have quickly turned elsewhere. Explaining very clearly that what I’m about to see is just a tech demo, Luke reaches beneath the gurney and brings out an iPad running a version of Surgeon Simulator.
“One of the things we wanted to explore was the obstacle of the hand,” he says, his fingers flicking across the tablet’s screen sending instruments flying. “There was an opportunity on tablet to really create this really nice interactive world and keep that feel to it, that faithful mayhem.”
On screen it does indeed look extremely faithful. Bob is still there about to be inflicted with the worst private healthcare than money can buy, and as Luke taps and drags surgical tools, the port to the tablet seems to have affected them little. The one thing that is missing however is your arm. “We’ve stripped the hand out because obviously your hand is the hand now. So if you want to play with Bob’s face you simply just grab it and give him a little shake.” True to form, Bob receives a playful slap across the face.
Picking up the tools is also simple; you just flick objects out of your way with a brush of your finger and then press down on the tool you want. You can then move that about freely, rotating it with a second finger so you can set your angle of attack. “You just swipe to where you want to smash.” Smash. “So if you want to hit the bottom of the rib cage you just swipe down to it and smash into it like so.” Smash. “And crack it open. It creates a nice feeling as you’re there actually doing it as you’re aiming straight at it.” Smash. “Then it’s just a case of fish out the bones.”
As we fish the bones out of the chest cavity, this new tactile aspect to the simulator is already proving a huge strength. Surprisingly, however, it’s also extremely new to Bossa.
“If you asked us even a week ago how Surgeon touch was we’d have said ‘it’s not.’” It then emerges Tom had impressively rigged these controls in less than two days into a straight port of the desktop version. “We had so many ideas of how to do the controls previously. We played with gyroscopes to move around the op room, virtual sliders to adjust the tools but it was all sorts of wrong. So often with touch devices you get people adding virtual buttons and virtual joysticks and that’s not the strength of touch.”
With touch however comes extra fidelity and I ask them whether that extra accuracy would actually harm the chaotic nature of their game. “I know what you mean,” Luke replies, “but it is still there. If you let go for a second the tools gone and it drops and collides with his head and you’re in trouble but we do think there will have to be some tweaks in the gameplay just to keep the surgeon feel. That’s the reason why the controls took so long as we wanted to still get that 3D space, that chaos of physics and you just grabbing something and slamming it into him and seeing what happens.”
“Plus you still need to angle it properly. You can still accidentally start sawing his head if you get that wrong so we still have that semi-awkward controls.” A drill meanders painfully across the chest cavity as if to demonstrate this. “There are still moments of “woah, WOAH!” and then you’ve got it stuck in him so you just toss it aside just to get rid of it.”
What’s clear is that although a straight port would be easy, the team set a high bar for themselves and won’t be doing anything if it’s not right for the game. “If we were to do the full version we would do more bespoke bits for the platform rather than just it all coming straight from the desktop. With the touch too it might lead to that we have to adapt the content slightly and maybe it’ll lend itself to more unique surgery interaction.” To indicate a small example, Tom starts opening and closing the box where the donor heart sits until the lid snaps off.
That philosophy also means the team aren’t yet committing to a release date, or even if it will be released at all according to Luke. “If it gets to a point where we think that it’s not doing it justice or spoils it in any way then we won’t do it. This is purely us just testing out controls and mechanics and seeing what works and if it works then we’ll continue.”
“Ages ago we said that if we couldn’t do the whole surgeon experience then we wouldn’t bother. We didn’t want to go down the mini-game route. People who wanted to get Surgeon for their iPads who had seen it would want a similar experience. They wouldn’t want a weird mini-game version as a cash-in. They’d want that chaotic, bloody brutal.” We laugh as Luke tries to open Bob’s ribs with the bedside radio. “And it does have its unique properties. The actual act of hammering in his rib cage is really satisfying. It’s something you don’t get on the PC either.”
The team are adamant that an iPad version would fit well with the playful mind of tablet gamers. Though it may lose features such as fancy shaders and the physics-heavy ambulance levels due the lack of grunt in the slim-line devices, they believe that what can be added far outstrips what may be lost.
What’s clear is that the controls are very suited to the touch input of a tablet. The more immediate interaction with your work bench or hammers, drills and blades may at first feel far too easy, but as you get down to the finer points of surgery, the feel of Surgeon Simulator is still there. Both perfection and being struck off are separated by the mere twitch of a finger.