So if you haven’t heard, there’s been this weird little indie game that has been going around Steam recently called Surgeon Simulator 2013. It originated as a project made at the 2013 Global Game Jam, and currently, its one of the most talked about games online, and received critical acclaim, numerically beating out recently released AAA titles like God of War: Ascension, Gears of War: Judgement, and Crysis 3.
Let’s take a look at what I just said there. This was a game made at a Global Game Jam, a series of relatively underground 48-hour game making competitions. Most games that get created at these events get played only by the friends and family of participants (at least in my brief time partaking in these events). The game defies any notion of what we’d think would merit commercial success and critical acclaim: Surgeon Simulator 2013 is an interactive joke, much like QWOP, it utilizes frustrating controls and silly physics to create hilarity. The game is short, cheap, and deliberately makes counterintuitive game design decisions. By previous measures of rationality, the game should have everything working against it, I can’t think of any Global Game Jam project that received substantial coverage on Kotaku.
And critics are reviewing the game higher than Crysis 3 and Gears of War: Judgement. Mainstream ones too, not the alt-indie leaning sites like Polygon and Destructoid, sites like IGN and Gamespot are doling out these surprising scores. I’m against Metacritic, but color me legitimately surprised and impressed.
Maybe this is a sign of what’s happening with mainstream tastes in games. 2012, a banner year for indie games with the dominance of games like Journey, FEZ, and FTL signified that with the right attention and funding, oddball experimental games can achieve riotous success, even going so far as to sweep the GDC and BAFTA award shows. Maybe the success of Surgeon Simulator is going to push the indie games movement even further.
Journey and The Unfinished Swan owed their success to an aggressive experimental gameplay push by Sony, FEZ got its start with a grant by the Canadian government, and FTL jumped into the hearts of gamers with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Surgeon Simulator 2013 got off as a game jam project developed in a span of 48 hours. Kotaku took notice and shared it with their gleeful audience. Someone posted it on Reddit, and the game went viral. Motivated by the reception, the developers decided to push the game further by spending another two months in development.
Think about that for a while. Think about how crazy that would have sounded only three years ago.
Here, we have a game produced without the funding of anyone, not even a Kickstarter campaign. Only the developer’s own funding goes into creating the game, the game is completed over the course of two months. Gamespot, of all sources, goes crazy over the game and rates it higher than the loud, expensive AAA games that people used to get hyped up about.
Things have changed.
This is the bold new world that gaming is about to enter. The mainstream success of a humble game-jam game, the expansion of mainstream tastes to encompass things like interactive jokes and empathy games, the kind of stuff that Ian Bogost describes better in How to Do Things With Videogames, the fatigue consumers express towards contemporary AAA games, the rise of alternative distribution methods, Ouya, Indie Bundles, Dys4ia and Cart Life at the IGF, and an art-game’s dominance at the DICE awards all point towards one thing.
Ludus Florentis, the movement that James Portnow predicted in his 2009 Gamasutra post. An unprecedented flowering of games characterized by a newfound diversity of developers, genres, subject matters, and development scales. While this movement has already been going on for a while, what Surgeon Simulator proves is that consumers are welcoming, even embracing, this change. In the new world that we’re entering, there will be room for expressive metaphors for life, economic simulations of impoverished people, and yes, even interactive jokes about butterfingered surgeons.