Hard Game Criticism

We like to fool ourselves that our games are realistic, but really they are far from it. Physics in particular has long been a part of games, and the simulation of the physical world, either in abstraction for entertainment or with accuracy for scientific or training purposes, remains a cornerstone of creating and operating them. Modern game engines all provide some version of physical simulation, but physics means something quite particular in the context of games.

Often, physics is a special effect, as in the case of particle systems. This graphics technique uses a large number of small visual elements in order to simulate the appearance of a larger phenomenon, such as fire, smoke, clouds, fog, dust and so forth. Given modern 3D games’ penchant for both dark, brooding environments and fiery explosions, this kind of physical simulation is far more relevant in a game than it might be in a more ordinary scenario, such as an operating room.


Unlike particle systems, rigid and soft body physics applies to almost everything we encounter in the ordinary world: your feet against a football; your tyres in contact with the pavement; a scalpel severing the flesh of a patient on the operating table; a dish plunging into the soapy water in a kitchen sink. In our ordinary lives, these dynamics are nested and complex, such that intuition and experience make it difficult to fully characterise all the factors at play in a particular physical experience.

Even with far greater processing power than is currently available, games couldn't possibly hope to recreate the entire world at the most granular physical level in real time. And so they abstract. A vehicle’s weight and force and lift stand in for its overall performance. A ball or projectile’s trajectory is dampened by an abstraction of its in-flight alterations thanks to wind or its drag once it is deposited on grass or snow. The result is that distinctive feeling of ‘game physics’ we have come to know so well. It helps us distinguish one vehicle from another in Watch Dogs . It offers something resembling the physical sensation of walking waist-deep in water or sludge in  The Last Of Us . And, of course, it affords the pleasure and confusion of the physical collision, interaction and destruction of objects in the likes of Half-Life or Unreal. Here, physics becomes realistic enough that it induces awe.

Then a game like Surgeon Simulator steps in to throw things asunder literally. For the same physical assumptions that make it possible to explode walls and knock crates off ledges also make the ordinary, everyday experience of the physical world in games preposterous and absurd. In most games, the small-scale objects that fill desks and cabinets are locked in place, accessed by a button press or else represented as textured objects that resist interaction. But these are the sorts of tools that a surgeon that greatest of precision workers must contend with at the level of intricate action.

Surgeon Simulator  juxtaposes the conventions of videogame rigid and soft body physics with the reality of surgical precision at the level of individual digits accessing and manipulating tools and tissues. In the PC version of the game, the mouse controls the virtual surgeon’s hand. Holding the right button allows the player to rotate the hand at the wrist, and keyboard presses provide the ability to open or close the joints of digits for grasping and manipulation.

The result is a comical send-up of the idea of game physics. Instruments and canisters (and, occasionally, entire organs) go flying about, dutifully obeying the rigid-body physics simulation so common as to be deeply integrated into modern engines. The difficulty of controlling the surgeon becomes the point of the game rather than its failure. Surgeon Simulator  is a game about the ludicrousness of all physical interactions in all modern videogames. After all, every game makes more or less the same assumptions about the level of abstraction necessary to represent the physical world. Those become ideology, and we cease to think about them, even as we often have the (correct) sense that physical objects and substances are being caricatured for our benefit.

It should make us realise a greater truth: we are always flopping our way toward victory in games, even those that reject the intrinsic humour and stupidity of such floundering in favour of dark, gritty underworlds in which square-jawed men fire projectiles at walls just to see them crumble.

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