Simulating Success: How Simulation Games Brought The Joy
Following the success of Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread, we spoke to Luke Williams of developers Bossa Studios about simulation games and how they finally embraced the bizarre
There was once a time when simulation games were more often found in the bargain bin section of your local gaming store. The genre was considered stale and cheap, paling in comparison to its all-guns-blazing, big budget competition. Covering specialized, ultra-niche topics, such as farming and trucking, they failed to captivate a mass audience in quite the same way as they had in times gone by.
However, more recently this has changed to some degree, with a new breed of simulation games becoming popular with players – one that, although based in reality, still entertains ideas of the absurd for comedic effect. This subgenre includes massively popular titles like Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator, and I Am Bread, as well as other lesser-known titles such as Bear Simulator, Viscera Cleanup Detail and Tea Party Simulator.
The first of these to gain success was Surgeon Simulator, which was developed by Bossa Studios. Created as part of a 48-hour game jam, this title puts the player in the role of a surgeon performing operations, albeit with limited dexterity. Luke Williams, one of the creators, comments on the reasoning behind making the game. “Surgeon Simulator was born at a global game jam," he explains. "The theme for that game jam was the sound of a heartbeat, and we kind of went literal with it. We knew we would have to be awake for 48 hours, so we wanted to make something that was going to make us laugh. We thought, 'well, we’ll make it a stupid, funny game about a heart transplant with a hand you can’t really control'. So that’s how we settled on the idea.“
To begin with, the developers had no plans of it being labelled as a simulation. In fact, the game’s original title was A & E: Accident and Emergency. It was only as they approached the end of production that they settled on its finished title when they realized it shared many common features with medical simulators. This similarity included making players simulate the action of performing surgery, right down to the surgeon’s finger movements.Taking inspiration from the ambitious-but-incredibly flawed Jurassic Park game Trespasser, Surgeon Simulator’s controls would offer a difficult learning curve for players to experience.
“We do actually try and make the game as playable as possible,” explains Williams. “I know that Goat Simulator had that thing of 'we’re only fixing crashes, every other bug can stay in there', whereas, we we were like 'yeah, it’s a hard game to play, but you can actually get really good at it.' You’ve seen the world record holders of Surgeon; they’re really good! We still pride ourselves on having a game that someone can play and eventually get good at. That’s what makes it more than just YouTube fodder. You’ve placed a skill cap there, you can genuinely get better at the game, you can carry on playing after you progress through the levels.”
Apart from the distinctive controls, another key attribute of the game is its quirky humour and inherent absurdity. This is what differentiates it from more traditional simulation games that strive entirely for realism. “Surgeon and I Am Bread are really quite consistent with their look and theme," agrees Williams. "Aside from the fact you’re a piece of bread flopping around, everything in that world is pretty much a real world thing – that’s the absurdity. You don’t really want to focus on lots of things being weird. You want to focus on one thing and put that in an ordinary environment, and see how that reacts with the normal world. In Surgeon, the absurdity is the fact that you’re a guy who can’t really perform surgery. You’ve got one hand and all the tools. It’s almost like this is what would probably happen if you were to just grab a tool and start going at someone’s chest cavity.”
"If you put the bread in there and say, 'your goal is to become toast', then players have got a singular goal they can focus on" – Luke Williams, Bossa Studios
Even so, there is still some debate in the gaming community as to whether I Am Bread should even be considered a simulation or not. Amongst those that contest this label are the game’s creators, who avoided marketing it as such upon release. “I don’t really consider it to be a simulator game,” argues Williams. “We got a lot of people going, 'Oh, it’s a bread simulator' but I’m more for it as a puzzle adventure game. The bread thing is just a character in the same way the platformers of old had Glover, where you played as a glove. Nobody called that a glove simulator.”
Despite this, he does concede that the game is a progression on the ideas founded in Surgeon Simulator. Some of the similarities include frustrating controls, real world environments mixed with absurd situations, and the deliberately dark humour. In I Am Bread, the player controls a piece of bread and must traverse everyday locations to find a heat source, in order to become toast. As players progress, they are given access to the therapy notes of Mr Murton, who is the owner of the house featured extensively in the game. It is revealed through these that the bread is actually alive and is causing Mr Murton to slowly lose his mind.
Asked about the game’s concept, Williams states: “The only reason that he is a piece of bread is because, to me, it was a really clear understanding goal. You could have all the levels be a real world environment, and players can understand it from a common sense point of view. Then if you put the bread in there and say, 'your goal is to become toast', then they've got that singular goal that they can focus on. They can use their general knowledge to figure out the game. It ended up being bread not because we thought, it would be hilarious but because it brought together this nice clean thing.”
Having designed the game’s story and its central character, the team was tasked with finding a convincing way for players to move around as the titular bread. Eventually, it was decided not to include standard movement in the game, instead making players rely on physics to travel across the many locations. This had the effect of making the movements seem more believable than if the bread travelled in the style of other platformers.
“There was the challenge of how to make the bread move," explains Williams. "I didn’t want to just move the bread around with the control stick and press A to jump, because then you’re just doing a character replacement with bread. I knew I wanted the bread to flop around with the corners. Then we did the game jam – it was just me and the coder from Surgeon – and all we were doing was figuring out how we would move this bread around an environment. The one you see now is the control scheme that we eventually settled on, where the player almost makes up the movement themselves. There’s no standard movement in I Am Bread really. It’s all little ways of moving and climbing, which to me is interesting to give that kind of freedom to the players.”
Another aspect that took some consideration was the game’s story, which runs parallel to the completion of each level. In both Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread, a narrative is used in an effort to ground the core action. This narrative largely adheres to real world logic, fulfilling the added purpose of commentating on the main events in the game. Referencing the importance of story in the game, Williams argues: “This is what sets it apart from if we were to do a crazy, random thing. You have to have a little conviction with what you’re doing. Yes, you could say, Surgeon Simulator is a stupid idea but that doesn’t mean you don’t care about the world it’s set in – that’s still important. Whilst players may not initially say it needed a story, it ties everything together and gives it that little bit of context.”
Both Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread were successful upon release, largely due to social media. Surgeon Simulator’s sales have now surpassed two million, whilst I Am Bread has performed well enough to earn itself a wider release on other platforms, including tablets. One particular website that these games excelled on was YouTube, thanks to its Let’s Play Community. Asked about what makes these games so watchable, Williams argues: “You can identify I Am Bread players by how they play. They all control the bread slightly differently or have different ways of moving around, almost having their own personal touch throughout the game as they play it. Every time the bread swings or flops, it’s a direct output from them putting in the controls.
“The example we always give is if you were to not have anyone touch the controls, nothing would happen. In Surgeon, the hand would sit there. The patient wouldn’t die. There was no timer. I Am Bread – the bread would just sit there in the loaf. Nothing would happen. Every single event and consequence from those games is because of the player directly. There’s nothing outside. There’s nothing from within the game that is putting in to the performance. It’s all based on what you do. I think that then leads to a lot of scenarios that are unique to every kind of player. That helps the watchability.”
Another game to benefit from YouTube promotion is Goat Simulator, developed by Coffee Stain Studios. As the title suggests, this is also a humorous simulation game, giving players the chance to take control of a goat in a large sandbox environment. As a result of the success of these titles, many more games in this genre have found their way to the online market place, with developers and publishers now more likely to take the risk involved with creating and distributing this style of game. “I wouldn’t pretend that all these simulators are all as a result of Surgeon," says Williams. "I think we were the first in an inevitable trend of jokesy videogames. They usually just stayed as simple flash games that you kind of just messed around with and that’d be it.”
This is no longer the case and though some may still question the appeal of such games, it cannot be denied that there is a definite audience for them. On top of this, they are finding new and inventive ways to introduce humour and fresh ideas into a genre which was previously monopolized by a few smash-hit, yet rather staid franchises. It seems the bizarre humour of I Am Bread and its ilk will be making us laugh for some time to come.