BFTP – Virtual Open Heart Surgeon!

And so it begins again! Welcome to DisCONNECT 2010!

Welcome, one and all, to DisCONNECT 2010! You’re probably wondering why there’s no new title banner. Well… I don’t have an answer for you, sorry. Initially DisCONNECT was going to have a graphical banner and move to Rich Text Format, but then I changed my mind and decided not to do it. Fickle citizen, aren’t I? Since we just had a banner change, there doesn’t seem to be any real reason to change it again, so let’s just leave it as it is.

To kick off the new year we have another Bast from the Past. For those just joining DisCONNECT, this segment is where we take a look at a game which was either popular it its hey-day, or wasn’t popular and probably shouldn’t have been in the first place. This is in contrast to “The Best Game You’ve Never Played” which are obsecure games that you probably should check out. I have a real interesting one for you this time – Virtual Open Heart Surgeon.

Way back in 2007, I took a look at Life and Death 2, the sequel to Life and Death. Both games are probably best described as “doctor sims” and were released in the golden age of PC DOS gaming. Life and Death cast you as an abdominal surgeon, while LD2 had you play as a neurosurgeon. The idea was simple; you’d visit your patient, conduct a series of tests, diagnose their condition, and perform surgery if you needed to. LD2 was probably the pinnacle of the series because it actually included some good in-game tutorials that walked you through surgery, something which was uncommon at the time. Usually you’d read a manual that was roughly the same thickness as The Bible, but LD2 skipped that. VOHS carries on that tradition, but as a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Now as a nurse and aspiring doctor, I’m particularly drawn to these games. Cutting people open and playing with their vital organs sounds like great fun to me. VOHS seems like a good idea, especially if it’s anything like LD2. VOHS has the “distinction” of being one of the Windows 3.11 multimedia games, though I think it was actually more in Win95’s time when it was released. For those who missed it, this was the Land Before DirectX, where Microsoft were playing with the “WinG” library for making games. Eventually it’d all turn into DirectX, but until then things were pretty messy. Games would combine a point-and-click interface with poorly rendered full motion video. The entire thing ran off a CD. In short, it’s a nightmare. There were dozens of games like this, all of them with incredibly bad acting, but this one is still probably one of the best of the lot.

VOHS works the same as the previous LD games; you visit patients, conduct tests, and conduct surgery. Like the other games there’s a fully featured library which tells you how to do absolutely everything, including videos of how to perform surgery in game. You have a neat handbook to help you diagnose and treat conditions. When performing surgery, you can even check the videos if you get lost. Even with all this information, this game is HARD, even for somebody like me who knows all the medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology behind it. Really you can expect to do a lot of background reading, and you can expect to make a LOT of mistakes. Of course, most of the problem comes from the fact that information about treatment is separated from diagnosis, and all of the useful diagnostic information is found in the Library. Since navigating the hospital can be a major pain in the ass, you can be forgiven for taking wild guesses and failing an awful lot. Apart from doing a normal physical examination and reading the patient’s history, you can also subject them to stress tests, conduct blood tests, X-rays, and a bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately, like in the real world, ordering unnecessary tests gets you into trouble. Unfortunately, unlike the real world, you’re probably not going to have any real clue about the patient’s condition just from a history, physical and chest X-ray, so you won’t know which tests will be useful and which are unnecessary. Naturally you’ll order the whole lot, but you’ll get into trouble over it. What does that mean, exactly? Near as I can tell, absolutely nothing. In the old LD games, you’d have that patient taken off you and be given a completely different patient. In VOHS, nothing seems to change.

Surgery is easier than the previous LD games, probably because it’s in a Windows environment where mouse control is a lot easier thanks to the higher resolution. Most of the surgery is made up of full motion videos of beating hearts and things like that. There are lots of prompts and useful notices to help you out. Also quite often the game won’t let you do something wrong; if you click in the wrong spot, it’ll just do nothing. There are a few exceptions, but in all you can’t make too many mistakes. Still because this is the early days of Windows, and this game is still reasonably unforgiving compared to others, it’s pretty damn hard regardless of its ease compared to the previous games. Expect to fail your first few surgeries.

The last thing I need to mention about this game is how unstable it is. Unfortunately, it embodies practically everything about the Win95 era; it crashes, and often. Don’t even try to load a saved game, whenever you go to access the patient records, it crashes. Then again this might have something to do with me playing it in a virtual machine running Windows 98… but I doubt it. It’ll frequently throw up an illegal operation error and close itself down. It doesn’t work any better in WinXP either, and Vista/Win7? Completely out of the question. It also uses an ancient version of Quicktime (version 2.something) so I wouldn’t even advise trying to install it on newer systems. With the constant crashing and no reliable way to save your progress, it’s a real shame that this game can’t be enjoyed. It’d probably be a lot more interesting if you could slowly climb the ranks, but the lengthy sign-in process (which forces you through a pointless registration process complete with bad acting that can’t be skipped) seriously doesn’t make repeat playthroughs worth it. Also sometimes it’ll randomly crash during surgery, so basically, you’re screwed.

Interestingly enough, “doctor sims” have died out, much the same as space sims, adventure games, and pretty much all the other oddities of the early 90s/late 80s. It’s a real shame, because with today’s advanced technology, you could probably make a fantastic update of these classic games. Maybe people are afraid that idiots would think they could become backyard surgeons, maybe people are afraid that nobody’s interested. Today there are a few flash games around that somewhat carry on this tradition, but they’re mostly in the style of Trauma Center – gimmicks that focus on following a set procedure within a time limit with no real relationship to actual medical science at all. People enjoy these games, so a more hardcore version might just take off. Still, Virtual Open Heart Surgeon was, if nothing else, a good attempt at brining the Life and Death gameplay to the Windows platform, but it’s obvious that the technology simply wasn’t there yet. It wasn’t really there for LD2, and it certainly wasn’t there for LD1! Regardless, it was a damn good attempt. It’s a shame that the game is so unstable, otherwise it might be worth everybody’s time to give it a shot. Since nobody sells this thing anymore, and the developers are long defunct, you can probably find it as abandonware.

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