Bossa Studios never intended for Surgeon Simulator 2013 to become a part of a Half-Life 3 conspiracy theory — the ARG puzzle found underneath a medic figurine was simply another element in the game that would require the player to use some inference. "Surgeon Simulator is a trove of easter-eggs and references, this is a big part of its core, its fun," Henrique Olifiers, co-founder of the studio, said to me via email.
"Some of the game's levels aren't even available if you don't read between the lines; it's easy to find those who don't realise there's a level in space, for instance, because it's not accessible through an obvious way."
With a game like that, Bossa figured that an ARG made perfect sense. Why an ARG now though? Well, they had an update planned for July, but until then, they figured it might be fun to give fans something to do in the meantime. That's when they thought of an ARG.
They thought of a few puzzles, one of which is the now-famous card featuring Korean... just like a botched update to Half-Life 2 recently. Many thought that similarity, along with the game's inclusion of Team Fortress 2 characters,was simply too big of a coincidence to ignore. There had to be a Half-Life 3 connection, right? So players took the planets on the image, and came up with different possible release dates for Half-Life 3, most of them this year.
They were half right; the Korean was influenced by the Half-Life bug. Just not in the way most people guessed.
"One of the points of using a non-Western alphabet is that you cannot simply type it into Google Translate, there's more crunching involved," Olifiers explained. "The day the team was adding [the puzzle], the Half-Life 2 bug showed up minutes before, so 'hey, Korean, there you go'. At that point (and even some time after we released the patch) we had no idea the bug was being linked to Half-Life 3 somewhere else in the depths of the web."
People took the image and devised all sorts of insane theories about what the puzzle teased. It didn't help that the Korean in the game said "The time is," which incidentally are some of the same words Half-Life starts with.
"The problem with ARGs is that our brains are hardwired to find patterns everywhere. We see numbers, faces and correlations where there are none, that's how most conspiracy theories are born and how some people get convinced there's a gigantic human head on Cydonia," Olifiers said. "But that's also what makes ARGs so interesting, what make them work: the different interpretations and solutions clashing for the survival of the fittest, discussed by the players."
Illustrating the point of how out of hand these conspiracy theories can get, Olifiers sent me this image by Ivan Bakula:
"Perhaps our mistake was to stick the puzzle to the bottom of the medic figurine, which we added in the same update as we thought the game was missing a reward for completing the Heavy's surgery. Should we glued the puzzle to the bottom of a mug or a pencil sharpener, maybe this wouldn't have happened. Or it would anyway. Who knows?"
You'd think that with so much ruckus, the game would get a major sales boost, right? "While I would love to tell a story of riches and gains from it all, I'll have to disappoint," Olifiers said. "The game's sales averaged almost the same as the days before and after the episode, as we expected it would be the case."
Thankfully, it sounds as if the experience isn't stopping the studio from doing more stuff like it in the future — the Korean thing, after all, is a small part of a larger puzzle.