Kerbal Space Program
Kerbal Space Program is a game about going up and only getting so far. This is a comfortable template for a videogame, one that maps success and failure along a readily understandable axis – altitude – and hands the player a broad set of powers with which to push that number higher, higher and higher. It could, and does, work simply as a puzzle game, but KSP offers more than that. This is a rare example of a simulation-driven sandbox that operates equally as a game, as a creative construction tool, and as a thought-provoking encounter with history.
You are put in charge of a space agency on an Earth-like planet called Kerbin, populated by grinning green Kerbals whose only desire is to be rocketed into the cosmos. Your open-ended task is to design spacecraft with the goal of matching or exceeding the achievements of real rocket science. Your tools come in the form of modular parts that can be assembled with a tremendous degree of freedom, allowing you to both replicate real rockets and try out experimental designs of your own. Your success or failure is determined according to real rocketry principles: while its physics model isn’t a perfect match for reality, it’s close enough to pose a severe challenge for most people.
Getting into space, it turns out, is difficult. Balancing fuel payloads, engine power and stability is essential to achieve the requisite lift, and knowing what to do with that lift means developing an understanding of concepts like delta-v and the difference between a retrograde and a prograde burn. Simply seeing space will amount to your first major achievement. After that comes orbit, then orbital transfers. Then you might pull off a moon landing. You might even get your Kerbals home again. Beyond that? Build a space station. Beat NASA to KSP’s version of Mars. It’s up to you.
This 1.0 release comes after four years in paid-for alpha and beta, a long and open development cycle that has benefited the game tremendously. The release version improves the game’s atmospheric physics model and introduces female Kerbals alongside a range of subtler tweaks – but what it doesn’t do is make the game any more accessible. The steep learning challenge is something that requires a willingness to dive into wikis, guides, even essays on orbital physics. This needn’t be a bad thing: in fact, it highlights the game’s unique strength, which is that it offers you a chance to learn something about the world. NASA uses it as a teaching tool for a reason. On the other hand, learning takes time and that will be an obstacle for some.
That said, failure is punished lightly and you are always given the option to rewind to the assembly stage unless you specifically disable it. What could be a rather grim or dry experience – assembling multi-stage rockets, considering transit windows, screwing up and losing astronauts – is helped by KSP’s cheeriness and general irreverence. Kerbals grin in the face of almost everything. Their waddling gait mirrors the precarious craft you build for them. They’re happy to be there. It’s this that not only makes the game accessible to adults but opens the door for children to enjoy it too. There are three principle ways to approach the game. In Sandbox mode, all components are unlocked from the beginning and the only challenge you need to overcome is your own lack of understanding of how to use them. This is both the best way to learn and in some senses the most daunting, as it’s easy to overreach yourself. Career mode sits at the opposite end of the spectrum, a full-blown management mode that tasks you with building up your agency’s funding, reputation and research resources, and using these to expand your base, pay for each rocket launch, and unlock new components by progressing along a tech tree. While being drip-fed new ideas may help newcomers, Career ultimately feels like a challenge aimed at experienced players. Getting into orbit is hard enough as it is, without limited funds and suboptimal gear. Science mode, finally, sits between the two, asking you to gather research to unlock components, but applying few other restrictions to what you can do.
Each of these modes works as a game in its own right. It’s a question of picking the context within which you want to encounter the game’s core challenge: that ever-present drive to reach higher, to do more. This additional layer of player agency further emphasises the need to approach the game with a guide of some kind available, but it compounds the sense that this is a hobby waiting to be shaped into a form that suits you.
The magic of Kerbal Space Program, however, is not just that it manages to be both a game and a simulation, a high-level educational tool and something that is fun to simply sit and tinker with. It’s that, in combination, these qualities allow for a connection with real history and real human achievement. Your achievements in the game stem from legitimate advancements in your understanding of physics, and this in turn tends naturally towards a deeper understanding of the effort it took to produce these feats of engineering in real life. The feeling of precarious isolation created by a deepspace orbital transfer. The horror of watching a grinning Kerbal spiral out into the black. The faintly romantic realisation that it is easier to accidentally create an ICBM than it is to deliberately create a lunar lander.
It’s in these moments when Kerbal Space Program transcends its rudimentary visual design and becomes beautiful. Its ultimate promise to the player is something that few games offer: not that you’ll crack a puzzle that has been set by a designer, but that you’ll crack a puzzle set by reality. That’s a hell of a reason to keep pushing upwards.