Ker­bal Space Pro­gram

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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.

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