Kerbal Space Program [official site] is a game about exploration, vehicular design and physics. It involves triumph and tragedy, careful meticulous planning and improvised catastrophe. We asked Brendan to suit up and go forth, in the name of science.
Above, you can see the spacecraft Blinky Somerton. A semi-automated probe with landing capabilities, Blinky can collect data about his surroundings, including atmospheric pressure, temperature and gravity, all without risking the lives of any brave astronauts. He has a special retractable comms dish that comes out of his side like a shiny bat wing for broadcasting data back to mission control and four solar panels giving him a theoretically endless supply of juicy electricity. There is just one ‘problem’ with Blinky Somerton. He is supposed to be on the moon.
Situations like Blinky’s have been happening to the players of Kerbal Space Program for a long time. A badly-timed launch and human error (whoops) means that he joins the ranks of “failed” missions that spiral off to become wonderful success stories, even if he did fall over on his back.
The sun has orbited the earth roughly four times since some version of KSP was available to budding aeronautical lunatics and the essential joy of the game hasn’t gone away. With the full release this month, it has only cemented its reputation as a God among its own tiny niche, ie. Games Wot Make You Feel Smart. Blinky is a case in point. Successfully deploying a single AI-controlled tin can to a planet 19 million km away, after a disastrous foul-up, made me feel like the King of Physics.
In its bare bones days the game’s Sandbox was the key to recreating this feeling. This mode remains an important focus, allowing you to build any type of craft from scratch, from land-based rovers for surface exploration to bombastic carriers able to lift 21 Kerbals into orbit. The Vehicle Assembly Building (a tall hangar rising out of the ground like a council housing block) has more pieces of equipment than you could ever conceivably need.
In fact, the items available, all 268 of them (I counted), and the effort required to test and learn each significant part paradoxically makes this freeform toybox the most intimidating of the three available modes (and that’s before you start adding the essential mods – but more on this later.) Sure, there are no consequences when misfiring liquid fuel engines blast your ship out of control. But there are also another 14 liquid fuel engines to inspect and test. It can all be a bit paralysing.
Career mode, polished off in time for 1.0, is a little more welcoming. As well as unlocking parts more slowly, this mode also anchors you with public perception and a limited budget, demanding you micromanage the details of your space program from day one. Kerbals have to be hired, costing money, but they also gain skills and become better at their jobs the more they fly. They also come in flavours: engineers, scientists and pilots. Scientists gain better results from any experiments you do in space, pilots keep the craft steady and engineers can fix things on the fly. I didn’t see anything malfunction during my playthrough, at least not in any way that was “fixable”, but good pilots and scientists are invaluable.
The Career mode also includes “contracts” which are basically achievements that earn you money. Things like: fly to a certain altitude or get into orbit around Kerbin (the game’s ‘earth’). Although they are a good attempt at offering the player a guiding hand at what they should be doing, they also seem to constrain you along a specific course that offers the most return for your investment, eventually pinching pennies like some grubby space Fagan. To this end you will use the Admin Building.
This is the place where you pick strategies that provide savings to your income, for example, by fitting all ships with better transponders making them easier to recover after crash-landing. Or offering an unpopular bailout if you run out of cash. And you will run out of cash because career mode can be as punishing as it is helpful. Despite easing in you into the purpose of each device, bit by bit, this mode’s focus on dosh and cutbacks mean it is also best indulged when you already know your way around and want an extra layer of self-imposed financial constraint to challenge your creative mindbits.
Science mode, on the other hand, is the Goldilocks zone of KSP. Here, admin duties and contracts are gone and, critically, money is no longer an issue. But the currency of ‘science’ remains. You can only progress by performing experiments and developing your way up the tech tree. Launch a materials bay into orbit and see what happens to the stuff inside. Bring ‘mystery goo’ to the moon and log your results.
With each successful mission, you can spider your way through the vast library of parts that makes the Sandbox so overwhelming – but at a much more manageable pace. Without contracts, you are free to decide what your next goal is. And without the stress of money, testing and re-testing new pieces of equipment in different scenarios becomes much less worrisome. If you are brand new to the game, Science mode is where you want to hang your labcoat.
Actually, if you are brand new to the game, you will not be able to hang your labcoat anywhere because your labcoat is currently on a trajectory into the sea and, oh look, the rest of your clothes are burning up on re-entry. You are dying, naked, hot and confused. Welcome to Kerbal Space Program’s learning curve! It’s not that the tutorials are not useful (they are ESSENTIAL), it is only that they often do not go into enough detail, or give you enough of an understanding of very basic things. A couple of the training missions saw me running out of fuel partway through, even though I seemed to be following the instructions down to the finest detail.
In these cases, I don’t believe the tutorials were bugged or didn’t provide enough fuel – I only wish they explained what I had done wrong, or were able to anticipate the mistakes I made and offer tips to cover the problem of fuel efficiency, for instance, or the problem of not dying. Plenty of games thrive on searching for advice from the community, and out-of-client physics lessons from Scott Manley, eminent Professor of Knowing Things, make Kerbal one of these. But there are some small details I wished the developers had jammed into the first few space hops. For example, I played for 20 hours, through crash after crash, before I discovered, from blessed Reddit, that there is a quicksave key. It is F5. I almost cried.
That is the complicated feeling that the game brings. When you get things right, you feel inspired, intelligent, creative and unstoppable. When you get things wrong, or you overlook something, you feel like a slug. There was one particular moment, after five or six failed burns on a return from the Mun, that I had to quit the game, feeling too demoralised and mentally exhausted to continue. I should stress this is not, necessarily, a flaw.
It is a tough ride and it requires patience, learning and the mental fortitude of an entire buddhist monastery to plan a mission from beginning to end and get every stage along the way perfect. Games like this are an absolute necessity – a boon to the industry. But you also need to know what you’re getting into. Each basic concept that you grasp – gravity turns, delta V, thrust-to-weight ratio – works towards an understanding that is more rewarding than any top-down management sim. Just know that this is an investment of interest. You have to be fascinated with space travel and obsessed with NASA-like engineering ideas to begin with to pull off the most impressive feats. Luckily, for dunces like me, those people are brilliant, and there are lots of them on the internet.