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The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 13th: Kerbal Space Program

2015's best space game.

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What is the best space game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Kerbal Space Program!

Adam: I can barely play Kerbal Space Program. By that, I don’t meant to say that I struggle to establish a thriving KNASA – I struggle to achieve a safe and satisfactory lift off. Partly, that’s due to a lack of effort. I’ve tinkered and toyed with the game since the Early Access days, but I’ve never spent a great deal of time or energy trying to master any of its systems. That’s because I realised, to my absolute delight, that Kerbal Space Program works brilliantly as a spectator sport.

You could fit everything I know about e-sports on Rumble’s underkeks (that reference contains more information about League of Legends than I knew five minutes ago) and I’ve never stuck with a Let’s Play or any other kind of watch-as-I-play video for more than a few minutes, speed-runs excepted. I’ve always enjoyed playing games socially though, passing a controller from one person to the next as we work our way through a game that is apparently meant to be played solo. That involves a lot of watching, as someone will invariably survive for ages, forcing the implementation of a ‘level or a life’ ruling.

Kerbal Space Program is one of the only games I’ve ever enjoyed watching online though. I can happily watch the work of strangers, as they create unexpected solutions to problems that I didn’t even realise were problems, and admiring the feats of engineering and imagination that the game has inspired or made manifest has been one of my favourite pastimes this year.

I’ve always thought that watching games could be as enjoyable as playing them, and the millions who watch e-sports might seem like a validation of that belief. It’s Kerbal Space Program that has made a spectator of me – I much prefer a person playing against (and with) a simulation than a group of people competing against one another within an elaborate ruleset. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the latter. Mastery of a competitive game can be engaging in its own right, as can the occasional chaos and shock of competition, but watching experimentation and play within a complex model is more like spectating performance than competition.

Flicking through recent reddit threads related to Kerbals and their adventures, I’ve found a graceful ballet, a marvelous sculpture, a cover of a pop classic and an epic based on a true story.

Maybe one day I’ll find a performance of my own. For now, I’m more than happy to watch.

Graham: Most human space narratives are about triumph, even when just barely clutched from the mouth of failure. The sheer unlikelihood of space travel, yet we land on the moon; the terrifying fragility of a space capsule, yet we brought the Apollo 13 crew home; all the terrible things human beings do to one another, yet look at these women and men with the right stuff.

These stories are inspiring, but they often, in their total, diminish the challenge of exiting earth’s atmosphere to a second act challenge to be overcome in the third act. Kerbal Space Program feels different, because its acts 1 through infinity are about failure. You build a rocket and it topples over on the launch pad. You build a rocket and it explodes upon take off. You build a rocket and it gets 100 metres into the air, then collapses and explodes on the launch pad. You build a rocket but it falls short of orbit and the parachutes were in the wrong place and you explode somewhere on the surface of the ocean.

And then, of course, you succeed. You reach orbit. Only now you set your eyes upon a new prize: landing on the Mun.

Kerbal Space Program and its little green men will convince you that human accomplishment is sewn together by the many stitches of human failure. It will convince you that there is glory in perseverance, and that the limitless bounds of imagination are far more powerful than the forces of gravity. That it does so with character, an accessible interface, and fun and funny and nuanced physics, makes it not just a great game but an important one. Play it with your kids, or play it on your own, but just play it.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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