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

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.

24 Comments

  1. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Also, best game of the year.

  2. Luciferous says:

    I have lost whole days to this blasted game! I foresee many more days being lost to it… Especially considering how devilishly hard it got after turning 1.0!

    • MiniMatt says:

      Days? DAYS? I’ve lost MONTHS to this game. I’ve said before that I really don’t want to check how many hours a typical doctorate in astro physics would take as I suspect the figure to be far fewer than those I’ve spent playing Kerbal.

      Despite it likely being my most played game in 2015 it oddly feels more like the game of 2014 (and 13, and probably 12 as well). And as alluded to within these comments, 2016, with it’s move to 64 bit, a stated desire to improve the visuals, and a port to consoles requiring a quality standard to get past Sony/Microsoft scrutineering, 2015 is oddly looking like the least significant year in it’s public facing history.

  3. Zenicetus says:

    Terrific game, and certainly deserving of recognition for overall quality and bang for buck (with emphasis on the “bang”).

    I’m not sure it quite fits “best space game of 2015” because that’s an overly inclusive category. How do you rate a goofy-but-hardcore-simulator like KSP along with cockpit sims like Elite:D and Star Citizen, or arcade/RPG games like Rebel Galaxy… which might be my most fun *new* space game of the year?

    BTW, the last time I checked in over the summer, some people were holding off on starting longterm projects because there was a big new version due before long. I think it was a switch to 64 bits for more parts, and improvements to the campaign missions. Did that arrive yet?

    • behrooz says:

      The upgrade to Unity 5 and 64-bit client and a giant pile of other stuff is in the 1.1 release, which is expected to hit around the new year.

      Really, it’s entirely possible to play KSP mostly as a cockpit simulator, depending on what you want to do with it, from doing a launch with someone else giving you ‘mission control’ instructions watching Telemachus mission telemetry to putting it all together yourself with MechJeb-assistance to calculate burn trajectories.

    • ooshp says:

      I’ve got 3 different systems running stable 64 bit Windows – it’s a pretty simple hack, and 100% necessary if you want a decent number of mods running. There’s certainly no need to wait for 1.1

    • 0positivo says:

      “Waiting for 64 bit”

      That’s me. I’ve basically put everything on hold, because the kind of experience I want out of KSP requires me to heavily mod it. I’ve been waiting 6 months…

      • Premium User Badge

        Wisq says:

        Ditto. So sad that they didn’t release it by the holidays, but I totally understand why they couldn’t.

  4. AnTREXon says:

    I’m a math teacher and I’ve been using Kerbal Space Program to teach my kids. This game is absolutely brilliant

    Here’s one of the videos:
    KSP and Math

  5. melnificent says:

    That involves a lot of watching, as someone will invariably survive for ages, forcing the implementation of a ‘level or a life’ ruling.

    I love how many kids came up with this rule independently before the internet was a thing… we started it up with Sonic 1 on the megadrive.

  6. seamoss says:

    Kerbal Space Program is one of the only games I’ve ever enjoyed watching online though

    So which is it? The only game or one of them?

  7. Person of Interest says:

    I have to dissent from the KSP enthusiasts here. It’s a game I should like, but I gave up due to frustration with bugs and defects in the game. (I played several months ago, so maybe some of these things have since been fixed.)

    It’s annoying that the interface doesn’t scale, so I have to run the game at 1/2 my screen’s native resolution in order to comfortably read the text. I’ve only had to do this for a couple other games, all 15+ years old and made for ancient monitors. Also the “make panel backgrounds opaque” option only affects some panels, which makes it difficult to read text with the background bleeding through.

    But the real problems are the multiple bugs in the tutorial missions which wasted hours of my time. Specifically, there is an orbit-and-land mission where the parachute on the landing module is set up to open too late, so the module always explodes on contact with the ground. After many restarts, due to both the lack of working quicksave in the tutorials and a needlessly tight fuel budget, I found out via Reddit that the gravity effects were changed in the game’s 1.0 release, but the tutorial’s equipment parameters were not updated.

    Another tutorial, this one for docking, was agonizing due to the lack of quicksave for tutorials combined with a fiddly mouse-only interface for making precise adjustments. Again, due to the lack of extra fuel, a single mis-click during the adjustment phase meant I would likely run out 10 minutes later in the tutorial, and have to start from the beginning.

    In the game proper, I continued to have problems with poorly-explained failures (why aren’t my parachutes deploying?) and lack of guidance (how am I expected to generate research to unlock new parts?). I get that this is a sandbox game for trial-and-error discovery, but once I lost confidence that the game was giving me the tools to succeed, I also lost interest.

    • behrooz says:

      There are tutorial missions?

      There’s your problem, use the wiki instead.

    • Zenicetus says:

      The tutorials have never been very good, or updated often enough.

      This is one of those games where it’s a big help to research YouTube guides to get started (the name to look for is “Scott Manley”), and get involved in the user forum if you need specific answers.

      The KPS wiki is also helpful, although parts of that aren’t completely up to date, last time I looked at it.

  8. DrollRemark says:

    You know how there’s that saying (as mentioned on here a few days ago) that any time someone mentions Deus Ex, someone, somewhere else, has to go and reinstall it after seeing that? I’m like that with KSP, and basically any mention of space exploration.

    Be it the ISS, or theory behind the Mars mission, or satelites trying to catch asteroids. All they do is make me think “Oh, I would love to try that in KSP.”

    Not that I’m even that good though. I’ve made a few succesful Mun landings, but only one of them ever made it back. One day though, one day…

    • Lagran says:

      Oh, same here. Despite being an absolute failure at KSP (admittedly ~20hrs in I cannot do a reliable Kerbin orbit) I walked out of the cinema after seeing The Martian going “I want to play KSP”.

  9. mike2R says:

    “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.”

    This about sums it up for me – its just plain fun to do something like rocket engineering and orbital mechanics, which in real life takes a huge amount of preparation, just by eyeballing it, watching the guesstimated attempt fail and then correcting the design and trying again.

    This got me (eventually) into orbit, then into orbit around Mun and Minmas, then landed onto them, then taking off from them again, then almost but not quite making the return trip but not having quite enough fuel, then finally back home and safe.

    It kind of petered out for me there. I did, with the help of the wiki and mods, get a successful interplanetary ship into Duna orbit. But it just gets too maths heavy for me at that point. The feedback became too long for me to enjoy, say, running out of fuel on the return trip and then going back to do it all again. You really need to work that sort of stuff out in advance, and that makes it a rather different game than the trial & explosions fun of messing around in Kerbin robin.

    Still great fun, and I’ll play it again at some point I’m sure. Probably focus on building modular space stations in around Kerbin than exploring the solar system though.

    • pipja says:

      That’s when you equip long distance missions with docking ports so you can launch refueling missions to bring ’em home :D

  10. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Oh KSP!
    How much more of my gaming time will you take in 2016? How many more times will I think, “I’ll just try that again” and then realise it’s 2am and I have work in six hours. How many more times will my own ineptitude cause me to waste hours of effort. How much more will you teach me about orbital mechanics? Will I ever manage a return from Eve. Can I build a functioning single-stage-to-orbit spaceplane?
    Oh, will I ever stop having fun with you KSP?

    (tl/dr KSP is my game of the year. And of most of last year. And probably a significant chunk of next year too)

  11. Timbrelaine says:

    I agree! KSP is a fantastic game, and I hope they keep improving it forever.