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Wot I Think: Kerbal Space Program

All systems go

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.

Complexity of the sort described on the previous page is always welcome, and the essentials are not so hard to understand once you start to squint hard enough. The principles of the game could comfortably be taught in a high-school science classroom, if only it did not encourage hours and hours of playful practice. But with complexity comes the demand for finer and finer precision.

You see, there is a problem of “fiddliness”. Controlling your craft’s flight with the WASD and making fine adjustments with various mouseclicks and other buttons means that for every launch that goes wrong because of a badly designed rocket, there will be also be a launch that goes wrong because of a single mistimed keystroke. If, like me, you prefer the engineering to the actual flying, the prospect of learning to precisely pilot with each tiny tap-tap-tap will be a daunting one. Likewise, the ‘manoeuvre nodes’ of the map view, which allow you to choreograph your gravitational ballet, can be a pain to create, besides being nigh impossible to fine-tune. This is where the mods come in.

Or, rather, one mod in particular. MechJeb is a complicated mess of windows and words that will frighten and startle you. But after learning my way around a handful of its functions, I can vouch for its absolute necessity. Once you get your head around it, MechJeb allows you to plan an ascent to the finest detail, adjust your flight path, rendezvous with other objects in orbit, land exactly where you want (or almost) and a lot more besides. The various autopilot buttons might lead to barks of “too easy!” from purists but, given that all real-life space rockets are automated with absolutely no pilot input, and have been since the time of Yuri Gagarin, you would have to have a very sensitive conscience to feel bad about “cheating” like this.

And it isn’t like the Kerbals are going to judge you. The more I look at these wonderful, joyous little guys (and gals, with 1.0), the more I appreciate their contribution to the tone of the game. More than a cute mascot, the Kerbals serve an important imagistic function. They navigate the problem of reality and the disaster of astronaut death. While the rest of the game sticks to its deadly realism and fearful loyalty to the Dread Lord Physics, the Kerbals give a much-needed humour boost to proceedings, from the manic grins of a Mun-bound crew, right down to the good-humoured descriptions of each piece of equipment, presumably written by some frustrated Kerbin copywriter, who probably sits at his desk looking at a blank A4 notepad with the same expression of muppet-like fear as those undergoing re-entry.

Such stoic and lovable characters, when combined with all this creative freedom, also make for wonderful stories. I once launched a science pod, with two scientists, into an orbit around the Mun, where they were to live and experiment while waiting for more parts to be added to their budding space station. In the meantime, I launched a Mun lander with another two chums that would dock with them and then drop down to survey the planet. The two ships docked, all systems green, everything was looking good. That’s when I thought: “You know what, there is space in this lander for one more. Who else wants to go to the Mun!” Little Suby Kerman got out of the floating science lab and wobbled through the vacuum, into the lander. With that, we were away.

One steady landing and a handful of experiments later and they were ready to head back. There was just that little recurring problem. Fuel. Now, thanks to my miscalculations, there were three stranded Kerbals among the craters of the Mun, and one lonely scientist looking down at them from orbit, completely powerless to help his old shipmate, poor Suby Kerman, who only came along for the ride on a last-minute whim. I am still in the process of mounting a rescue mission.

Stories like this, of abandonment and rescue, are nothing out of the ordinary among the KSP community. I know this. But it does not make the drama any less appealing, because right at that moment it is you who must engineer a way to get the little green waddlers back to Kerbin. For truly hardcore players, there is even a mod that adds life support requirements (food, water, oxygen and waste) to your missions, making the need for recovery that much more real.

If there is any worry here, it is the Early Access problem. In the past four years so many people will already have entered this hangar, tinkered with spaceships to their squishy heart’s content, and left happy. Is there enough different about 1.0 to merit another trip around the solar system? Possibly. Meaningful aerodynamics have finally been added, making designing for takeoff and re-entry in atmospheres even more important, and opening the world of spaceplanes up immeasurably.

Mining resources from planets has also been introduced. Various parts allow you to survey the minerals from orbit and drills on landers let you tuck into the deposits. In other words, you can extract fuel from the ground (!) It doesn’t take much to imagine the amazing self-sustaining travel craft that will appear on YouTube in the coming months because of this single feature.

But is all that enough to bring back everyone who had their fill by the time of version 0.90? Normally, I would say no. But given the tenacious nature of the KSP fanatic, it will only take the time for all their luscious mods to be updated for them to come rushing back.

And who can blame them, when it plays like this? In Kerbal Space Program, we have a perfect game of experimentation. Checking to see what goes wrong and correcting your next trial accordingly. When struggling with my first launches and landings, and the tricky controls, I was close to believing it was a game of impossible luck. But it is so far from that as to make the initial belief laughable. Instead, it is about accruing and applying small units of knowledge, one on top of the other. ‘Oh, you are supposed to burn at this position, at this precise time’. ‘Ah, you need to adjust your launch angle at such-and-such a rate’.

With this in mind, it is fitting that KSP came out of the Early Access birth canal, because it is a game about small, incremental and profound changes. But it is also more than that. It is a game about embracing engineering and being unafraid to encourage craziness, so long as it can be physically done. It is a game that does the very idea of Science, with a capital S, proud.

Kerbal Space Program is out now.

About the Author

Brendan Caldwell avatar

Brendan Caldwell

List Goblin

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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