Dusty Downloads: Kerbal Space Program

I was young, once. A starry-eyed dreamer who would look at the moon and whisper to himself, ‘what if?’ Then, on a fateful autumn day, I discovered Kerbal Space Program. I sat for hours in front of my computer, warmed by a determination in my chest as I launched bundles of hope into the sky aboard rockets that I’d designed myself. Days passed. Weeks. The next time I stood on my porch, the trees had shed their Summer leaves, and my breath hung in the crisp night air. I looked up at the same moon, and whispered, ‘fuck off.’ 

Kerbal Space Program is HARD. I spent the majority of my time playing the publicly available alpha prior to the official release in 2015. It’s a tiny bit easier today, with built-in guides, tutorials and flight planners. But this increase in accessible documentation doesn’t diminish the gameplay. It’s still a game about having a unique experience every time you play - no procedural generation required. 

On the launch-pad, there’s a spacecraft that you’ve built. It’s entirely unique to you. Even if you’ve copied somebody else’s design, the placement of struts and fuel lines, the exact position of fuel tanks and engines was your choice, down to the inch. And inches matter. During flight, the amount of fuel available at any given time is influenced by your design, as well as how you’ve been flying in the moments prior. Have you been wasteful or thrifty with fuel? Did you have to correct an over steering mistake, leading to wasted gas? Weight distribution is important too, and this is impacted by craft design, fuel levels, and the decisions you’ve made regarding when to jettison spent stages or empty fuel tanks. Weight influences inertia, delta-V, and turning speed. And every single one of these variables determines your current location, your latitude, altitude, velocity, and heading.  

This means that every instant of the game is unique to the player experiencing it. Not because the game rolled dice to determine the atmospheric density and color of a planet (it didn’t), but because every challenge, success, and resulting story is determined by the decisions that the player has made earlier. By giving players ownership over their experience, the game helps them to build investment in what they’re doing. Once that investment is established, it saturates every moment of gameplay from then on. 

This loosely-constrained, player-driven experience is what defines Kerbal Space Program’s emergent gameplay. The massive number of variables in play at any given moment brings the game close to chaos, and it’s within this chaos - unplanned, unscripted - that unique, memorable gameplay experiences are born. And, given the player’s investment in whatever mission they’re doing, powerful narrative experiences are born, too.

One story from my experience in Kerbal Space Program is something I’ll always remember as a beautiful example of the power of chaos in game design. I was working on a project to colonize Duna, the game’s equivalent of Mars. I wanted a small base there that would mine and process fuel for me so that I could have an refueling station away from home.

I couldn’t just send an entire base over - lifting something that heavy out of Kerbin’s gravity well would be impossible, and the prospect of sending something so huge plummeting into the Dunian atmosphere in one piece was ridiculous. So I launched the base in chunks, with the aim of assembling them on the target planet. Each piece, built with wheels and docking ports attached, would be flown over by a single Kerbal. The pieces would drop into the atmosphere, one by one, parachutes would deploy, and the payloads would touch down gently, ready for a short drive to the target site.

I got cocky and overconfident. By about the third trip, I was slapping each payload together and sending them off without double checking that everything was in the right place. I found myself orbiting Duna with one of the final pieces of my base. The parachutes were good to go and the habitation units that made up this part of the base were in good shape.

I burned my engine, slowing the ship down and letting it sink into the atmosphere, the pressure of which would slow the craft down further and bring the trajectory toward the landing zone.

Almost too late, I saw my mistake. The control pod containing my Kerbal pilot was on the wrong side of the decoupler, the explosive ring that connected the old, now-empty fuel tank and unneeded rocket engine to the precious habitation units. I needed to decouple the decoupler to jettison the fuel tank and rocket - there simply weren’t enough parachutes to safely hold those junk parts aloft as well as the base - but in doing so I’d lose my pilot.

We were hurtling towards the ground, the wind roaring past and the flames of re-entry already dying out. The red iron desert was rushing up towards us. I clicked the EVA button, and my Kerbal got out of the ship. I guided him down the ladder, towards the decoupler and the safe habitation pods beyond. In my haste, I hadn’t put ladders on that section of the ship. I hit the jump button, and my little green man let go.

15,000m above the surface of this alien planet planet, my Kerbal was falling alongside his ship, a ship that was turning and spinning while it plummeted. I hit the controls for the EVA thrusters and guided him towards the door of the habitation unit. He tried to grab the ladder and missed. Tried again, missed. Eventually with seconds to spare, he found a hand hold, got inside and took control. I decoupled the extra stage and open the parachutes just in time for a safe landing. Explosions echoed through the air as the fuel tank and engine hit the ground below.

It was an intense situation: incredibly challenging, and requiring me to use everything I’d learned about the game up to that point. My hands were shaking. This still stands as the most adrenaline-filled moment I’ve ever experienced while playing a game. And it came from unplanned, undesigned, emergent gameplay.

There’s so much to say about this game. I could tell you about the magical feeling of triumph when you manage a moon-landing after the twentieth attempt, and the feeling of mastery when you do it successfully for the fortieth time. I could tell you about the soothing, gentle dance of an orbital turn, the held-breath and careful adjustments of a docking, and how this compares to the fast, hyperventilating rush of a re-entry. I could tell you about the very real lessons you’ll learn about physics, orbital mechanics and space. I could tell you about the game’s recent purchase by publisher Take-Two Interactive, or the mountain of mods created and maintained by a dedicated community. Ultimately, though, I’ll tell you: play it.

 It’s the next best thing until the release of Explosion Simulator 2017.