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Full Steam Ahead – Kerbal Space Program

Today’s game is the first brought to you by Steam-Powered Hope! Plenty of thanks to Charles, who decided he wanted to see an episode about Kerbal Space Program (previously scheduled for game #101) right now, and made a donation to the Calgary Distress Centre. If you want to see a specific game on Full Steam Ahead, ask me for details!

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 3 Hours

One of the appealing things about many games is the way they can show me different experiences. For a little while, being a greengrocer with a penchant for games slides on to the backburner, and I can experience something very different. We’ve already seen, in earlier posts, games that put me in the shoes of an undercover policeman, and kung fu practitioner, a contract mercenary, and many others.

In most games, the designers are interested in making these experiences easier than they would be in real life. By improving controls, or providing easy to read visual cues, or perhaps including a comprehensive, easy to understand tutorial, game designers put a lot of work into making these experiences easier to jump into, our more fun to play.

Kerbal Space Program is a little different. It’s not that the designers didn’t care, it’s just that they cared more about providing an accurate rocket science simulator. The good news is that they succeeded. The bad news is that rocket science is very, very hard.

Damn, kind of regretting using Fly Me To The Moon lyrics last episode.

In KSP, my goal is to take on the multitude of different tasks that will get the adorable green Kerbals from ground, to space, and beyond. This includes running experiments, designing and building rockets, to flying the missions. If, like me, you were a kid who turned all lego sets, regardless of their intended design, into spaceship legos, you can understand why this game would be appealing to me. In fact, I played some of the more barebones betas of KSP before it was available on Steam. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoyed it when it came to Steam, and I enjoy it now.

It should be noted, however, that enjoyment does not equal success. A lot of Kerbals die in this game. A lot. Furthermore, unless you have a decent understanding of rocketry, physics, engineering, and a whole host of other fields, you won’t even know why they died. I tried to keep a tally, but I lost count pretty quickly of how many Kerbals I had inadvertently blown up (and at least one poor soul trapped in orbit after a spacewalk gone wrong).

See where it says “grab”? I should have grabbed.

There’s an idea that is sadly common in gamer culture that games have to be hard to be good. There are a lot of elements at play in this idea, but I think it mostly stems from the idea that a harder challenge can only be completed by those who are truly skilled. In service of this, there are difficult games aplenty  on Steam, games which are specifically designed with imprecise controls, or punishing difficulty levels, games meant to be absurdly difficult and unforgiving.

Fortunately, KSP isn’t quite that kind of game. It is quite forgiving, including a revert button, so I can take my ship and crew back in time to before catastrophe occurred. Furthermore, the game plays itself for humour, by and large. The crew members are measured with two statistics, bravery and stupidity. The spaceship components come from a junkyard, and are advertised as being “only the finest stuff we found lying around.” The game’s difficulty is considerable, but at least it come by it honestly. Even under the best conditions, rocket science is hard.

Please don’t blow up , please don’t blow up, please don’t blow up…

This game could put a lot of effort into making me feel bad about my failings. Instead, it tries to make me feel better about it through humour, even if it fails to educate me especially well. True, the game has tutorials, and there are plenty of online guides, but I like to learn by doing.

Sadly, rocketry, aviation, and spaceflight are not things one can easily learn by doing. Even in this simplified and controlled environment, I find that it is extraordinarily difficult to get very far in the game. My ambitions quickly drop from a mission to the Mün (Kerbal’s largest natural satellite) to successfully getting some satellites in orbit, to building a rocket that will reliably not kill my astronauts. My ships, (named after classic rock artists and songs) do manage to advance somewhat, and eventually I manage to create some satellites (some of which aren’t intentional, some of which are my astronauts).So the game is an interesting, if ridiculous, diversion for me. I may not be an extraordinarily intelligent person, but there are some fields in which I am quite knowledgeable; spaceflight is not one of them. Most of the fields of knowledge which support spaceflight are not my areas of forte. Part of me wonders what actual rocket scientists make of this game.

Turns out that they love it. The game has attracted the interest of NASA, ESA, and SpaceX, including everyone’s favourite science-mad multi billionaire Elon Musk. NASA has even offered consultation on some of the game’s missions.

One thing that is frequently emphasized by game advocates is the power of games to connect people. Most of the time, I think they are referring to games that are multiplayer experiences, or feature social connections in some way. However, I think that Kerbal Space Program showcases a different way games can connect us. Some people come home from work and enjoy a nice couple missions in KSP as a way to relax. Meanwhile, someone else is playing KSP despite the fact that it is literally their day job. That’s a really neat thing to think about.

Godspeed, Bowie 1. I’m sure you’ll land some day.

Next Episode: BattleBlock Theater

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One Comment

  1. Charles Charles

    I love this game, but the best I’ve ever managed, was strapping about 50 of the biggest booster rockets to the bottom of of my spacecraft, and brute forcing my way out of the atmosphere. Good news: I achieved orbit. Bad News: Around the sun.

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