Building up, not tearing down in Kerbal Space Program

Over the past month, my favorite game hasn’t been a video one, but rather Vlaada Chvatil’s transcendent board game Galaxy Trucker, a title about building spaceships in real time and then flying them through increasingly deadly gauntlets of meteors, pirates, and derelict ships. It captures the two fleeting things I love about games in general: the opportunity to build up, and the possibility that everything could come flying apart thanks to a glancing blow from a meteor.

That last bit is why Minecraft missed me: you could build a secret base, but unless you made some seriously poor life choices there was no chance a Creeper would walk inside, hiss, and destroy your work. You built a house, and it would survive against all the ravages of time. Galaxy Trucker lets you build something—a spaceship—but it does so in the same breath that it tells you it’s going to tear that spaceship apart like so many tiny cardboard tiles hastily slapped onto a board.

At its heart, Galaxy Trucker is a game of experimentation. Do you put more guns on your ship, to kill the variably occurring pirates, slavers, and smugglers throughout the galaxy? Do you add more engines and try to get to your destination before your opponents? How about trying to slap some shields on the ship for maximum survivability? All of these are viable options, but they are tied up in a central question: ideally you want to have all of these things. How do you fit them all on a ship, and not have it fail at doing everything?

Fifteen minutes after firing up Kerbal Space Program, I realized it was very much the same type of game. In Kerbal, you build a rocket for a primitive race of green tadpole men, and you hope you didn’t forget to attach the engines together or else your ship will shatter like a porcelain vase dropped down a flight of stairs. There’s a reason this relatively unknown game has spawned so many Let’s Play videos: it has that ingrown potential for hilarity.

The twin hearts of Kerbal Space Program are the shipbuilding and the physics accurate piloting. You build a ship out of so many parts, and then you attempt to pilot it into space, pitching and yawing like a space sim circa 1995, and try to land on the moon of planet Kerban, Mun. This is a lot harder than it sounds.

First off, the game resides in alpha phase right now, which means the whole thing is a sandbox: you have access to as many pieces, of as many variations, as you desire. This is actually more difficult than limitations would make it, because shipbuilding in Kerbal Space Program is an exercise in balance, more than anything. You need the right amount of thrust, without making your ship too heavy, to enter orbit. You’d love to have a host of other parts—like the stablizing SAS module—to make your flight less stressful on your crew, who will be tastefully screaming in the bottom right hand corner of the screen. You should probably put wings on it, to make it pretty. Landing gear, and ladders, would be good, just in case you end up getting to Mun, so you can take that one giant leap for Kerbalkind instead of bursting apart against Mun.

You should probably have a parachute, too, for re-entry. So you don’t explode. Of course, you’re going to explode a lot, because it’s practically impossible to construct any of your first hundred ships without forgetting a key component. Maybe you’ll put a breakaway rocket on top of another, which will cause it to burn through. Then you’ll inaccurately assemble your runtime, which determines the order in which pieces break away, causing your ship to immediately decouple on the launch pad, dropping the poor Kerbal “pilots” into a fiery explosion. Then you’ll forget to couple your engines together, and your spaceship will look like a flying wind chime for a few minutes before shattering into a thousand immense, scorching hot pieces, which might even get into orbit to hit your future ships.

Finally, you’ll get into orbit, somehow slingshot yourself around Kerban, and approach Mun, only to discover you never attached any landing gear. And it takes you four more trips to muster up the skill to do what you did by accident on your first flight.

The flight controls are finnicky, but they’re reminiscent of old school space sims, where you couldn’t go forward or backwards but instead controlled your ship via pitch and yaw. Old school space sim fans have now gone to purchase the game, because they fondly remember the days of old, controlling X-Wings via pitch and yaw, having them tumble around in space listlessly. Controlling your ship by angle rather than turning is a difficult proposition—if you’re going forward, you’re going to keep going that way no matter which direction you turn—but it makes the whole thing a lot more wild. These are specific space craft you’re generating: these are super fast, incredibly terrifying things. That guy in the bottom right hand corner? He’s screaming because he’s going a kilometer a second, and you’re spinning his capsule. It’s loud as hell, and you’ve just activated that rocket you attached to the side of the ship for absolutely no reason. He’s probably going to die, and he’s going to die because you thought nonstandard engineering was the way to go.

The best way to play Kerbal Space Program is gathered in a small room with other people building ships. Do it by yourself and it’s a fun adventure focusing on the very technical aspects of building a perfect ship. Do it with others, and a lot more Kerbals are going to die: you’ll create tasks like skimming your ship as far across the planet’s surface as possible, getting out and wandering around, and achieving the forgotten second step of the Space Race: getting part of a man on the moon. It’s why Let’s Plays of the game have gained so much traction: it’s a game about deciding to do ridiculous things, then doing them.

That’s where Kerbal Space Program gets its Minecraft hat: it delivers that same sense of “look what I did” that Minecraft and Galaxy Trucker proffer. Sure, it’s exciting to land yourself on the moon, but you get that same vicarious joy when your friend lands a ship that looks like a spider, whole hog, onto the moon, only to realize his ship has one crewmember so Billy Kerban, quite literally, locked himself out of the ship. Those are the moments you remember, and they’re the ones that make Kerbal Space Program worthwhile.