My Steam library has six categories. Party Games and Puzzle Games are fairly self-explanatory, as is Roguelike Brainrot. Hollow-Light-Cells contains Hollow Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, Dead Cells, and Jotun, the trifecta of very different games that for some reason seem to go together plus an honorable mention. Gun contains games about guns, such as Enter The Gungeon, pretty much every single version and spinoff of Half-Life and HL2, and several other gun-related games that I have never played and do not intend to (which for some reason all end in the number 2). But no category yet exists that can top the sheer amount of serotonin created by clicking into SPAAAAAAACE. Event to Environmental Station Alpha, Subnautica to Sunless Skies, SPAAAAAAACE features some of the greatest video games ever to be Mac-compatible. But I wasn't authorized to review 25 games at once, and I wouldn't put myself through that even if I was getting paid. I'm here to talk about one game in particular, one that probably shaped my life in more ways than I recognize. I am, of course, talking about Kerbal Space Program.
Kerbal Space Program came out of beta in 2015, which unfortunately makes its dev team Squad 400 years late to the "publishing models of planetary orbital mechanics" party. Still, great art takes time, and KSP makes excellent use of the graphics and processing developments that have come about since Kepler. The basic game flow is simple: construct a rocket, fly the rocket, crash the rocket. Low-speed crashes ("landings") and even non-crashes ("orbits") are possible for skilled players, but none of that is necessary to enjoy the game. In some ways, crashing is the best part of—that's way too big of a lie to tell in good conscience. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Loading into the game, Kerbal Space Program presents you with a choice between Sandbox, Science, and Career mode. New players may easily be fooled into thinking that Career is the intended way to play, since this is more or less a convention in other games with sandbox modes. They are wrong. Whatever your gamemode, the game begins with a brief overview of the facilities in the Kerbin Space Center, from which you will launch your career as director of an alien space program. You're quickly taken to the Vehicle Assembly Building, whose royalty-free Kevin MacLeod soundtrack you will grow to know and love. This is the Building in which you Assemble Vehicles—shoutout to whoever let the scientists who invented these things name them—and this is where the game mode distinction makes itself known. If you picked Sandbox, you are blasted with tabs upon tabs of parts: capsules and fuel tanks and engines and lights and ladders in all sizes and functions. If you picked Science or Career, your options are limited to a select few starter pieces, perfect for your first foray into the lower atmosphere. These two styles each have their pros and cons, but it's important to note that neither one is better or more correct.
Still, for the sake of argument, you continue to be an average spaceflight liker playing through your first Career and/or Science game. You diligently strap a capsule to the top of a solid fuel booster, garnish with aerodynamic fins, and (hopefully) top it off with a parachute to taste. One quick trip to the launchpad later, and you have dragged a kerbal several hundred meters off the ground. Congratulations! For your valiant effort, you have earned some science points, which you can use to buy more technologies from the tech tree. Except not yet; you have to do a few more flights first, and they have to go to different parts of the area or they don't really count. You can also right-click on your capsule to take a crew report, or even have your pilot climb out of the cockpit and do some extravehicular activities for a little more science. After a handful of flights on your little rig, you can unlock more parts, which allow you to do the same thing with cool new features like "throttle control" and "more parachutes". This is when you start to hit a serious barrier. Even if the game told you how, you can't quite reach orbit or do similarly interesting things with what you have, and the grind to hit the next levels of the tech tree is SHOCKINGLY arduous. I tried my first proper Career game after over 80 hours in Sandbox, and that grind alone was enough to convince me that it was not meant for human players. And you're not even close to halfway through the tree. Suffice it to say, I think Career and Science (which is just Career without missions and budget) are not very good.
But Sandbox is not very good either, because you're immediately dropped into what I can only imagine is the the post-endgame of Career. Paralysis begins to set in as you skim past individual parts that make your entire Career mode starter craft look like a child's toy. The Mainsail engine has enough space in its nozzle to comfortably raise a family of four (do kerbals even have families? A harrowing thought). Onboard computer systems allow you to send vehicles anywhere in the solar system without a single kerbal aboard, provided you have a sufficient communications network in place. You can do so much! Or rather, you could. Sandbox does not teach you how to reach orbit. Sandbox does not teach you how to dock. Sandbox does not teach you how to go to the
Moon Mun, to Mars Duna, to Mercury Moho or Venus Eve or Jupiter Jool. If the science grind of Career is a Herculean task, the limitless possibilities of Sandbox are Tantalean, always requiring just a little more understanding of orbital mechanics and rocket construction to achieve.
Because while KSP is no Children of a Dead Earth, you do have to understand orbital mechanics. You cannot pilot a digital rocket without knowing where to point your ship and why; the maneuver nodes are only as helpful as you're able to make them. This is the key to realizing this game's cardinal truth:
Kerbal Space Program is not meant for human players. Kerbal Space Program is meant for astrophysicists.
Luckily for human players, the internet provides a plethora of resources for this created by KSP veterans and/or astrophysicists. Mike Aben and Scott Manley have some great tutorials; I've linked their beginner-oriented playlists here. So you study up, and before you know it, you've accidentally become kind of an expert in orbital mechanics! You know what apoapsis and periapsis mean, except real orbital physicists will look at you funny if you say those, because the more commonly-used terms are apogee and perigee. You know that pointing your rocket directly at the planet is sometimes fine in specific situations. You will never again be able to watch any mainstream movie featuring spaceflight (except The Martian and Interstellar), because it takes slightly more than ten seconds from launch to reach outer space. You have become the pinnacle of an easily mockable nerd, except it's not 1980 anymore. Once again: congratulations!
But why, then, do all KSP experts not simply become rocket scientists? Aren't these vaunted Real Physics Skills transferrable? Well, NASA has no money and SpaceX is run by Elon Musk, but also because that shit sadly doesn't fly past escape velocity. Kerbal Space Program, for all its virtues, is not a perfect simulation of reality. Despite having the same gravity as Earth, Kerbin is only 1/10th its radius. Drag calculation is based on quantity and facing of parts, not the actual rocket profile, so adding a protective fairing only helps with heat—it actually increases air resistance. Fuel transfer lines and struts can be thrown anywhere to "duct tape" unstable designs together. You can time warp, quicksave and reload, and redo the same mission as many times as it takes to get it just right. There are no Challengers or Apollo 13s for the kerbals; the closest the game comes is the sometimes violent and unpredictable physics balancing force commonly known as the Kraken. So go ahead! Ring the planet in relay satellites. Rendezvous your Mun missions with a shiny new rover. Dock together the space station of your dreams in low Duna orbit. Crash as many kerbals as you can carry at the highest speed you can achieve. Construct a communications network covering every last square decimeter of the Kerbol system, and the only thing you'll have to show for your resume is "experience completing repetitive tasks for hundreds of hours." The last glimmer of hope for your future in the aerospace industry fades from your eyes. You are a broken husk of a gamer.
Okay, Skylar, slow down, says my editor. You're getting way too melodramatic. Why the hell would you spend so much time and effort talking about a game you clearly don't like? First of all, my middle name is Vriska, which should tell you something. But more importantly, I do like Kerbal Space Program. I love it, even! I've spent over a hundred hours on it, giving up entire afternoons to Mun landings and slowly improving Eve mission attempts. I'm no expert, but I can coach a new player relatively competently. I have plenty of blind spots, too; I have no clue how to play Career, and I can't dock for the life of me, for starters. I grimace when the Kraken shakes my ship apart, and I revel in my finely honed precision landings. I'm just an average spaceflight enjoyer taking the game at my own pace. And that's the beauty of KSP: everyone plays it differently. Some people send colonies to the far corners of the solar system; some people harness the imperfect physics to create heat shield propellers and "Kraken drives"; some people just want to build big rockets and watch them explode. Kerbal Space Program is still a game of infinite possibility, even if it ends up being gated behind a bit of knowledge. In many ways, then, it's just another video game. The only thing that sets it apart from its peers is that the skills it requires are analogous to real ones. If you like space, rockets, and/or funny little aliens, give Kerbal Space Program a try, but don't be too surprised if you start to develop a lifelong interest in astrophysics. It happened to me, after all.
Experience: 111 hours