The dream of spaceflight is primal. The desire to escape the confines of our blue marble and float, literally unconstrained. Every child is enamoured with the concept of travelling into space. Every aspect of reaching the heavens is laced with evocative imagery. Rockets lancing upward on roaring pillars of fire. The overcoming of great trials. Reaching out to the night sky and touching what we’ve gazed up at for so long. By capturing this pure, aspirational magic and wrapping it up in a shell of challenge, excitement and supreme creativity, Kerbal Space Program has gone where no game has gone before. It’s made science fun.
So what is Kerbal Space Program? Made by Squad, an interactive marketing company turned game developer, Kerbal Space Program is a user-friendly spaceflight simulator. You build rockets out of lego-like parts, slap them on a launch pad, and try to go to space. There are various planets and moons to explore, and the entire game works realistically, by and large. Also, things explode a lot. That’s already a great premise, but it’s thanks to two key factors that the game appeals to more than just hardcore space geeks.
Firstly, it’s charming. Your crew of Kerbals; big-headed little green people, will gasp and wail, or cackle maniacally as they soar skyward. Build a rocket badly, and it’ll careen comically into the ground, shedding parts in a glorious spray of explosions. Secondly, and far more importantly, it’s easy to pick up. Despite the complexity of spaceflight, the basics of the game can be learnt in an hour, thanks to some great inbuilt tutorials, and a hugely enthusiastic YouTube community publishing excellent guides for new players. Play for an afternoon, and suddenly, in a way no lecture could ever quite show you, you’ll know how spacecraft get into orbit. (The trick, by the way, is to go sideways really fast.)
With its intuitive drag and drop building system, Kerbal Space Program manages to be enjoyable for people without a science education. Even younger kids tend to love the game’s bright presentation and boundless creativity, echoing the success of Minecraft. From the giddy heights of first getting into orbit, you’re free to do whatever you choose. The sky isn’t the limit, it’s your first step.
You can try the game’s challenging career mode, where you’ll take on contracts and perform experiments to earn cash and research for new rocket parts, or jump into sandbox mode and build whatever you can imagine. No game has ever offered such a robust system for building your own vehicles. Bored of rockets? Build a spaceplane. Build a space station. Build a boat. Build whatever your imagination can conceive. The complexity of the tools available is mind-boggling, especially when you consider how easy they are to use. Even if the huge list of included parts restricts you, community made mods open up endless possibilities.
In a way that few other titles manage, the game lets you set your own difficulty level. Not just with a simple hard or easy mode, though that is a feature; but by letting you decide whether you’ll stick to the middling challenge of landing a rover on the moon, or go for broke and try to launch a rocket plane from the deep gravity well of the planet Eve. And when you set yourself a challenge and succeed, the feeling of triumph is amazing. Crawling out of a crashed ship to bounce and jetpack giddily around the craters of an alien world isn’t just thrilling. It’s reflective, it’s rewarding, and it’s beautiful.
Kerbal Space Program is, in many ways, flawless. It achieves what it sets out to do with staggering success. Accessible, delightful, challenging and imaginative, Kerbal Space Program takes the magic of space exploration, and puts it firmly at the fingertips of players young and old. It’s a dream made real.