Hi guys, welcome to Jaska Plays! This is a small regular feature I hope to run for the foreseeable future where I showcase a game I’ve been playing recently. I’m hoping not to write these articles from a strictly review perspective, I simply want to talk about the stuff I’ve been playing and give some of my insights.
OK, for the inaugural instalment of Jaska Plays I will be talking about Kerbal Space Program! This light-hearted space sim seems to be capturing the imaginations of gamers and rocket enthusiasts alike with it’s true-life physics, wacky theme and seemingly bottomless customisation potential, so I thought I’d get in on the early-access and see what all the fuss is about.
An early-access game, for the uninitiated, is a game that hasn’t received a full alpha release yet and is still in its beta stage. Kerbal Space Program has been in this purgatorial phase of development for some years now but don’t be dissuaded on that basis alone, this game has plenty of gameplay considering that it’s “unfinished”.
There are several modes in which you can play, one is a Career mode in which you have missions to complete and places onus on scientific discovery, the second is a Science mode similar to Career but without the economical considerations and the third is the straightforward Sandbox mode giving you all the toys and unlimited money with which to blast hapless Kerbals at distant celestial objects, often with little to no concern of their well-being. It’s this third mode that has monopolised my time with the game and I honestly couldn’t imagine playing it any other way.
I may be in the minority here, but I don’t play this game so I can be bogged down with budgets and mission objectives, I just want to open the spaceship construction tool and make a big sod-off rocket and blast it at something. That’s not to say that I am ham-fisted when playing this game, quite the opposite, I find the whole process of carefully iterating on my designs quite compulsive. Often I will build a basic rocket with the hope of getting it into a lunar orbit, if that’s a success I’ll go back to the drawing board and figure out how to give it more power to get to the next extra-terrestrial pit-stop, and so on. All the while I might be adding in detaching command modules, more complex staging, frivolous science equipment, you name it.
I found there to be an interesting confluence of real, hard physics with arcade style anti-realism in KSP: The trajectory of your craft and the ways in which you can manipulate it feel very sleek and accurate, terms like “delta-v” and “prograde burn” will become part of your new space-faring vocabulary, and serve to give the impression that the game really is a bubbling cauldron of trigonometry and differential equations under the bonnet. On the other hand, there is the weirdness of being able to steer your ship with no actual active propulsion, for example. I found that if I detached the command module of my rocket for a re-entry manoeuvre, I could make it spin wildly in all directions even though its engine was but a distant memory. There is also very little in the way of aerodynamic or friction effects in the base game, you could launch a flat plate half a mile wide into orbit just as easily as you could a needle-like rocket with control surfaces and nose cones. All of this might seem to be rather immersion breaking but actually it allows the player to jump into the game, throw a rocket together, launch it and shoot off to distant planets all within a few minutes. The developer has done a great job of balancing realism with the necessary and fun game interactions, and in doing so created a very structured sandbox that feels focussed and satisfying.
This game is all about those little fist-pumping moments of success, the satisfaction you get back from each incremental advancement in your ability as a designer and pilot is a great reward and incentive to keep pushing the boundaries of what you think you can achieve with the toolset on offer. From your first stable orbit, to your first successful moon mission, to your first encounter with a new planet, you’ll be constantly patting yourself on the back for being such a clever little sausage. It’s the kind of game that makes you want to call your mates over to the computer and demand they bask in the glory of your latest cosmic endeavour, but these achievements are too personal for anyone else to appreciate – noone else has had to endure all the previous failed missions; the face-palm inducing realisations that you forgot to put any solar panels on your ship, or the heart wrenching collisions resulting from a botched docking manoeuvre, or even the simple inevitability of running out of fuel before completing the final burn back home. It’s the progression of your own fuel conservation prowess and your deft touch with the ships delicate propulsion systems that provide the real satisfaction here, none of those chirpy on-screen achievement pop-ups that plague most other modern titles are required to pique your interest or validate your accomplishments. No, those achievements are yours, and yours alone.
Please let me know if you liked this article! Reading back through it I think that it could have been more about my experiences and more anecdotal than it is, but I would really appreciate your thoughts. I have several more episodes of JP lined up, and I look forward to sharing them with you.