I’ve never been to space, but I’ve died there a lot. Actually, I’ve died a lot between the ground and space, too. Most of those deaths, in fact, take place somewhere between zero and 100 meters off the ground. If you stacked all of my virtual corpses up on top of each other, it wouldn’t be hard to see how I finally achieved orbit. It’s a bit like an adorably green pyramid of terror, creating a thick base of stupidly failed launches, a mezzanine of admirable attempts, and a cherry or two of inexplicable success.
I’m talking about, of course, playing Kerbal Space Program, or KSP as the kids like to call it. Playable since mid-2011, KSP is still technically an “incomplete” game (it’s at version 0.19.1 and being constantly updated) but my god is it fascinating. Breathing deep, it’s an intoxicating aromatic blend of flight simulator, space exploration, and feeling simultaneously like a genius and the world’s luckiest idiot.
The goal of the game is to build various shuttles and pods and launch them into space with a few Kerbals—the inhabiting sentient species of the pseudo Earth you launch from—stowed away in the command capsule. Your homeworld is where you build everything as you take up more and more space inside your hangar with your increasingly ambitious and dangerously untested machinations, but there’s a whole galaxy beyond that. You can orbit the planet, land on the Mün (bonus points for the umlaut), or float off into the deep unknown.
The driving force behind it all is a significant and reliable physics engine. It still tends to suffer from the usual problems, which is to say that closely aligned parts will often wobble and shake to the point where you think you’ve better start to lay off the peyote, but it is amazingly robust. Everything from the mass of the fuel in your tanks affecting your efficiency to the gravitational interplay of adjacent celestial bodies to weight displacement impacting your alignment momentum is all simulated here, so when something fails, you never feel cheated. You just feel like a certifiable dumdum who just got a free lesson in physics.
What really makes this work, though, is the persistence of the entire world. The game’s name is severely and tragically appropriate because you are effectively building up the Kerbal Space Program. All of your mistakes and successes linger about in the world and remind you of things to do, things to avoid, and to not let your fingers absentmindedly hover over the keyboard lest you accidentally engage your stage two rockets 10 meters off the launch pad. If you crash land and some of your Kerbals survive, you will see them puttering about the planet, trying to find their way back to the base. If you leave some sort of rocket or strut in orbit, it will be waiting for you to crash into it on your next launch.
Of course, this also means pods and utilities you purposefully leave up in space will still be there as well. If you plan on building a Mün base, you can definitely do that. You just need to plan your landing trajectories accordingly so that you don’t have some sprawling mess on that cheesy surface or so you don’t crash into your one other successful landing. Or if you want to recreate the International Space Station, you can do that, too.
In fact, if you want to reenact the recent emergency spacewalk that took place a few days ago (and was streamed live to the Internet), you can do that, too. Your Kerbals are able to pop out at any time and rocket boost around with their limited fuel supply, latch onto ladders, and switch to other space vehicles. But once you lose one Kerbal to an impossibly strong gravitational well or to a fuel tank that wasn’t as full as you thought, it becomes a nerve-racking ordeal. You can see your lonely astronaut floating off into nothingness with no hope to be rescued or to achieve any elegant death (Kerbals don’t need food and seem perpetually terrified, excited, and confused). Floating off for more than a couple dozen meters is an anxiety ridden affair and only makes you want to hove close to the outer ladder so you can grab on. It is at point, however, necessary. Necessary and scary.
Most of what you do, actually, is terrifying simply because of the aforementioned persistence. With constant reminders of how easy it is to fail floating all around you, it’s impossible not to be scared of even attempting something beyond your grasp of knowledge and capabilities. The phrase is your reach exceeding your grasp, but in KSP‘s case, both are beyond your Kerbal’s tiny, lime green hands.
But that is also what makes your successes so god damn exhilarating. The mechanics are so simple and the data surfaced to you make it seem so straightforward (click, add maneuver, wait), but when everything requires precision and you are single-handedly operating what takes Captain Picard an entire bridge of people to do, it’s rare you feel anything approaching confidence. So when you finally achieve planetary orbit, you feel like cheering as if you just landed NASA’s Mars Rover on that dusty red planet. When you manage to land—land, not crash—on the Mün, it feels like you pulled off Armageddon’s asteroid landing 20 times in a row with a blindfold on from within a barrel going over Niagara Falls.
What I’m saying is that KSP succeeds at making the impossible possible but not by holding your hand. It simplifies the radically overwhelming realities of designing, launching, and controlling spacecrafts, but not to the point where it is a point-and-go system. It never lets your forget how many times you’ve tried, how many times you should have given up, and how many times you actually did walk away with a handful of Kerbals’ lives on the line.
And when it reminds you of all that (as well as how futile it is to even try with your horribly misaligned college degree and hazy memories of Bill Nye music videos), it very much makes you feel like you’re winning just be trying. You are Frodo in the middle of Mordor where everything is casually oppressive and wholly distressing and yet you still climb. You are Rudy, standing a foot shorter than everyone around you, a constant physical reminder of your diminutive worth, and yet you still play. It’s every underdog story you’ve ever heard and seen and subsequently loved. The only difference now is that you’re in control, and you’re the underdog. And you’re cheering yourself on.