You may have studied it in Physics lessons or dreamt about it after an episode of Star Trek, but that starry expanse has never quite felt as vivid or captivating as this before. It may be a stretch for some, but trust me when I say that with a little perseverance and a grand spirit for adventure, Kerbal Space Program can take you into realms of your imagination you never thought possible through this, our humble medium.
And that’s where I am right now - watching the earthrise (Kerbalrise?) from my 9th generation ‘Excelsior!’ Lunar orbiter as it makes its third orbit around this barren little moon I’ve worked so hard to reach. Time could almost be standing still as I move almost imperceptibly through my shallow orbit. That’s partly because I’m running the game in real-time mode, but the intention I should note is quite purposeful. I’m enjoying one of those moments - this particular time contemplating a vista that suddenly makes me realise just how ridiculously small I am and just how ludicrously far I have come. Who would have thought a quirky game about little green men and rocket ship could inspire such awe.
But I should start at the beginning of course. To get to where no man has gone before you must first roll up your sleeves, put your rocket scientist hat on and prepare for a lot of messy failure before the stars will be achieved. Through a deceptively simple ‘pick and mix’ system of modular components, assembly begins in a hanger where KSP generously furnishes you with several categories of rocket parts to choose from, appearing to grow ever more refined as the beta progresses ever onward through its latest versions. Now there are of course various wikis out there many of which prescribe the exact rocket design and manoeuvres necessary to do almost anything, to go almost anywhere. However exposing yourself to too much of this material would be to miss out the very heart of the Kerbal Experience – Earning that journey into the unknown.
Once that ship of yours makes it off the launch pad you’ll be hit pretty fast by the gravity of rocket science so you best learn your apoapsis from you periapsis or its going to be a quick ride back down to earth. Thankfully getting to grips with the orbital physics is an enjoyably tactile experience that keeps bringing you back to the launch pad, and eventually into the black. As you become better and better that empty void will start to reveal itself as the rich ocean of gravitational forces the scientists always told you was out there, just waiting to be conquered. Just like your brave Kerbaliens you too become an explorer voyaging sometimes heroically, other times tragically and often hilariously into the unknown. Through the many failed rocket tests and missions gone horribly wrong, discovery is made and your rockets along with your knowledge slowly evolve. This learning curve lies at the heart of Kerbal and if allowed to flow naturally we see the true the true rhythm of Kerbal emerge. Rocket design starts to become a labour of love and ultimately, those bemused little Kerbaliens start to become 'your guys'.
I look back at Kerbal, its fertile green continents wrapped in that dark indigo ocean, glistening against the cold black of space, and suddenly the desperate longing for home returns. I’ve come this far and that has been a tremendous achievement, but surely it was all for nought if I can’t deliver my brave Kerbalian pioneers from the lonely void and return them to their precious sanctuary in the stars. The return journey will be fraught with peril - a single miscalculated burn and my guys could run out of fuel, burn up on re-entry, or be cast adrift, lost forever to the endless void. Threading the eye of the needle sounded cheesy in Apollo 13 but finding myself now in this moment, never has an over worn metaphor felt so apt.
Kerbal Space Program is a truly unique experience that makes me proud to be a gamer and if you have even a passing interest in anything beyond the latest ‘Call of Duty’ I highly recommend you pick this one up.
With all my calculations now set, I take a breath and prepare to initiate burn. All systems check, godspeed X9. Initiating burn in 3...2...1...