18 Sep 2013

Help, I'm Learning (and It's Fun)

It all started one fateful day, as these things have a habit of doing. A friend was playing a game on his laptop where he launched rockets into space. He informed me that it was called “Kerbal Space Program”. I thought nothing of it until I came across the game again in the Seam store. Now I’m hooked.

A Münar Landing

The game is still in beta, but there are still hours of fun to be had. The mechanics of the game are pretty simple. You take control of the fledgling space program of the great Kerbal nations. From a selection of stock parts, or extra ones if you use any of the multitude of mods, you can create endless rockets, planes and landers. With them you can do pretty much whatever you like. Land on other planets, dock in orbit, build massive space stations or just fly around in the planet’s atmosphere. In short you can explore.

The game is far from simple though, and it probably isn’t for everyone. Before I began playing the game I already had an interest in space exploration and technology. I saw a man jump from the edge of space, I follow @spacex on twitter, I watch space launches live and sometimes I spend hours watching obscure and grainy footage of almost unknown satellites being raised into orbit. I thought I knew my apogee from my perigee. How wrong I was.

I always harboured a suspicion that rocket science is far simpler than rocket scientists would have everyone else think. It’s just oxidiser and fuel. Thrust and drag. If this game is anything to go by I am far from the mark with this suspicion. I have learnt the most efficient way to raise periapsis. I have learnt that a more powerful engine is not always better, and neither is a more efficient one. I have learnt that simple things like circular orbits, docking and planetary (or münar) transfers are not quite so simple after all. I am still learning.

You can learn facts about space missions all you like. You can watch videos and think that it’s pretty impressive that they were taken on the moon forty years ago. That’s not quite the same as directly getting to grips with orbital mechanics. Until you have spent 20 minutes bashing two spacecraft together in a 94km orbit in a vain attempt to get one docking port close enough to the other you don’t quite appreciate the sheer accomplishments of people such as Neil Amstrong and the entire NASA team who made Gemini 8 a success. Loosing 3 Kerbals later on in the process when you forget to open the parachute on one of your spacecraft just adds insult to injury.

The Plucky Heroes!

Despite it’s learning curve the game is a great deal of fun. Something about the cheery green Kerbals, their characteristic plucky attitude, and their blatant disregard for almost all forms of health and safety (I’m pretty sure half of them wouldn’t bother with space suits if they had the option) brings the game alive. You feel a ashamed when you let one down and he dies a fiery (or more usually explody) death, and you also feel pride as one sticks a flag into yet-another foreign planetary body.

I’ts not just the characters that make this game though. It’s the whole experience. From the frustration at the failed attempts to the explosions and the sense of accomplishment when something finally works. Kerbal Space Program is fun because it doesn’t cut any corners. It just tries to be as accurate as possible, however difficult that might make your life playing it. Give it a go. Worst case scenario you might learn something too.