(Courtesy of Squad)

Kerbal Space Program
Developed by: Squad
Published by: Squad
Available on: PC

Video games excel at manufacturing fear and self-doubt and then reward players for escaping those fears and doubts with vanities (trophies, confettied explosions, cadavers). Anything can be made fun in video-game terms if the game can create anguished expectations of failure and then train its players to figure out which combinations can be used to erase those feelings. On these terms, “Kerbal Space Program” is a miracle, a game that engenders wonder at its scale and awe for its complexity. It has all of the true grandeur of a masterwork.

First released as a public prototype for building and launching virtual rockets in 2011, “Kerbal Space Program” has steadily grown into a space exploration game that’s drawn the admiration of SpaceX founder Elon Musk and NASA, which designed an asteroid redirect mission for the game. After nearly four years as a public beta, the game has finally reached its official commercial release with version 1.0, which includes interplanetary travel; a career mode built around a system of research, funding, and contracts; and a series of missions, which includes using satellites to build an orbiting communication network. Surrounding it all is a constant stream of community game modifications, which experiment with everything from travel to new solar systems to ambient radio chatter.

“Kerbal” skirts the realism of full simulation. It is full of exquisite detail that requires an almost meditational thought process to accomplish simple-sounding acts — balancing fuel tanks, arranging solar panels, equipping a flight computer capable of holding a steady trajectory, etc. Simply getting off the launch pad with the right kind of equipment demands intense and prolonged attention. In my first 20 hours with the game, I had managed to build and launch a spacecraft, transfer orbit from the game’s version of Earth to the moon, and learned to dock with an orbiting satellite.

(Courtesy of Squad)

Beneath each of these seemingly-simple tasks is a series of systems whose geometric interrelation can seem overwhelming. But there is something about the tranquility of space and its massive timescales that makes the complex seem possible, able to be broken down into manageable tasks. Rather than simply pointing your ship at an orbiting space station and accelerating, you use your rockets to adjust your orbit to the same plane as your target, expand your orbit to intersect with the target at the right place, all the while managing your speed and ensuring you don’t throw off your orbit’s arc in order to arrive at the point of intersection at exactly the right time.

These operations are managed across several views: a map screen that shows the solar system and its overlapping geometry, a cinematic view of your ship as it moves through space against the electric blue edge of planetary atmosphere, and an inner cockpit view that puts you alongside the bulge-eyed green astronauts whose slapstick hyperbole stands in for human wonderment. Spanning all three views is a navigation ball that shows your rotational position, a tool that allows you to shift trajectories and make fine grain adjustments in any view.

(Courtesy of Squad)

Though you can speed up time to keep up the pace of play, Kerbal’s slowness can be a tonic for the manic neediness of other games. I found particular satisfaction in setting an orbit, planning a maneuver for its far side, and then walking away from the computer for 20 minutes as the vessel drifted against the nebula. The potential success or failure of my calculations regarding fuel, transfer orbits, and what might be necessary to turn calculated trajectories into actual ones were deferred by long stretches of contemplative idyll in a starlit vacuum.

And as with all space exploration, there’s a sublime morbidity running through it all — the potential helplessness of running out of fuel two planets away from home, or accidentally deploying one’s parachute too early during re-entry, leaving one’s landing pod to crash fatally into the ocean. There isn’t much spectacle or theatricality in these moments of doom, but the complications of the systems that produce them can often create a feeling as acute as any high-intensity combat game.

“Kerbal Space Program” is the kind of game one’s never finished playing. Its ends always feel open to negotiation. It is a purer form of game play. Rather than a ritualistic capitulation to an unchanging condition, it creates a system of wonderment within an ever-expanding boundary of possibilties. Even the game’s susceptibility to bugs and its ungainly interfaces belie a wild expansiveness, technical byproducts of a thing attempting to do things no one planned for it to do.

These less refined elements provide another quality that few video games bother with, incentive toward moderation and reminders that there is just as much insight and experience to be had outside the game as within it. “Kerbal” is best appreciated as a space for lingering contemplation spread across three radically different dimensions of experience — the theoretical, cinematic, and subjective. Like space travel itself, the deeper one goes, the greater the sense of smallness, creating a burgeoning humility for how much is still undiscovered.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.

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