Kerbal Space Program isn’t a new game, but as it has yet to relinquish its grip on my free time, I’ve been thinking a lot about why such a labor-intensive, story-free game can be so enthralling.
For the uninitiated, Kerbal is a game about the development of a space program for funny little green creatures called Kerbals. They live on Kerbin, the third planet around the star Kerbol, orbited by a grey, airless satellite called the Mün. The player designs and pilots ships to aid the Kerbals in their exploration of their solar system. The game offers a simple narrative by rewarding the player with money and access to new parts for various achievements, but it’s largely a sandbox game, where players set their own goals. Given the game’s high difficulty level and steep learning curve, Kerbals appear to have no concept of mortality, as they eagerly sign up for new missions despite the loss of dozens of their predecessors.
The game was developed as a side-project by Squad, a Mexican software company, and quickly acquired cult status, not only among nerdy amateurs like Randall Munroe of xkcd, but—somewhat alarmingly—among actual NASA engineers and astrophysicists.
What strikes me as so remarkable about Kerbal’s popularity is the fact that little about it really seems like a game. There’s no plot bringing the players from one mission to the next, the kerbalnauts have no dialogue or individuality, and the basic gameplay is solving physics problems. There are no weird aliens to discover, like in No Man’s Sky, and no galactic space battles as in E.V.E. Online. You just… go to space. There’s nothing to win, nothing to conquer, no rewards. It’s a game where the joys are almost entirely in the journey, not the destination. Why does it work?