Monday, November 11, 2013

Space Race

There are space programs...

"It's about the journey, not the destination," is a saying I'm sure we've all heard at least once about life.  What you may not have heard though is it applies to certain kinds of video games as well.  Not in the Kurt J. Mac's "Far Lands or Bust!" walk-a-thon for charity sense, but rather with one of the ways games get made.  Minecraft, Don't Starve, Dwarf Fortress and pretty much any other game that is made available to the general public while still in active development falls into this category to varying degrees.  As updates are made and new features added, the fundamentals of gameplay can significantly alter.  What's more, fan feedback often influences the direction of future iterations.  In the case of Kerbal Space Program, this evolution has become one of the game's most outstanding aspects.

My God!  It's full of Kerbals!
I've heard it said that playing through each version of Kerbal Space Program is akin to reliving humanity's history of spaceflight endeavors.  In early versions of the game players were limited to small simple rockets only able to achieve orbit.  Eventually other tools were made available, giving players the opportunity to explore more distant stellar objects.  New planets and moons have been created to give players something to strive for, and from humble beginnings they are now able to extend their reach further and further into the cosmos.  What's more the advent of docking has made it possible to build space stations and even dedicated spacecraft.  Space planes are also become a feasible venture, although still a bit more tricky to use than traditional rocket designs.  All these things hew closely to the progress of institutions such as NASA and the CCCP.   True to the legacy of spaceflight, players can feel the trials and tribulations, along with triumphs and tragedies much like what it must have been for real space agency planners.  However, there is a dark side to all this as well.

Much like real life astronauts, there isn't a whole lot for Kerbonauts to do in the depths of space, or even on the surface of another world.  Sure, you can plant a flag, walk around collecting samples, maybe even pose for the camera, but that's about it.  Also like reality is the fact that sending off unmanned missions is far easier with respects to not having to worry about returning or rescue.  While Kerbal Space Program has no mandatory budget restrictions yet, there are fundamental design limitations brought on by how many parts the graphics engine can handle on screen, as well as the load bearing strength of various components.  Mods offering weaponry have drawn mixed responses from the fan base.  Even without mods it is perfectly possible to design vessels capable of waging war.  Polluting wreckage, space debris and radioactive material from nuclear based technologies are all concerns which exist (or have existed) both in game and in reality.  Perhaps the biggest issue though is where to go from here.

All these worlds are yours except Magic Boulder.
Attempt no landing there
Scientific discovery is great, but what about the human, or rather, Kerbal element?  Much like the real solar system we humans live in, none of the other stellar bodies in the Kerbin system harbor life (at least beyond micro-organisms).  Of course colonization is a possibility, but the prospect is daunting and would require extraction of resources at local level in order to be an achievable goal.  Needless to say such infrastructure is still only on the drawing board both in game and out.  Journeying to other solar systems is still pretty much an impossibility with currently available propulsion systems as well.

"You can do anything!" is as true for Kerbal Space Program as it is with any other sandbox game, but the kind of question I think both the lead developers over at SQUAD and NASA are asking themselves in the back of their minds is, "where are we going with all this?"  We have rockets, but where do we fly them?  We built space stations, but what purpose do they serve?  We can traverse sizable gulfs of empty space and set foot on the surface of another world, but ultimately to what end?  Perhaps a better and more basic question to ask would be, "what do we do with all these giant spinning balls of gas, liquid and rock?"

These aren't easy questions to answer definitively, nor will any answer given be agreed upon by all.  Whatever answers there are though, I wonder if they will mark a major schism between game and reality, or will it be a vision of things to come?  I have a feeling it will be many generations yet before anyone knows which is the case.  Perhaps it doesn't really matter though, so long as we all get to have fun in the meantime.

And then there are SPACE PROGRAMS!

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