In the past month or so, I have written quite a few posts about video games being a storytelling medium. I adore games that have compelling characters and carefully constructed narratives that avoid common tropes. Not everyone shares this opinion. In fact there seems to be a a bit of divide between players who want to participate in compelling stories, and those who want fully interactive experience. And unfortunately, so far it seems that you can’t have both. The more you try to control the story, the more agency you have to take away from the player. Conversely, the more freedom you give to them, the higher the chance is that they will miss out on important parts of the story, and go off the intended path to build themselves a fortress of solitude out of cardboard boxes or what not.
Balancing the narrative and player freedom is extremely difficult. Really exceptional writers and level designers can create an illusion of total freedom while keeping player on rigid rails throughout the entire experience (though lack of agency is blatantly obvious on subsequent playthroughs). Others may create free roaming interludes, allowing players to run wild in the game world between segments that lock them into tightly plotted story missions where there is little freedom to deviate from the intended path. Neither of these solutions is perfect, and both have their flaws. Both are limited by the fact we as humans only really know how to tell stories sequentially, and in a linear fashion. In most games story limits, and shapes the game play. But it does not have to.
The interesting thing about games is that unlike movies or novels, the player is an active participant rather than passive recipient of the story. The player adds to the narrative, and can potentially change the game world through his actions. In fact it is a common complaint amongst players that story driven games are not flexible enough to allow them to enact change or leave a lasting impact on the game world on their own terms. And it is not necessarily a mechanical limitation, but one related to the way the story is told. So the interesting question is: what happens if you remove the story from a game?
What if you provide a player with a setting (or a game world if you will) and a set of mechanics that allow them to explore and change said environment but provide no over-arching narrative? Intuitively this seems rather boring. One could ask: what is the point of a game, that has no point of it’s own to make, no story, no characters and no rewards? Same way you could ask why do people insist on putting sandboxes on playgrounds. They are just designated areas full of sand, with no specific purpose. You slide on the slides, you swing on a swing, but what do you do in a sandbox? It turns out that the answer is anything and everything. Each and every one of us has a creative drive and the capacity to tell our own stories. Some kids will use the sandbox to build sand castles, others will break out their action figures and pretend they are exploring an alien planet or something like that. If you give people an electronic sandbox with some engaging mechanics they will immediately find a way to use it in a creative way. A great example of this was Minecraft: a quintessential sandbox game without a story or characters that captured the hearts and minds of millions of players. Recently Mojang grafted a lop-sided end-game story onto their creation (something about a dragon) but that has not changed the way people play the game at all. Pretty much everyone just chooses to ignore the end-game and endlessly run around the main world exploring, building and having adventures of their own making.
A sandbox is an invitation for players to substitute their own stories and amuse themselves. The absence of a narrator or a storyteller gives the player an opportunity to become one himself, and create the kind of story he wants to be a part of. This is something unique to games, something that can’t be replicated in cinema, television in literature. It is quite surprising that we don’t actually see it done more often.
Kerbal Space Program is exactly that kind of a game. It is a complete sandbox without even a pretense of a story. All you really need to know about the game’s setting can be gleamed from one look on the box cover art. There are these little green alien dudes and they have a space program. Your role is to guide their research and development and help them to design rockets and space ships, and then pilot them into space on research missions. That’s about the long and short of it. There is no antagonist, no looming cataclysm or any sort of winning or losing condition. Bit that doesn’t really matter, because the fun of the game is just exploring the mechanics.
Creating your first rocket is deceptively easy – you just strap a fuel tank and some thrusters into a command module, and you are ready to go. Only after that first rocket crashes spectacularly at the side of the launch pad you realize that while the mechanics of the game are simple, they are unforgiving. Your third rocket will probably fly up into the upper atmosphere. Your sixth one will probably even brush against the edge of space before it curves back towards the planet due to gravity. With your eleventh rocket you realize that pointing your rocket toward the sky, and turning the engines on will reliably take you out into space, but no matter how strong engines you use and how much fuel you take, your rocket will always fall back down. Entering a stable orbit around the planet is something else entirely: it typically turning off your engines, waiting till you reach the highest point in your parabolic arc, and then burning prograde to curve your orbit and force gravity to fling you around the planet at an angle instead of straight down.
We all have this sort of basic understanding of how space works, which is heavily influenced by our pop culture. For example, for most people, the orbit is just a place where you park your space ship. When you want to go explore the space, you just turn on the engines, “pull out” of the orbit and head on out into the unknown. Or at least that’s how it always looked like in Star Trek. Even movies about real NASA missions make it look that way. Perhaps you took a physics class at some point in your life that explained the actual science behind orbits and movement in space… Though you probably only memorized the two or three relevant equations so that you can solve the problems on the exam, and then you consigned it to the deepest and darkest reaches of your memory. Playing Kerbal Space Program for 20 minutes will show you just how wrong your assumptions about the space travel were without a science lecture or mathematical equations. It does it simply implementing a simplified approximate model of real life orbital mechanics, and forces you to figure out how to figure out how it works on your own.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to play Kerbal but the game sure makes you feel like one. Because the game physics are based on reality you get a gleam of insight into what NASA scientists must have went through when they set out to put a man on the moon. Only they have done it with a lot of mathematical analysis and scientific research while you do it by repeatedly making rockets that crash and blow up in spectacular and hilarious ways until you get it right. There is probably nothing funnier than landing on the moon for the first time (after a dozen attempts that ended up in a spectacular crashes) only to get your landing module destroyed by a falling fuel tank you decoupled in high orbit just a few minutes ago.
The game is frustrating and unforgiving, but in a good way. It has no tutorial, no player hints, and it doesn’t even attempt to explain the orbital mechanics that go into navigating the solar system, so you have to learn by trial and error. It is a slow, incremental but extremely rewarding process. Especially when you get to share it with other people.
My brother bought the game few days after me, and we instantly declared a cold war style space race to the moon. We have been swapping stories of failed attempt, exchanging tips, teaching each other different parts of the game and it has been a blast. Especially considering that I more or less won it, by putting a live Kerbal on the Mun first. But that’s besides the point. The important implication of this is that in an absence of a real story, we have created a meta-game narrative of our own, just because we could. Because the game allowed us to, and gave us the tools to have this shared experience. And that’s something impressive.
And perhaps that’s what gaming is all about after all. It is not specifically about the stories, but about experiences. It is about making us feel something. With games like Gone Home this something is empathy and catharsis, whereas with Kerbal Space Program it is the sheer joy of exploration, learning and solving really hard problems by mastering quirky mechanics. Or perhaps the joy of learning something about the nature of our universe and finally groking orbital mechanics.
I have to say that this has probably been one of the most engrossing, educational and eye opening games I have played in years. After playing it, I will never be able to watch a SF movie or TV show without cringing about spaceships flying in straight lines in interplanetary space. If you like science or science fiction you need to play this game, if only for a little bit. And it is not even fully finished yet. The sad truth about Kerbal is that after you figure out the basics of interplanetary navigation, and land on the moon and nearby planets a few times the difficulty ramps up considerably and reward diminishes significantly. Getting to the outer planets is rather difficult, and there is little of margin for mistakes, but landing on them is not all that different than landing anywhere else. The thrill of the game is in the journey. It is fun, because it is challenging and unforgiving, but once you master it the space travel becomes a routine. You can counter-act that for a bit by moving your goal-posts further out, and coming up with ever crazier missions for yourself, but eventually it just becomes a little dull.
Perhaps that is also a little bit of commentary on our own space program. We went to the moon mostly just to prove it was possible. But there wasn’t anything interesting out there. In fact, there isn’t anything terribly interesting in the entire solar system. We still fly out there every once in a while and look at the rocks to see if we can learn something interesting about the nature of the universe. But collectively we have mostly lost interest in exploration. We know we should be out there, but it just doesn’t excite us the way it used to.
That’s pretty much Kerbal for you. It is really, really fun for a while and then the fun tappers off and seeps out and you lose interest. But you will never forget the experience of running your own space program, and racing to the moon for the first time, or your first frantic, adrenaline pumping landing and the joy of planting a flag on a surface of a different planet for the first time. I highly recommend it. It is a perfect little pure sandbox game, and unfortunately we never seem to have enough of these.
The only two other pure sandbox experiences that offer the player just a setting and mechanics with no overarching story or end-game goals that I can think of are Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress. Have you played any such games recently (or ever)? Are any of them worth checking out? Let me know in the comments.