I thought I knew the kinds of stories that would come out of Kerbal Space Program’s newest expansion, Making History. Now that KSP’s legendary modding community has access to all the scripting and planning tools it could ever need, I was sure we’d see recreations of the doomed Apollo 13 mission, recreations of Apollo 11’s historic moon landing, and probably even an interplanetary trading run inspired by the sci-fi TV show, The Expanse.
It seems foolish that I never saw The Martian coming. Author Andy Weir’s story of a lone NASA astronaut stranded on Mars is a perfect fit for the focused, real-world-adjacent rocket physics of KSP. Using the new mission planner, KSP forum member Mikki recreated the drama of The Martian for brave Kerbals to suffer through. Behold: The Dunatian.
A lot of really bad stuff happens to Kerbals in their pursuit of interplanetary glory. Burned, frozen, squished, smashed, pulverised—Kerbals die in many different ways, but they carry on, unfazed. At the start of The Dunatian, though, I swear that Bill is looking terrified. He’s been left for dead on Duna, the KSP solar system’s Mars analogue, and his crew and his ride home are months away, nearing the end of their tragic voyage back to Kerbin.
The mod kicks off right there, and there’s an immediate laundry list of things that need doing. Controlling Bill, I potter around in rovers, managing their limited batteries and trying to figure out a way to survive the cross-Duna road trip that I know (spoilers!) is coming for me at the end of the mission.
KSP isn’t just an astronaut sim, though, it’s a space program sim, and playing The Dunatian gives me a whole new level of respect for the tertiary characters in The Martian: the NASA administrators, the Jet Propulsion Lab engineers. At any time I can jump away from Bill—which is good, since the main threat to his life is two years of crippling boredom—and manage the other missions that I’m juggling. I could have been designing my own ships for these flights as well, but frankly this mod would have taken me years to finish if I’d gone down that road.
Luckily, the mod’s author included some gorgeous pre-made spacecraft for each flight in the mission, so I was able to spend my time piloting instead of building.
The multiple flights I’m juggling basically follow the plot of the book: Bill’s departed crew are coming back for him in their interplanetary vessel, and they need to resupply without slowing down into a gentle low-Kerbin orbit. I’m busy prepping that resupply flight and running through the intense mental maths involved in making an orbital rendezvous happen between two craft on dramatically different orbits. My supply probe ends up matching speed with the huge NASA ship, and I pipe over gallons of fuel as the exhausted long-range crew and the little robot probe rocket into interplanetary space together.
While I’m stressing out about that, I also launch a long-range supply drop full of snacks to keep Bill alive for a few years until help can arrive. Seriously, I don’t care that this is fictional: NASA should be very proud that someone even imagined that they could pull off this many impossible tasks at one time.
Real-world physics—or something close enough for government work—has always formed the backbone of KSP’s challenges and the thrill of its successes. I think the Apollo astronauts landing on the moon was pretty amazing, but it wasn’t until I breathlessly landed my own KSP lunar lander that I felt how amazing that journey was. I mean really felt it, down in my guts. In the same way, playing The Dunatian gave me an interactive, bone-deep connection to a story I’d already experienced through a book and a movie.
While driving across the featureless, desolate landscape of Duna, I started getting bored and picked up speed, trying to make the drive finish faster. I was going beyond a safe speed, and it wasn’t long until a bump and a skid sent my precious rover rolling over, spinning parts loose and bouncing along a gentle trail of explosions until Bill was dead. I’d read and watched about The Martian’s main character’s incredible self-discipline, but for the first time I was being asked to exhibit some of that same patience myself. It’s good thing I’m an unrepentant save-scummer, or The Dunatian would have been a short book, ending with a rover crash in chapter three.
I’ve spent a few hundred hours playing Kerbal Space Program over the last seven years, but even in my experienced hands the demands of rescuing Bill from Duna had me trying and failing for several hours. Long-time players of KSP can expect to finish The Dunatian in around five hours. Fresh new pilots should probably avoid this mod entirely.
Recreating favourite pieces of fiction in a game mod is far from an original concept, and when I started playing for this mod I expected to spend my time celebrating a detailed historical re-enactment. I really loved The Martian, but I wasn’t prepared for The Dunatian to make me love it more, and in a new way.