A screen shot from the game 'Bus Simulator 18'
"Bus Simulator 18" doesn't shy away from the real logistics of running a bus. Screenshot/Astragon

In Bus Simulator 18, you’ll pick up passengers, dodge potholes, and avoid bankruptcy. Too real?

The humble bus doesn’t get enough credit for its role as the workhorse of public transportation. The same could be said of bus drivers. For one thing, they may very well have the answers for fixing America’s troubled transit systems. For another, have you ever tried driving a bus in the relentless traffic of cities like New York and Los Angeles?

I haven’t, but last week I did find myself in the driver’s seat of a decked-out, 34-foot Mercedes Citaro K in sunny Seaside Valley, with a woman enthusiastically guiding me on a test run of CityLab’s first—and probably last—bus service. To be clear: I was in the virtual driver’s seat of a virtual bus, in a made-up city with a very serious pothole problem.

As far as video games go, Bus Simulator 18 may not have the most obvious viral appeal. But the game, released last week by the German company Astragon, tickled the fancy of many a bus enthusiast in our newsroom.

In the same way that SimCity navigates the logistics of running a town—including zoning regulations and limited budgets—Bus Simulator 18 doesn’t shy away from the very real tasks involved in operating a bus. In this simulation you aren’t just a driver, you’re also running the entire company. And your mission is to avoid bankruptcy. (In multiplayer mode, you bear that responsibility with up to three others.)

Boost your profits by being on time, using proper indicators, and following traffic laws. Lose those earnings by running red lights, hitting guardrails, and driving over potholes. (In familiarizing myself with the controls during the tutorial, I managed to rack up nearly $14,000 in repairs and fines before picking up any passengers.) Further into the game, you can create your own bus schedules, and strategically map routes to pick up the most passengers. You can buy more buses and hire more drivers, and you can even earn incentives from a rather bus-friendly city government.

Then there are more mundane tasks: You have to issue tickets, check for fare evaders, ask passengers to turn down their music, and occasionally humor the elderly passenger who wants you to see some photos of her cat. It’s even compatible with virtual reality headsets, so you can be fully immersed in the job.

Alexander Grenus, the game’s lead designer, bills simulation games like this as relaxing, something you play after a long day of work. “The gameplay experience is not a frantic sequence of tasks and decisions, but follows the player’s own pace,” he said in a statement. That may be true as you listen to the familiar rumbling of the bus and the swooshing of the doors. But I personally found the main source of the thrill to be the challenge of getting to each bus stop on time. The countdown clock on the dashboard will put you on the edge of your actual seat.

If you’re looking for mischief, this isn’t the game for you. You can try to hit pedestrians or cause crashes, but these attempts only get you further from the mission by costing you satisfaction points and money.

What it is, though, is an ideal look at how cities can appreciate the bus, how to love it so the system can realize its full potential. And, sadly, that’s perhaps the most unrealistic part of this game—at least when compared to the state of the bus in the U.S. Here, buses are considered “bottom-shelf transportation,” as my colleague Laura Bliss put it, and looked over for fancy railways, ride-share efforts, and billion-dollar Hyperloop projects.

Grenus thinks there’s more appreciation among Europeans, who are the target audience for the game, which has grabbed the attention of many video game reviewers. “It is not unusual, especially for younger people or senior citizens to… fully rely on public transport to get around,” he said. “Being a bus driver might also not be the most glamorous job here in Europe as well, but it is surely an important one.”

And while it’s not a game for everybody—simulation games like this tend to attract kids between ages 8 and 12 and men over 35, according to one 2013 article—there’s something about the oddly specific nature of this genre that at least piques the interest of curious people around the globe. They put you in the shoes of people whose jobs you maybe haven’t considered in detail—the cross-country truck driver, the train conductor, the city planner, and now, the persevering bus driver.

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