The tutorial in Bus Simulator 2018 might just be the most endearing thing I’ve ever played. It stars eager driving instructor Mira, who is simply bonkers about public transport, and enthusiastically explains all of the buttons on your big busman’s dashboard. Her excitement reaches a crescendo as you approach your first bus stop, where she enlists the help of a half dozen fake passengers to test your ticketing machine.
The only thing Mira loves more than buses is her fiance, Aubrey, who boards your bus at the second test stop and asks Mira if their neighbours can borrow the lawnmower. Aubrey, by the way, is a woman. Bus Simulator 2018 – a game about nothing more than driving a bus around – is more socially progressive than every AAA game launched this year.
Quite why bus-mad Mira lives in a city that lacks any public transport to begin with is a mystery, but it’s your job to launch and run the town’s new bus company, hiring drivers, picking up and dropping off passengers to generate revenue, and unlocking more and more of the world to drive increasingly fancy buses in.
If that sounds mundane, I remind you that this is a game about being a bus driver. Bus Simulator 2018 has you carrying out all of the tedious mechanics of the role: the careful use of indicators, giving exact change from a tenner, asking a noisy passenger to turn their music down, adjusting the sun visor so that the sun isn’t in your eyes, opening and closing the doors, confronting fare dodgers. It’s gloriously detailed, and revels in unflinching authenticity.
There’s a real meditative aspect to this gentle escapism, and as your aspiring bus empire begins to grow and expand into neighbouring suburbs, the routes along which you drive become increasingly bucolic. It’s novel to drive around in a game without anything exploding or anybody being violently murdered by a robot.
Instead your passengers can be overheard talking about how they’ve just bought shampoo, or the latest episode of a fictional TV show called Winter of Passion that everybody, collectively, seems to watch. It’s charming and strange, like some bizarre transit-themed dream.
But this is some very well-simulated monotony, and for all its obvious appeal Bus Simulator 2018 is eventually a victim of its own success. As well as the thrilling opportunity to get behind the wheel yourself, you can purchase additional buses and hire drivers to run routes of your own design, but ultimately this is a game about hands-on repetition.
The fun of driving the bus soon wears thin, and you must return to the real world once again, feeling somehow emptier than when you began.