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About the Story
Your commute is simple enough. Or at least, it should be. But today, the entire public transportation system seems to have it out for you--and is it just you, or does the geography keep... shifting?
52nd Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 8
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In real life, we don't want our public transport to be exciting. We want it to be there and relatively on time. And in Chicago, it is. Just as in Boston, it's not perfect, but you can access arrival times and expected trip times on your phone. Train and bus routes intersect. You don't want to make too much contact with your fellow bus riders, except to ask if that book they're reading and you've heard about is any good. And so forth.
Yet what with COVID, I think I've had serious withdrawal. I never particularly enjoyed driving, especially in traffic. On the bus or train, there's time to sit and think of weird stuff or even look for something new on that route you've been down a hundred or even a thousand times before. Or there's that fear (or, if life's been particularly boring, hope) a three-transfer trip out to a suburb you can only locate on a map will get very, very weird indeed. There's that wonder, just where does bus route X go? I still enjoy seeing maps where buses with numbers over 300 sprawl to obscure suburbs. Though really, about the weirdest thing that ever happened to me was that a Pace bus out to Elk Grove had to pay a highway toll. This seemed like a violation of some economic principle or other.
What the Bus goes beyond that, in the safety of your own home--or maybe even if you are on the bus! It's about as adventurous and odd as public transport can be. It has good smattering of random text about what's going on around you, or where your GPS thinks you are (Las Vegas, Bhutan, and so forth.) And it doesn't start weird, but it gets that way once your original public transport is delayed. You start off with choices between the Yellow and Purple lines and wind up, if you're careful, on the Orange Vanilla, Chartreuse or Calico lines. The background changes to your train's color. Two choices have identical text but give radically different endings--of which there are only ten, but given how some game branches cycle, you need to make a few maps, even with that nice undo feature.
I suspect that a huge chunk of this game is natural to residents of Boston. And yet, it feels very weird to me. The Red, Yellow, Orange Blue and Purple lines all exist in Chicago, but not like that! The buses have different numbers. So it would be odd and mysterious even written straight-up. But it's a good weird. I've certainly had nightmares about public transport not going where it should, and this brought them back with a smile.
What the Bus offers nothing in the way of profound philosophy, but it doesn't have to. It's quite accessible, since it has UNDO commands, so you can knock off the ten endings pretty quickly. There is no grand reveal, just the satisfaction of seeing it all. I have to admit, 24 hours after playing it, I don't remember the endings--most of my time after playing was spent in memories of wrong buses taken, times I'd walked to a connecting bus to save time, or just barely managing to sneak in my second free transfer two hours after paying my first fare on a two-hour circular trip.
All this is fun for me, and I miss it, but it's probably not so exciting to make a game of. I was surprised What the Bus brought so much uncertainty and wonder back, especially of times before I got used to my now-favorite bus route as it went over a highway or past some once-mysterious business I finally Googled one day. I have to admit, I don't remember the endings all that well. But that just means the confusion will be fresh and wonderful if I ever pull it up again. It's the sort of game that fills a niche if not a huge need, and you're glad someone did it and did it well. I think anyone will enjoy the humor, but those who appreciate public transport despite all its faults will like it a bit more.
Weird confession: I’ve been a public-transit user all my life, and now that I haven’t had a commute in over six months – I kind of miss it? Despite the fact that What the Bus? presents public transit commuting (accurately, at least by my experience living in LA!) as a surrealistic nightmare of mysterious delays, interminable transfers, and subterranean disorientation, I sank into it like a warm blanket, partially because it was scratching an itch I didn’t know I had. Again and again I smiled in fond recognition at things that are, objectively, awful:
“You follow signs for the Blue Line through a long tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a shorter flight of stairs, up another flight of stairs, through some sort of central lobby with an insane number of passages branching off of it, and then down a hallway that you feel like has one too many right turns.”
Yup, I’ve transferred from the 1 to the A-C-E in New York by going through that awful Times Square to Port Authority tunnel, this is exactly right.
“The train is packed, other than one conspicuously empty seat, which you avoid.”
This is obviously correct behavior.
After complaining to a friend about delays:
“Yeah, I hate that, Chris replies. Especially when it’s due to an unspecified emergency or the existence of seasons. Those are the worst.”
Indeed, who at a transit agency could have ever predicted seasons!
Admittedly, there’s not much to the game besides navigating the Kafkaesque labyrinth in search of the ten endings, which are helpfully tracked for you – though I like to think the fact that I got to my office successfully on my second try indicates that real-life skill with public transit translates. But there’s plenty to enjoy along each of the branches, and the “Back” button at the bottom of each passage makes it easy to check out other paths. And now that I’ve played What the Bus?, I think I miss my commute a little less!
This entry is quick and dreamlike for good reason: it's a transit nightmare. In your rush to arrive at work on time, you only see a brief slice of content before arriving at one of many endings. Multiple playthroughs uncover a much larger range of outcomes.
What the Bus? pulled off a clever trick with my expectations, although discussing it ventures into spoiler territory: (Spoiler - click to show)the word "Nightmare" is not hyperbole. The author has created an experience where you start off sleepwalking through your daily commute before realizing that you're fully asleep and not walking at all.
The tediously familiar routine of commuting was presented so effectively that the various detours, delays, and redirections steered me to some very weird places before I realized what was happening. I like how it played with the assumptions embedded in city commutes — of course you take everything for granted, you've done it a million times before.
There's a back button at the bottom of every passage that seemed confusing and unhelpful on my first playthrough. Then I realized that it was an essential mercy to let me back out of paths leading to endings I'd already seen. Background colors that change to show the different subway lines was another nice detail.
I appreciated this entry's use of procedurally generated text. You will see a lot of familiar passages, retracing your steps to arrive at new endings, but if you pay attention you'll see (Spoiler - click to show)mimes, former schoolteachers, zombies, and other dreamworld inhabitants. I checked my GPS app every time the option came up, because I knew the results would be entertaining.
I never thought I'd say this about public transit: "That was fun. Let's do it again!"
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