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Big Bus, Small Hours: An OMSI Diary

Simulation & wargame blather

The anticipators are myriad. They mill beside the stops at Rathaus, Spandau scrutinising distant double-deckers, and scowling at timepieces. They sigh, they pace, they ignore precipitation, but most of all they wait. They wait, as they've waited this past two years, for the sequel to one of The Five Great Simulations. OMSI 2 is close - so close you can almost hear the trill of its IBIS and smell the liquorice of its exhaust.

Informed sources claim we'll be playing OMSI 2 by Christmas. In preparation I thought I'd retire to my den and write something about the appeal of MR Software's original omnibus opus. After much chin-scratching, Digestive dunking, and keyboard bashing that plan was modified abandoned.

I've come to the conclusion that an article penned two summers ago, explains my OMSI obsession far better than anything I've written since or am ever likely to write. The following - an account of one real-time '13N' night-shift - first appeared in the pages of PC Gamer magazine. If you've ever wondered what a gamer wedded to wings and war can find to love in a Berlin bus driving sim, then, hopefully, this diary will provide a few answers.

June 29, 1988. 00:45
Like bats, false teeth and timid transvestites, the 13N only comes out at night. From Montag to Sonntag between 01:10 and 05:00 two 13Ns shuttle back and forth between the centre of Spandau (Rathaus) and the edge of Staaken (Stadtgrenze). Tonight I'll be taking the wheel of one of them.

Pinned to the noticeboard above my desk is a timetable. It's authentic and totally non-negotiable. The type of bus I use, however, is up to me. What's it to be today? An angular D92 with plush seats, automatic stop announcements, and wheelchair-friendly doors, or one of the family of superannuated SD200s - all curves, cacophony, and carbon emissions?

In the midst of Spandau's bushof - at this hour, a vast dormitory of dozing doubledeckers - I rouse my ancient SD200 SD77 with a tender push of electrics key and starter button. Headlamps and interior lights splash candlepower onto concrete still radiating midday heat. The IBIS activation tune warbles briefly then gets lost in the canine pant of a stirring MAN D2566MUH diesel engine. These sounds are a trigger. Like a grounded ship lifted clear of a mudbank by a rising tide, a day's worth of trials and tribulations breaks suction and begins to float away.

The red and white pole barrier at the bus station entrance rises as I approach. A flick of the indicator and a quick glance to left and right and bus #3001 slips out onto empty Am Omnibushof. Dusty trees. Darkened apartment blocks. That air of promise and poignancy that often seems to pervade summer nights in this city.

They call this a dead run. Until I reach Rathaus Spandau - the start of the 13N route - I am driving a non-bus. However much it offends my inner public servant (Hello Jürgen!) the beseeching eyes of bus stop users will be studiously ignored for the next 2km.

Just to the left of those traffic lights up ahead is the site of the district's most famous building. The place where the likes of Hess and Speer were banged up. If you want to see Spandau Prison today, you'll need a submarine (The WW2 German variety of which were, coincidentally, powered by MAN diesel engines). After the place was torn down in '87, the demolition rubble was dumped in the North Sea to discourage souvenir hunters.

Inside my head: an image of a skinhead proudly placing a barnacled brick on his mantelpiece. Outside my head: a rattling bus cockpit past which stream illuminated shop windows, Art Nouveau façades, and endless rivers of parked cars. Gatower Strasse curves into Wilhelmstrasse, Wilhelmstrasse into Klosterstrasse, while I watch wing mirrors, monitor traffic lights, and marvel at the mundane magic of it all.

I never get tired of listening to these ten-ton titans bleed speed. Halting at the huge Post Office intersection - a place where 30 lanes of traffic merge - I'm treated to a typically lush symphony of squeaks, creaks, groans and hisses. I don't know exactly what's going on down there, but whatever it is I reckon it would make Mr Hocking, my old physics teacher, smile.

The Rathaus 'terminus' isn't nearly as grand as it sounds. A cobbled loop of side-road 100 metres north of the illuminated oasis that is Rathaus Spandau proper, it's the place where the 13N waits before starting a Stadtgrenze run. I've got ten minutes before I'm expected to draw up beside the whirring U-Bahn escalators and glowing ticket machines. Plenty of time to prepare my destination display, program my IBIS, and admire the full moon that's shining like a new 5 Deutschmark piece at the top of the windscreen.

Most of OMSI's buses feature fancy matrix destination displays. You punch in the appropriate code on the IBIS keyboard and almost instantly the name and bus number appears in crisp white pixels on the front of your vehicle. One of the reasons I have a soft spot for the old SD77 is that it lacks this modern convenience. To set my destination I must wind an old-fashioned rollsign for several minutes. John-F-Kennedy-Platz... Deutschlandhalle... Neu-Westend Brixplatz... the scrolling list of authentic but (currently) unreachable locations is, to the ardent OMSI fan, a litany heavy with mystery and allure. The likes of 'Olympia Stadion' and 'Richard-Wagner-Platz' are our Samarkands and Katmandus.

There goes the 31 to Hackenfelde. I give the driver a comradely wave well aware that a cruel animation deficiency means he won't be returning the greeting.

Time to quit the crescent of cobbles and cruise down to the bright lights of Rathaus. Some games measure a man by how well he can shoot other men in the head. In OMSI the godlike are the persistently punctual and the folk that can consistently park outsized omnibuses two inches from a kerb.

Two stops down from Rathaus, my first ticket sale of the night. Laying a couple of crisp green 5DM notes on the counter a man with the awkward gait of a chronic haemorrhoids sufferer (MR Software are much better at modelling buses than bus users) asks for a “Tageskarte” - a 1-day pass. I tear off a purple ticket, take the cash, then tap the second lever from the left on the decidedly Victorian change machine. With a satisfying clatter, a 1DM coin plops into the change tray, is collected, and we're on our way again.

There are five different colour-coded ticket types in OMSI but I can't remember ever dispensing a golden 'student short-haul' one. Will tonight be the night? Steaming down Seeburger I picture a ruddy-faced satchel-clutcher boarding at Päwesiner. I see him mouth the words “Kurzstrecke ermäßigt'. I hear celebratory trumpets blare.

Himmel! That wasn't trumpets. That was an overtaking taxi-driver alarmed by the doubledecker drifting into his lane. Must keep my mind on the job.

Up ahead, the 70s tower-blocks of the Blasewitzer Ring. Pretty soon I'll be on that long lovely bend between Maulbeerallee and Obstallee. The one that, if judged right, can be arced through with stiff arms and a perfectly motionless steering wheel.

Bloomin' lurkers! At Heerstrasse/Sandstrasse a shy punter waiting behind the shelter rather than in it, prompts some hasty braking. For a second or two 3001's chassis and body visibly tussle. Over my shoulder comes a torrent of complaints from shaken passengers.

Welcome to Stadtgrenze. This desolate lay-by with its moth-pecked streetlights and parked Golfs is the western end of the 13N run. 150 metres up that road is The Wall.... East Germany... Communism. Thirteen minutes until the return run. A less committed soul might manually advance the clock at this point. Me, I'm content to sit tight and soak up the solitude.

Rathaus-bound with three on the top deck, two on the bottom. Sometimes when I glance in the passenger mirror I wish OMSI had a thought-balloon toggle. Press '?' and little pictograms would appear above the punters. Glasses of beer, broken hearts, Grim Reapers... there'd be hundreds of different ones.

Stopped at the Sandstrasse traffic lights, my own thought-balloon contains a chimp on a unicycle.

What is it about Seeckstrasse? Either I don't understand the German highway code or that little turning opposite the 1920s apartment block with the pretty bay windows, brings out the buffoon in Berlin's motorists. A few seconds ago a red Merc came this close to ruining my paintwork and my evening.

Edward Hopper! The name comes to me as I accelerate away from the BP petrol station on Klosterstrasse. American painter Edward Hopper would totally get OMSI.

Back at Rathaus. One trip down, three to go.

Two women board at Brunsbütteler Damm. One remarks on the high temperature inside the bus. She has a point. The digital thermometer on the dash is showing a sticky 26°C. I could turn on the meticulously modelled air conditioning system, but decide to go for the green option instead. I'll open some windows and drive with the front doors open for a few stops. It's against regs, but regs mean nothing to mavericks like me.

Then again...

I pull over and close the doors.

At the top of Seeburger, the towering brick edifice of the Grandschule Am Birkenhain looms into view. I picture Marcel and Rüdiger roaming Spandau on bikes, cameras slung over their shoulders. Apparently, Jan, Feb, and March were the best months for architectural texture collection. No harsh sunlight; no leaves on trees.

That was sloppy. A clipped kerb at Maulbeerallee. The odd brush with a pavement edge is inevitable, but a dinged car or - heaven-forbid - a flattened pedestrian, is guaranteed to leave a veteran bus simmer feeling utterly wretched.

Forlorn bus shelter, parked VWs, glimpse of floodlit Iron Curtain just down the road... Stadtgrenze for the second time. The schedule says we don't leave for another 23 minutes. Time to break out the Double Decker and the copy of Midwich Cuckoos.

I wonder what the Deutsch is for “Bugger off”. With a good five minutes to go before departure, a passenger is peering intently at me through the closed doors. Can't he see I'm devouring classic British sci-fi/confectionary here?

Tearing down Seeburger, the red limiter light scowling at me from the speedo. It's at times like this I'm glad OMSI doesn't simulate cats, hedgehogs and drunks.

By my calculations, I'll be passing 106 sets of traffic lights tonight. That's 106 sessions of the Traffic Light Game. Maybe you know the rules. Stopping at traffic lights is an admission of defeat. Far better to snail up to reds than maintain speed and wind up surrendering every last scrap of precious momentum. Greens are trickier customers. Do you accelerate in the hope of basking in their emerald beneficence, or do you approach with fatalistic caution?

Passing under the broad railway bridge at the end of Klosterstrasse I'm cut up by a lorry that changes lanes with scant warning. Instinctively I lean on the 'H' key. Imaginary pigeons flutter from sooty roosts amongst the girders.

Two minute early at Rathaus. Nothing to worry about. OMSI only starts getting shirty if you're three or more minutes out of step.

The tolling of the Rathaus bell means Midwich must be abandoned mid-paragraph (Unlike its unfortunate residents, I can come and go as I please). Realising I've lost my bookmark, I have an idea that seems perfectly viable for a split second: 'I'll use a bus ticket!'

Blimey. Serious bout of driver's amnesia there. I'm at Schmidt-Knobelsdorf and for the life of me can't remember driving down Seeburger. Did I run any red lights or pass any peopled bus stops? I honestly haven't a clue.

While negotiating Blasewitzer, I'm mentally storyboarding '13N' - a bus-based horror movie. An abattoir worker knocked down by a bus driver mentally storyboarding a bus-based horror movie, returns from the grave to prey on night busmen. The first inkling the victims get of imminent immolation is when the yellow request light illuminates in their 'empty' doubledeckers.

The two 13Ns pass at the top of Heerstrasse. At the wheel of one: an unthinking automaton. At the wheel of the other: a man still too scared to look in his passenger mirror.

Warm nearside tyres nuzzle Stadtgrenze's rubber-smudged kerb once again. Since I was last here the sky over the Gärtnereiring glasshouses has changed from plum to peach, and the starry saucepan of Ursa Major has clockworked several points eastwards.

Before turning to my book I switch to the external camera and indulge in a spot of shameless SD77 worship. The affection goes pretty deep now. The other day I was in B&Q looking for bedroom paint and found myself irresistibly drawn to the golden-yellows.

Time to roll. Did I change the destination display from Stadtgrenze to Rathaus? Don't want a repeat of that occasion I drove all the way back wondering why no-one wanted to board.

You can tell a lot about an OMSIist by the period advert they choose to paste on their pride-and-joy. Pfennigs fans are hungry. Schultheiss Pilsener sporters are thirsty. Palais Madame people are horny. We Möbel-Hübner enthusiasts are trilby.

Across the post office intersection for the 7th time tonight. Turn right here and pretty soon you run out of scenery. That'll all change when the sequel gets released. MR Software are currently building the domain of the 5, 35, and 56 - Ruhleben, Spandau Old Town, Charlotte Bridge... Come Summer I anticipate spending as much time reading Wyndham outside Ruhleben U-Bahn Station and Spandau Mental Hospital as Stadtgrenze or Rathaus.

Listening to the Rathaus bells doing a passable impersonation of Big Ben, I visualise a London OMSI. Routemasters plying a foggy Parliament Square. As pipedreams go it's a pretty one. And a pretty improbable one. Marcel and Rüdiger are not the monetizing types. OMSI is based in late-Eighties Berlin not for cold commercial reasons. The sim is what it is because the pair have indelible memories of travelling to and from school “seated on the fake leather seats of SD200s”. They vividly recall “listening to the characteristic hum of the transmission and axles... inhaling that typical SD smell”.

Note to sim-smiths: The world needs more sims hewn from blocks of pure Nostalgia.

Anyone with any sense is now a-bed. Barren bus stops... deserted pavements... pedestrian crossing lights telling ghosts when to walk and when not to walk. I cruise down the curved canyon of Blasewitzer Ring feeling foolish... superfluous. 53 seats upstairs and 36 downstairs and only one - this one - occupied.

A customer! Finally! At Magistratsweg a woman boards, giving me a sleepy “Morgen” as she heads for the ticket validation machine. My sense of purpose is instantly restored. I might not have a war to win or a world to save but the individual currently stifling a yawn on the back seat needs me, and, right now, that seems enough.

Turning tightly into Stadtgrenze for the final time tonight, I let the jutting chin of 3001 pan across the pavement. Until you get your OMSI whiskers, these 11.5m long, 2.5m wide battleships can be a right handful. In my first week no streetlight, bus stop, or traffic light pole was safe.

Things are coming to a head in Midwich. Children with eyes the colour of Berlin buses have just persuaded a man to blow his own brains out.

The city is beginning to stir. Three punters at Stadtgrenze. Three more at Pillnitzer Weg.

As I pull into Magistratsweg a 97 tucks in behind me. The sight of its destination display - 'Oberhavel Kraftwerk' - prompts a few quiet choruses of 'fahr'n-fahr'n-fahr'n-auf-der-Autobahn'.

Son-of-a-schweinhund! A sleek SD202 has just swept past in a cloud of exhaust. It was a 92 so he'll be poaching my passengers all the way to Rathaus.

Schumi would have been proud of that little slingshot. As the 92 paused at Päwesiner, I saw opportunity and retook the lead.

The SD77s might be the oldest buses in the OMSI bushof but they're spring chickens compared to the train that's currently beetling across the rail bridge in front of me. That cream and maroon beauty is an S-Bahn Type 477. They've been moving Berliners around since the days of the Third Reich.

Three minutes late at Rathaus. Not bad considering the steadily emulsifying traffic. As the last passenger alights and the floor lifts an imperceptible half-milimetre in response (ah, lovely OMSI physics!) I reach for the rollsign controls and spool 'Betriebsfahrt' into position. 3001 becomes a non-bus again.

Home, James!

Red lights mock me at Altonaer and Seeburger. Halted again at Picheldorfer, my faithful conveyance snorts like an impatient carthorse.

The rush hour has started early today. We crawl past Melanchthonplatz where the pretty brick church presses its gold spire tip against the throat of a flawless blue sky. Looks like it's going to be a scorcher.

Which dozy pillock is manning the barrier this morning? Wake up in there! Some of us have got coffee to brew, toast to burn, and achingly mediocre RTSs to review.

When the pole does finally rise, I make for the maintenance sheds, decide against a bus wash (we're not grubby enough for that) and go park in my usual spot.

Lights off. Parking brake set. Neutral selected. Engine cut-off button dabbed. The weary MAN motor splutters into silence.

3001's only signs of life now are a few gleaming dashboard bulbs. As I extinguish these with a wistful twist of the electrics key, the chimp on the unicycle dismounts, sighs, and slowly trudges away.

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