Commuter Camaraderie

In Czechia, Bohemia Interactive has three game development offices – in Prague, Brno, and Mníšek pod Brdy. While the first two locations are major population centers, there’s a chance you have never heard of the last one. Situated thirty kilometres southwest of Prague, it’s a small historic town surrounded by forests and farmlands. Far removed from urban bustle, Mníšek office is unlike any other.

A cottage made of dark wood sits behind evergreen trees, its two stories covered by a red roof so long it almost touches the grass beneath. Originally built as a recreation center, the building is encompassed by vast grounds that include a garden, a pond, and, most recently, a T-72 tank. This is the headquarters where all Arma games were directed from. Place so iconic that modders recreated it in-game. It’s also where, fifteen years ago, I first stepped into the professional game industry. I worked there for almost a decade, and I loved it as much as I hated it.

For all of its charm, it was always a remote place. The nearest restaurant was one kilometer uphill, and the nearest decent restaurant twice as far. Shopping for something as simple as snacks required a car trip to the town. Because I lived in Prague, running errands in the middle of the day, like a bank appointment or a haircut, usually meant taking half a day off. I was jealous of friends who worked in Prague, living only a few tram stops away from their office, if not in walking distance. For us in Mníšek, especially those without a car, the only connection to civilization was a bus line number 321. Every day, it brought us to work. And every day, it brought us together.

The best conversations at the workplace tend to happen when people meet spontaneously, spurring half-remembered ideas to life. Coffee drinkers bump into each other by the coffee machine. Tea lovers experience the same while waiting for water to boil in the kitchen. Smokers bond over their unhealthy habit outside, weather notwithstanding. I don’t drink coffee or tea, and I certainly don’t smoke. Instead, I was a member of the bus club. Mníšek is a small town serviced by only one bus per hour. With around forty people working in the office, there was almost always someone else sharing the ride. So we talked.

I consider myself an introvert, but even I preferred socializing over sitting forty-five minutes in awkward silence. We discussed anything, from the latest game or film releases, to our various backgrounds and experiences. Bohemia Interactive may be a Czech company, but our team was international. Each of us had different stories to tell, different cultures to share. Surrounded by foreigners, I was living the expat life in my own country. Still, despite our diverse roots, we were game developers at heart. No topic dominated our conversations as much as the games we were creating. Our office debates had a tendency to smoothly transition to the bus, interrupted only by a shocked glance at the clock and a scramble to the station. Once on board, we turned the bus into a mobile design meeting room. Yet for all grand ideas we talked about, we never paused to inspect the elegant design of the commute itself.

In many competitive multiplayer games, eliminated players respawn after a period of time. People who died at different times get back at different times as well, ending up dispersed and isolated. Game modes often solve this by introducing wave respawn. Instead of everyone having their individual timer, there’s a periodic countdown ensuring that players who died within one cycle will appear together. This promotes cooperation and strengthens the team. The Mníšek bus line operated on a similar principle, sending us in waves. So when we arrived back, we stuck together, ready to continue.

We couldn’t have asked for a better place to end up in Prague. The station was right next to trendy Anděl district, overflowing with restaurants, pubs, and clubs. Many design ideas evolved in such conditions, sketched out on napkins, scribed on menus. A discussion we started on the bus would extend over dinner, dessert and drinks, until we’d reluctantly leave it well after midnight. The walk home was short though. Because traveling played such a pivotal role in our lives, a lot of us were renting a place nearby, myself included. Anděl was our home, and the line 321 our social club.

Over weeks, months and years, colleagues became acquaintances, acquaintances became friends. It’s not that the daily commute was the only reason holding us together, but it provided us a platform – we had to act on it ourselves. It was also a literal vehicle for common experiences. Mischievously watching a traffic jam in the opposite lane as people returned from, not to Prague, was one of them. But so was missing the bus and waiting an extra hour. Or, as it happened on one hot summer evening, having a bus stop dismantled by the maintenance crew in front of our shocked faces. Car people wouldn’t relate to such adventures, but fellow travelers understood. We were only missing a secret handshake. Years later, one such friend became the best man at my wedding. And when another asked me to join his newly established Amsterdam office, I didn’t hesitate.

In the Dutch capital I found an apartment ten minutes by bike from the office. Whole new world of possibilities opened for me. I could come and leave the office anytime. I could return home for a lunch break. When I went to arrange an engagement ring for my girlfriend, I didn’t need to take any time off. But with newly-found personal freedom, I started missing some uniting constraints. I arrived and left anytime, but so did everyone else. I rarely met colleagues outside of work, and when I did, we always had to plan it ahead. Gone was the glue that bound us together, gone was the spontaneity. As if it wasn’t enough, Covid shattered even that.

I spend most of my days working from home now, and I prefer it. I have a family, and I appreciate every minute with them. Friendships formed on the road between Mníšek and Prague were a product of the time. We were young, with time to spare and no commitments. Since then, the group disbanded and we have spread over the globe – some remained in Prague, a few followed to Amsterdam, others crossed the ocean to the United States or Canada. But we’re still close. We’re alumni of Mníšek Bus Society.