A few weeks ago, I was reading the remarkable short story collection “Press Start to Play”, edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams. The book centers around the world video games and gaming. One of the stories, “Desert Walk” by S.R. Mastrantone, particularly caught my interest.
The story is about a rare a game that consists of walking through an endless desert. Players occasionally encounter items, but nothing of any major significance. Despite this, the game is intensely addictive. Gamers lose track of time and forget to do things like eat or sleep while playing (a bit like “the Entertainment” from David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest).
While reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of the greatest existential joke in the history of video games: Desert Bus. Intended as part of the unreleased game “Penn & Teller’s Smoke & Mirrors”, Desert Bus featured you as a bus driver travelling from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada. There were no passengers on the bus, no traffic and virtually no scenery. You travelled at a top speed of 45 miles per hour, and you made the drive in real-time. Completing the trip took eight hours. Reach Tucson and you earned a single point. Want more points? Start the drive back. Repeat for as long as you can stand.
The bus had a tendency to drift, which meant that you had to be vigilant at the controls. Drift too far and the engine stalls, which requires your bus to be towed back to your start point.
So, why was this cruel joke created? It apparently started as a conversation between Penn, Teller, and their friend Eddie Gorodetsky. It was intended as a bit of satire, a backlash against the criticisms of people like Attorney General Janet Reno, who decried the violence and realism of video games. In an article published in the New Yorker, Teller said they created the realism of Desert Bus with this in mind. He stated, “we would make no cheats about time, so people like the Attorney General could get a good idea of how valuable and worthwhile a game that just reflects reality would be.”
A video game developer called Imagineering designed the game and Absolute Entertainment published it, but Smoke & Mirrors (and thus Desert Bus) was never released. It’s a shame, because supposedly there was a plan in place for a massive party for the first player to gain 100 points. If you’re doing the math, that would be 800 hours of uninterrupted gameplay…assuming no tow trips back to the beginning. The prize, according to Penn, “was going to be, you got to go on Desert Bus from Tucson to Vegas with showgirls and a live band and just the most partying bus ever. You got to Vegas, we’re going to put you up at the Rio, big thing, and then, you know, big shows.”
Because the game wasn’t released, it became something of a rumor until a copies of the game began circulating online in 2005. Two years later, comedy group LoadingReadyRun began Desert Bus For Hope, a charity gaming event to benefit Child’s Play, an organization that benefits children undergoing medical treatment, which also provides domestic violence support facilities. The premise of the event was simple. They would begin playing, and the first hour would cost $1.00 in donations. To keep them playing, the required donation rate would increased by 7% each hour. The group raised $22,805 their first year. This year, the group raised $731,205.37.
It’s amazing to think that a video game the New Yorker dubbed, “the worst video game ever created,” a giant practical joke of a game intended as a rebuke of video game censors, has now gone on to raise millions of dollars for children in need.
If you’ve got nothing particular to do or feel particularly masochistic, here’s a complete play through: