Created by stage magicians as a joke, the worst video game ever made has found an unlikely second life, raising funds to help sick children. Welcome, to Desert Bus.
Magicians Penn and Teller are among the most famous performers working in entertainment today.
First appearing together in the 1970s, the duo made their name, and built their audience, with an unconventional style of magic. While still relying on slight of hand, optical illusions and misdirection, Penn and Teller’s tricks also contain elements of social commentary, satire, and provocation.
They not only want to wow their audiences, but make them think. The combination has proved hugely successful.
Their live show in Las Vegas, at The Rio, has been on for 26 consecutive years, making it the longest running show in Vegas history.
When they tour, Pen and Teller appear on Broadway, and on the West End, to sell out audiences and critical acclaim. They also oversee a mini empire of TV shows, streaming specials, books and podcasts. These veer away from magic and cover such topics as religion, science, popular culture and myth-busting.
Teller even directed a non fiction documentary – ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ in 2013 – about the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, which garnered glowing reviews.
One of Penn and Teller’s most unusual side projects, would lead to the creation of the worst video game ever made.
In the 1990s, the medium of video games began to rapidly evolve.
With the availability of more powerful microprocessors, and a growing audience, game developers left behind the simple pleasures of ‘Space Invaders’ and ‘Pacman’ and began creating edgier, more sophisticated material.
90’s games like ‘Myst’, ‘Doom’, ‘Diablo’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ offered fully realised worlds that players could explore, interacting with in-game characters and the environment. Game play was varied, offering puzzle solving, role play, swords and sorcery, mysteries and shoot ‘em ups.
While these new styles of games were popular and successful, the more adult themed material courted controversy.
Janet Reno, US Attorney General from 1993 – 2001, was a vocal opponent of violent video games, linking them to increased instances of real life violence. At her urging, Congressional hearings were held in 1993, investigating the issue.
Other activists went further.
Florida attorney Jack Thompson lead lawsuits against major gaming companies, including Sony and RockStar, and tried to prove that teenagers convicted of violent crime had been corrupted by violent games (Thompson also filed lawsuits against WalMart, Best Buy and other retailers, for stocking the games).
‘We have had dozens of killings in the U.S. by children who had played these types of games. These types of games are basically murder simulators. There are people being killed over here almost on a daily basis.’
- Jack Thompson
These claims were often amplified by Fox News, and other conservative media.
Meanwhile, serious scientific study of the impact of violent games found no causal link between children who played them, and children who committed violent crime.
In 1994, Penn wrote an article in the New York Times, debunking the anti-gaming movement, and citing a number of studies showing the absence of a link between game play and behaviour.
He said the anti gamers were suffering from ‘moral panic’.
Penn and Teller then both appeared in a TV commercial critical of Janet Reno; their argument was that entertainment, and art, relies on fantasy, and people can tell the difference between real and imaginary events.
This lead them to an even more elaborate idea; what if they created a video game that was more like real life? No violence, but also; no drama, no fantasy, no action!
A boredom simulator, in other words.
In 1991, Japanese gaming company Sega released the ‘Sega CD’, an add on to their Genesis console (known as a Mega Drive in Australia). This was the first home gaming console to utilise a CD ROM drive, instead of cartridges.
While the CD games were more expensive, they also had a lot more memory; 300 times the amount of information could be stored on a CD, which allowed games to include dramatically improved graphics, and full motion video.
A 1993 Sega CD release, ‘Night Trap’, had played a large part in driving the anti-gaming crusade; the game featured video scenes of scantily clad women being attacked by masked intruders, which had driven conservative America into a frenzy.
Now Penn and Teller decided to use this platform as the medium for their game idea.
In conjunction with Imagineering, a major North American game studio, the duo developed ‘Penn and Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors’.
Smoke and Mirrors was divided into five mini games. Most were designed for two players, and involved a playful trick that one player, could pull on the other.
For example, ‘Buzz Bombers’ was a sci fi shooting game where player one could enter a secret code on their control pad, that allowed them to take over player two’s controller, and so ruin their chances.
Other mini games included a fake psychic monkey, another sci-fi shooting game where the prank is that it appears to break the TV, and a role playing game where you battle other stage magicians, professional rivals of the game’s creators.
And then, there was the response to the anti-gaming movement, Desert Bus.
The drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, takes approximately 8 hours. The road is straight, and there is little to see.
‘Desert Bus’ recreates this experience.
In the game, you play a bus driver, and your job is to drive between the two cities. The road in the game is entirely straight, and the landscape is flat and uninteresting; there is orange desert sand on either side of the bus, broken by a very occasional cactus. There is nothing else to look at.
The game unfolds in real time, meaning it takes you eight hours to complete the trip.
To prevent you from walking away form the game while it unfolds, the bus drifts slightly to the right, so you have to course correct regularly. There is also no pause button. Questioned about this Penn quipped, ‘Well, there’s no pause button in real life, right?’
If you drift too far to the right, the bus will crash. A tow truck then appears, and tows you, also in real time, back to the start.
To underline the sheer pointlessness of the whole exercise, you can see in the rear view mirror that the bus is empty.
After five hours, a bug splatters on your windscreen.
Nothing else happens. You do not even get the satisfaction of arriving; after eight hours, the game simply ends, and a message displays saying you have arrived. It then asks you if you would like to complete a return journey, back to Tucson.
Neither city is depicted in any way, within the game.
For completing one eight hour trip, you are awarded one point.
This is Penn and Teller’s rebuttle to Janet Reno and Jack Thompson; the tedium of some aspects of everyday life, in game form.
Unfortunately for the duo, the game was never released.
Right from the outset, the Sega CD was a flawed enterprise. While gamers of the era were wowed by the capabilities of the platform, this did not translate into many good games. And both the games and the console remained expensive, which damaged sales.
By 1995, as ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ was being completed, Sega had already created the console’s replacement, the ‘Sega Saturn’. The Saturn also played CD ROM games, but was a standlaone console, rather than a add on. It also had much more powerful processors, meaning further improvements in graphics and playability.
The Saturn was released late in 1994, and while it had problems of its own, Sega put all their efforts behind it. The company quickly abandoned the Sega CD.
Preview copies of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ were sent out to a few journalists, but Imagineering went out of business, and the game was never put into production.
In 2003, Frank Cifaldi, a freelance journalist and gaming aficionado, started the website ‘Lost Levels’.
This was dedicated to finding, and preserving if possible, obscure video games, or games that had never had a proper release.
In 2005, Cifaldi received a copy of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ in the mail, and wrote an article on his website about it. The strange nature of the mini games, and enormous fame of Penn and Teller, piqued his readers interest.
Most of the focus was on ‘Desert Bus’; instantly hailed as one of the worst games ever created, but also something of an intriguing nerdy endurance test. Emulator versions of the game were posted online, and torrents became available for download.
Players challenged each other, to see who could drive the wonky bus the longest.
The following year, 2006, Canadian sketch comedy group ‘LoadingReadyRun’, decided to put the game to use.
Morgan van Humbeck, a comedian who was then part of the group, thought it would make a funny sketch to film themselves playing the game; falling asleep, going crazy from boredom, yelling, whatever.
As they prepared for a marathon Desert Bus session, the group also decided to use the event to raise money for charity; donors pledged a certain amount, for every 8 hour trip the group completed.
Desert Bus for Hope was launched in 2007.
The members of Loading Reading Run gathered at von Humbeck’s house, fired up a copy of Desert Bus, and took it in turns driving. A web camera broadcast the event live, and a linked website collected donations. Friends and family came by with food, drinks, or just to help keep the drivers awake.
After two days, one of Teller’s friends sent him a news article about the event, and he called the team live, to offer encouragement. He also bought them lunch, delivered from a local Chinese restaurant.
That first year, they managed to keep the bus going for 108 consecutive hours, and raised $22 000 for charity. The funds were given to ‘Child’s Play’, a non profit that supplies toys and games to seriously ill children.
Desert Bus for Hope has been run every year since.
In 2018 the crew lasted for 6 days and 16 hours, and raised $731 000. Child’s Play has received more than $4 million since the event started.