A great question many have asked, now we have reached a level of Virtual Reality where the technology is sufficient to make for rather immersive experiences, and at a level where prices will go down, quality will go up as will the number of people who get to experience it. This question has been asked since the dawn of interactive entertainment and concerns realism. When will we get a virtual reality experience so like reality it ends up being as boring as reality?
The answer may have been found this week with a tongue firmly in cheek free VR reimagining of infamous unreleased joke game Desert Bus, which gives you all the realistic thrills an eight hour drive through the desert on a rickety bus will allow.
The Only Video Game Designed by Magicians
The VR game is a remake of a parody game initially not released as part of the cancelled Penn and Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, a game developed in part by the titular magic duo. Penn and Teller are a wildly popular magic duo who became popular for an irreverent, fantastical and shock based tricks, often involving revealing elements of a trick or showing how a trick was done after already showing the trick, either to emphasise the huge amount of skill involved or to set up or misdirect the audience for a larger trick. This includes tricks like showing a cup and ball routine but with see through cups to show case just how much skill an illusion takes even if you do know the trick. Figuring out how magic happens became the basis of their current and highly popular TV show Penn and Teller: Fool Us.
This eventually led to merchandise opportunities, such as the book and video Penn and Teller’s Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends and the book’s follow-ups, Penn and Teller’s How to Play With Your Food and How to Play in Traffic. All of these provided some information on how to perform some tricks, often using the book and video itself as one of the props and also often making fun of common points of contention of the era such as televangelists.
A Game That Disappeared into Smoke and Mirrors
Smoke and Mirrors was very much a continuation of that, being a minigame collection consisting of six games, four of which are made for the sole purpose of fooling others, using secret button combinations, hidden menus and a bit of preparation to create some digital tricks. These include parodies of psychic card tricks, horoscope tricks, games that are deliberately unbalanced against one player (and even allow that player to swap places) and even a game that pretends to explode as a parody of video game disclaimers of the time. The title game, a platformer known as “Smoke and Mirrors” also had an “impossible” difficulty setting… in which Lou Reed killed the player characters within five seconds of starting the game. “Impossible is eating the sun” indeed.
These games however, all pale into insignificance compared to what has become the centrepiece of Smoke and Mirrors: a game so infamous that cancellation couldn’t get rid of it, the only game to be released commercially after the ditching of Smoke and Mirrors and often considered one of the worst games in history: Desert Bus.
Introduced by Penn Gillette himself as a “Verisimulator”, which he terms as a game “stupefyingly like reality”, Desert Bus has you “realistically” driving 360 miles on a bus route from Tuscon in Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada. Realistically means in real time, at the speed limit of 45 MPH.
This takes eight hours in real time.
Perhaps you could take joy at the scenery, but the route taken is a flat desert road that seemingly goes on forever, with nothing but miles of empty desert to enjoy. Maybe you’d like to take a break, but Desert Bus, with the infinite knowledge that the world doesn’t stop, does not have a pause function. Pressing start, traditionally the pause button on your Sega Mega Drive controller beeps the horn. Even wilier players who might try and make the game a bit easier by holding down the accelerator button and doing other things for the eight hours will be betrayed by the bus “realistically” pulling to the left. Go too far to the left or right and you get beached in the sand, where a rescue truck will come from Tuscon in real time to see you, and tow you all the way back to the start, also in real time.
There’s no other traffic, nothing else to interact with and pretty much nothing that changes during your lengthy play session, to the point that sometime during the fifth hour of play when a bug splatters the windscreen it becomes a very notable experience.
If, by some miracle of patience you make it to Las Vegas, you are rewarded with a single point, and the option to travel all the way back to Tuscon for another one. The game continues, should you dare get this far until you either give up or max out the point score, which in real time would take 33 Days of non-stop Desert Bussing. Funnily enough, a competition was hinted at in the game and it was said that there would have been a contest where the first player to get 100 points would take the real life desert bus, on a journey with showgirls, a live band and a trip to see a Penn and Teller magic show in Las Vegas. The problem was that the game only maxed out at 99 points.
Like many of the seemingly absurd parts of a Penn and Teller routine, all of this had a political point.
In Defense of Video Games
In the early 1990s, along with the fears of a VR future fuelled by sensationalist fare like Virtuosity, video games were considered a medium for moral degeneracy, with figures in political office such as Janet Reno and Joe Lieberman attempting to have the medium banned or heavily controlled by government regulation. Hearings were called in the US Senate to look into what can be done about games like campy horror game Night Trap, lurid fighting game Mortal Kombat and sci-fi first person shooter Doom. Ultimately the result of these debates would be the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which created legally binding age ratings for video games.
Penn, well known for his scepticism and having already written an article debunking the evidence cited that video games contribute to violence and aggression, was convinced to include the game as part of Smoke and Mirrors, with the joke being that if a “realistic” violent game could led to copycat violence, would a realistic bus driving game lead to copycat bus driving. The hope was that it would get some headlines and some laughs, but it was not to be.
By the time the game was ready to be released, the main system the game was to be released for, Sega Mega CD, was discontinued, which led to the developer, Imagineering, and the publisher, Absolute Software, both going out of business, and the completed game seemingly lost to history.
Desert Bus For Hope
The game would end up surviving via a review copy ended up being passed into the hands of obscure game website Lost Levels, which chronicled other games that were never released. From here, people started playing and chronicling the horror for themselves. This took various forms, including reviews, extended playthroughs, hacking exercises that used tools to complete the game much quicker than the 792 hours required when playing the game at normal speed. Oh and one of the first and most successful gaming charity drives ever.
A sketch comedy group known as LoadingReadyRun, created a charity donation drive using the game in 2007. Known as Desert Bus for Hope, it was so successful it became an annual charity drive that raises over half a million dollars a year for Child’s Play. The original rules were simple, for each increment of money Loading Ready Run made, they would drive for an hour, that amount increasing by 7% each time it was reached. They play until they can’t make a goal, which since the goal between the fifth and sixth days goes from $100,000 to over a million dollars usually ends the drive.
Penn and Teller, as well as Desert Bus producer Eddie Gorodetsky were involved during the first charity drive. Along with donating $500 each, a good chunk of hours that in the early going kept the charity drive afloat and also generated interest that led to the event ultimately raising over $22,000 for Child’s Play. Desert Bus for Hope has since become an annual event with crafting, challenges, guest call-ins, charity auctions and the like, all for a charity stream that lasts as long as the money rolls in, usually a week non-stop.
The success of Desert Bus For Hope has in itself led to Desert Bus getting a second life, often during November and often used as a staple for video game based comedy, as well as some interesting side projects. The game’s inspired a mobile phone conversion, a conversion to the ancient Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision consoles, as well as a ton of in jokes and money donated to a good cause. It also led to Gearbox Software, as part of the most recent Desert Bus for Hope, releasing a VR sequel, Desert Bus VR. The release date of which was auctioned off during the most recent Desert Bus for Hope, and the game released for free on 27th November 2017.
Stupefyingly Like (Virtual) Reality
As you would expect, this is a marked improvement from a parallax driving game in 1995 with precious little to see. Now using SteamVR, Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive, you can through the magic of VR and high definition 3D see precious little in 360 degree room scale. Pretty much everything you would expect from the original Desert Bus is included, including the 45 MPH limit, the non-stop “gameplay”, the abject nothingness, the play on the steering, even the bug that splats on the window is lovingly rendered.
Pretty much the whole game has been replicated, which ironically enough given the advancement in simulators since Desert Bus means the game is more boring and less realistic than something like the VR enabled Euro Truck Simulator 2, with less of a game and game world.
These are all of course, only criticisms if you make the mistake of treating Desert Bus VR as a game, rather than as a very elaborate joke available for free to support a charity. What was added was a four player multiplayer mode, which let other players sit and wave and throw wads of paper at the driver.
The model is far more akin to the release of silly room scale VR games like I Expect You to Die or Job Simulator, rather than a true simulator, and that is no bad thing indeed.
For the low low cost of nothing it’s certainly worth a go, but it needs to be kept in mind that much of the enjoyment of the game is the bizarre history it has, the massive stars that were a major part of its creation and the legacy spawned by a decade long charity drive for hope.
Desert Bus VR was developed by Dinosaur Games, and published on Steam by Gearbox Software for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive