Thursday, July 23, 2020

Desert Bus: The Most Realistic Video Game of 1995

During the early 1990's, a moral panic ensued about sex and violence in video games and television. Games like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap pushed societal boundaries, in part because of how realistic each game looked. Sexually explicit and violent video games had existed since the Atari days, but in all of their 16-bit glory, these now were perceived as corrupting a generation.

Of course, these were outliers among most video games of the day, and in retrospect, did not really impact society, outside of being a catalyst for the creation of the ESRB. At the same time, a collection of games was being developed by entertainers Penn & Teller, known as Penn & Teller's Smoke and Mirrors". The game included six mini-games, five of which were designed to trick players and their friends, much like the duo themselves.

Smoke and Mirrors box art and a screenshot for Desert Bus.
But the sixth game, Desert Bus, was a commentary against those who believed video games were, in fact, hazardous to society as whole. The "game" consisted of the player driving a bus from Tucson, AZ to Las Vegas, NV. Simple, right?

The bus traveled no faster than 45 mph, and the game took place in real time. Meaning that the 360 mile journey took just over eight hours.

There was little to no scenery or interaction along the route, outside of a bug hitting the windshield occasionally, and the ability to activate the horn on the bus. There was no pause button either. The instruction manual explains, "There's no pause feature. No, it's not an oversight. Does your life have a pause control?"

Here's an 8 hour long play through of the game.


The bus always veered slightly to the right, so the player had to constantly steer to maintain lane position. Moving off the road would disable the bus until a tow truck came along, and the tow truck towed the bus back to Tucson in real time. 

If, somehow, the player completed the journey, they would be rewarded. With a single point. After eight hours! Going back to Tucson, one could earn another point. It's been suggested that the game allowed a maximum of 99 points, which would take 33 real-time days of continuous play to achieve.

This was along a single, two-lane roadway. While the game was intentionally realistic to the point of not being entertaining in the slightest, the real life journey between Tucson and Las Vegas couldn't be rendered in 1995's technology. 

In reality, if you were traveling between Tucson-Las Vegas, you would use I-10, US-60, US-93 and the new I-11, which didn't exist in 1995. Also, you'd see a little more than just some cacti, as you'd go through places like Phoenix and the Hoover Dam as well. So if you've ever wished to simulate what a 360 mile long ride through the desert is like, this game is for you, but the experience is more like US-6 in Nevada.

A 10-mile straight section of US-6. Image by The American Southwest
Smoke and Mirrors never officially released despite being almost completely finished, as its developer, Absolute Entertainment, went out of business before the game could release. Only a few copies were ever distributed to journalists, which is what ROMs of the game are based off of. Nonetheless, Desert Bus has attracted a cult following, having been unofficially ported onto PC's, mobile and even the Atari 2600: 


The game, devoid of entertainment, sex, violence, or much of anything, was a biting social satire against those who felt that all video games should be banned or regulated. Based on that, I don't think its anywhere near the Worst Video Game of All Time, as everything that it was, and wasn't, was purely intentional. It was an eight-hour middle finger to Janet Reno and all the other politicians who let ignorance about a new form of entertainment and media dominate the national conversation. How could that be bad?

But if going against political figures isn't your thing, a charity fundraiser where participants play the game, Desert Bus for Hope, raised over $865,000 in 2019 alone. This money supports Child's Play, "dedicated to improving the lives of children undergoing treatment in the hospital with toys and games. The charity supports a network of over 100 hospitals worldwide.".


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