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'Desert Bus' was once dubbed the 'worst video game ever made' — now there's a sequel

By Travis M. Andrews, The Washington Post
Dec. 6, 2017 at 10:30 p.m.

Screenshot from "Desert Bus VR."

Driving a bus hundreds of miles from Tucson to Las Vegas may not be some people's idea of fun. But that's what players do in "Desert Bus VR," a video game released Monday by Gearbox Software. It's the virtual reality sequel to an absurd video game called "Desert Bus," which has been called the "very worst video game ever created."

As in the original game, players pilot a bus through the desert stretching between those two cities. The sequel adds updated graphics and a multiplayer version, in which other players can ride as passengers on the bus and "sit, wave, and even throw wads of paper at the driver," according to Gearbox Software.

If all this sounds ridiculous, that's on purpose. "Desert Bus" was less a game and more of a social critique of the argument that violent video games lead to real-world violence.

Over the years, it became an object of fascination for gamers. And a comedy troupe even embraced it as a means of raising money for charity.

Entertainers Penn Jillette and his partner Raymond Teller, best known by the stage name Penn & Teller, created the game in 1995 with the help of former "Saturday Night Live" writer Eddie Gorodetsky. Their nonviolent game was intended to "work as a satire against the anti-video game lobby," wrote New Yorker's Simon Parkin.

Violent video games had long found themselves in the crosshairs of some activists and politicians. For instance, games such as "Doom," "Night Trap" and"Mortal Kombat" were the focus of a joint congressional hearing in December 1993. Video-game publishers were asked "whether they were in fact peddling inappropriate material to children," Wired reported. A member of an advocacy group that monitors violence on television said that such games were "training early killers," the magazine reported.

A few years later, multiple lawsuits were filed claiming violent video games inspired real-life violence, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.

"Every few years, video games are blamed in the media for all of the ills in society," Teller told The New Yorker. "In the early 1990s, I wrote an article for The New York Times citing all the studies that show video games have no effect on a child's morals. But we wanted to create some entertainment that helped make the point."

One argument against such games is that they don't reflect reality; therefore they don't teach children the real-world consequences of violence. Penn & Teller so disagreed with this stance that, as a tongue-in-cheek joke, they decided to create the "Desert Bus" video game and make it as mundane as possible.

The game cannot be paused and takes eight hours to complete.

The route "is long," Teller told The New Yorker in 2013. "It's a boring job that just goes on and on repetitiously, and your task is simply to remain conscious. That was one of the big keys — 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."

In the game, the road never curves, so players never need to steer the bus — but the vehicle's alignment is off, so they must keep the steering wheel in place, which means they have to keep their hands on the controls. The desert scenery never really changes. Players that complete the trip earn a point.

But the game was never commercially published, Ars Technica reported, because the platform it was for was discontinued. But years later, the game leaked online as a download.

The game probably could have slipped from the public's mind after a quick chuckle. But Canadian comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun used it in 2007 for a charity event called "Desert Bus for Hope." For the past 11 years, the comedy troupe broadcast themselves playing the game "for as long as donations come in," according to its website.

As of this year, the event has raised a lifelong total of $4 million for Child's Play, a charity that purchases games for the children's wings of hospitals around the world, according to a news release.

Anyone preparing to play the "Desert Bus" sequel should load up on coffee. Players who complete the eight-hour game receive a bonus: They get to drive the bus back to Tucson.

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