James Turner, project manager of Desert Bus for Hope, takes the bus for a spin during last year’s marathon session.
Having to play the most tedious video game of all time once a year for the rest of your life sounds like some kind of ironic punishment handed down (or up?) by Satan.
But that’s exactly what members of the sketch comedy group Loading, Ready, Run do every year with Desert Bus, a mini-game in an unreleased Sega CD title called Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. In the game, all players do is drive a digital bus from Phoenix, Arizona, to Las Vegas at 50 mph in real time.
What do you get for completing such a task? Just one point. That’s it. One lousy, stinking point.
Yet ask those about to participate in the annual Desert Bus for Hope charity game marathon and they’ll tell you that slogging through this bleak wasteland of pixels is actually the least stressful and most fun part of the process. This Saturday, the group kicks off its ninth annual fundraiser for Child’s Play, a nonprofit that donates toys and video games to children’s hospitals. They’ll stream themselves playing the game, chatting with guests and doing whatever the viewers want them to do live on the DesertBus.org website. They’ll play the game as long as donations keep rolling in.
“Desert Bus is not a great performance place for people who are afraid to embarrass themselves,” says on-screen talent Cameron Lauder. “We’re really at our best when we make utter fools of ourselves or we look like we’re making utter fools of our ourselves. One of the least comfortable things I had to do was sing ‘Summer Love’ from ‘Grease’ because I can’t carry a song in a sack. I’m kind of tone deaf, but I got out there and belted it out. The other was eating a spoonful of mayonnaise, which is just not a cool thing to do.”
Desert Bus is one of several gag games from Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors, an unreleased Sega CD title created by and starring the legendary magic duo of Penn Jillette and Teller.
Video screenshot by Danny Gallagher/CNET
The first Desert Bus for Hope fundraiser took place in 2007. Project manager James Turner says the group was looking for a way to raise money for Child’s Play and planned on just doing a simple, local gaming tournament where they could raise money by charging for admission. Then Loading, Ready, Run member Paul Saunders learned about Desert Bus.
“Paul was like, ‘Let’s stream this really terrible game,’ which we wanted to do something with anyway and as a sketch comedy troupe, we were trying to think of ways to put this into our videos anyway,” Turner says. “So we we put the two together and Desert Bus for Hope was born.”
Penn & Teller, the comedy magic duo starring Penn Jillette and Teller (yes, that’s his real name), created Desert Bus for their Sega CD game as a satiric slam on the political video game critics of the late ’90s, Jillette told a crowd at the San Diego Comic Con in 2010 “They should do things that are more peaceful and more like reality,” Jillette told the crowd, “because that’s what entertainment is.”
Unfortunately, Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors never made it to store shelves, and the only people who got to play it were critics and bloggers who received an early review copy in 1995 when Absolute Entertainment, the software company that originally planned to release the game, went bankrupt just before the game’s scheduled release. One of those copies found its way to the Internet.
The idea for the Desert Bus marathon happened at a time when streaming live video games or marathon gaming sessions for charity like Extra Life’s annual 24-hour marathon weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today. Twitch.tv, the live game streaming service, launched the same year.
“The early appeal is it was a deliberately terrible game and there’s a very powerful element of watching comedians suffer for charity,” Lauder says.
Each fundraiser starts with an hourly goal. The first hour starts with the meager goal of $1, and it grows by 7 percent each hour. The comedians keep going until they can’t meet the goal, and the fundraiser can last for several days. The first year brought in an impressive $22,805, and it’s only gotten bigger each year. Last year brought in over $643,000, according to the DesertBus.org website.
The fundraiser itself takes months to prepare. Preparation for Desert Bus for Hope 9 started back in March and includes wrangling sponsors, finding a venue, recruiting volunteers and lining up guests that often include Penn & Teller, who have been with the group since the beginning.
“They called within the first hour of the first year,” Turner says. “They got Paul’s parents’ phone number somehow and called them and were like, ‘Hey, we’re Penn & Teller and we want to talk to these guys.’ They’ve been a part in some way or another pretty much every year since.”
Last year, Jillette offered a gift in exchange for donations that included tickets to the pair’s Las Vegas magic show at the Rio Hotel & Casino. Jillette also offered guests the chance to visit his unique home, nicknamed The Slammer, if they traveled to Vegas by bus.
Turner says the goal of the show isn’t to watch someone drop or lose consciousness from trying to play the game in one sitting.
“The goal is to provide the best possible entertainment that we can and you just can’t do that if you haven’t slept in two days,” Turner says. “You’re just not fun. That’s not the kind of show we want to watch so that’s not the kind of show we’re going to run. Everybody has designated on-camera time. Everybody has shifts, like driver and co-pilot shifts.”
Even though they are playing perhaps the most boring video game of all time and performing at the whims of their donors, there are no hard feelings by the time they reach the final hour of each year’s fundraiser.
“It’s a welcoming atmosphere and everyone comes away from Desert Bus feeling really good and positive and affirmed,” Lauder says. “It’s just a tremendously positive experience for everyone involved.”