Man Over Bored

Travis Diehl on Oliver Payne’s Desert Bus at 356 S. Mission Rd.

Oliver Payne playing Desert Bus. (All photos: Travis Diehl)

IF WE CRASH BEFORE NOON, Payne had said, that’s it, we’re done, but there it was: 1:10 PM, piles of bananas, beers, and sodas left, and a screen as glossy black as a Sega Genesis. A quarter through the eight-hour slog from Tucson to Las Vegas, and with half an hour until lunch in Phoenix, someone in the kitchen tripped a breaker. Without a word, Payne dropped the controller, stood up, cracked a beer, went outside to smoke. Tucson’s KLPX kept singing, though—“In My House of Pain” by Faster Pussycat—and somehow from the room’s murky shock a consensus emerged: Let’s go for it. Let’s start again. We have to. Yes, “we”—just a small crowd careening in a pixelated bus down the sixteen-bit blacktop, passengers on Desert Bus, which is by most assessments (and by design) the world’s most boring video game. Just us, artist Oliver Payne, the crew at art space 356 S. Mission Rd., and a Saturday to burn. No curves, no traffic, no scenery. No stopping. We felt like die-hards.

Desert Bus—a bone-dry satirical simulation developed for an era when violent video games were blamed for violence on the floor of Congress—is one of several minigames collected on Penn and Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors for Sega CD. The disc failed to find distribution before its ill-fated console plowed into the proverbial runaway-truck ramp—but a handful of press copies had circulated, one of which later surfaced online as a ROM. Since the mid-2000s, the game has found a cult following with connoisseurs of the rare and/or absurd, and seekers of the boring. An annual charity “drive” to provide hospitalized kids with video games has logged some thousand hours on that long straight route (the New Yorker featured it online last year); and the game was recently ported to iOS and Android. Yes, friends, we just might be living through a Desert Bus renaissance.

Left: Oliver Payne playing Desert Bus. Right: Snacks at 356 S. Mission Rd.

The bus’s odometer starts at 00109. It’s 360 virtual miles to Vegas. The vehicle’s top speed is 45 mph. Flanking the main Bus screen at Mission Rd. were projections of Google Street View and Maps more or less kept synched to our imaginary position. A PA piped in online radio streams from Tucson, Prescott, Phoenix, as appropriate. The current DJ was doing her best, dolling out “six-packs of spandex rock.” But man, after the outage, those second first ninety miles ticked by with grim determination. Time to settle in, do a word search, work on the day’s drunk or high, and meet your fellow passengers.

Bill Cody was there at the start; he’s a documentary filmmaker, writer, and fan of art, whose recent projects include covering the Black Lips on their Middle East tour. He’s also one of the few, if not the only, people to have made the Tucson-Las Vegas trek IRL. Later on we picked up Jay Zevin, an actual cognitive neuroscientist, who once blogged about Desert Bus in the context of, yes, boring games. Friends and family wandered in and out; local artists dropped by out of perverse curiosity, or for the snacks. Regaining our rhythm, once more making forward progress, the crowd held steady at a good dozen folks, complete with skaters, small dogs, and a bored kid crawling over the seats.

Time, for its part, never slowed. Payne swapped out with other drivers; he was basically taking volunteers. But don’t be a hero. If you hit the shoulder, you crash. If you slow down too much, you stall, then crash. Pressing START only honks the horn. The loll and juke of the horizon... the twirling Tiny-Tree air freshener... the tumbleweeds blipping by on the deadly brown highway shoulders... Just keep tweaking the wheel left against that random rightward drift... “If I were really driving, I’d be checking my texts,” said Payne. Said another passenger, “Somehow here the stakes are higher.”

Left: Artist John Seal. Right: Artists Ally Sachs and Nick Kramer with artist and dealer Ian James.

Do you get bored, Oliver? I slouched into the passenger seat.

“Not really, no.”

Maybe it’s true what they say: Only small minds get bored.

“It’s a luxury. These moments when you’re drawing a bath or putting a kettle on. So better get a big bathtub and a weak kettle.”

I overheard another passenger relaying some info from friends in New York. “Yeah, big contingent out there for Frieze right now. They say they can’t wait to get back to LA.”

And with that, Payne at the wheel, we made Las Vegas. Never mind that it looked a hell of a lot like Tucson. Cheers erupted, then applause. The screen changed: The game score now read: 00000001. But that’s more than enough, infinitely and irrationally more than the 00000000 we started with. Party trays of soy meats emerged, an image of the Paris Las Vegas Casino and Hotel flashed on the wall, and the party began. But I could barely touch my victory margarita. Traveling is so tiring, and how far we’d all come, without going anywhere, making no progress at all. I drove home exhausted, smelling like fried food and craving a shower, and slept for eight dreamless hours.

Oliver Payne wins Desert Bus.