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Robot Vacuum and Desert Bus: Patience as a video-game virtue

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Robot Vacuum Simulator 2013: It is what it is.

I am a Roomba

While giving some TLC to my West Van architecture piece, I was forced by the cruel gods of the æther to endure slower-than-normal pageload times. To maintain sanity, I downloaded a video game which I could play on my secondary screen as I waited.

The game? This may sound weird, but it was called Robot Vacuum Simulator 2013. Via the directional arrow keys, I took command of a Roomba-like robot vacuum cleaner, moseying across a domestic floorscape in search of detritus to suck up. Imagine a far slower, much flatter, and way less exciting version of Katamari Damacy.

The music for Robot Vacuum Simulator is nothing short of amazing. Were it not for the Type-A urge to hoover up every last bit of retro-rendered dust, I’d have just let the robot vacuum sit against a wall as I grooved to the smooth jazz stylings of the game itself.

So, yes, I sat and played a game about being a vacuum cleaner. Besides forcing me to remain patient, Robot Vacuum Simulator 2013 made me consider the notion of agency in a game. While a real robot vacuum may haphazardly crawl your floor, bumping off of walls and avoiding stairwells only with the assistance of tiny transmitter towers, I as the robo-vacuum am free to retrace my steps, write my name invisibly across the floor, pretty much do as I pleased (within the confines of being a robo-suction-Frisbee). I was the ghost in the machine.

Get on the bus

I told a friend about this game, and he in turn told me about Penn and Teller’s Desert Bus, an unreleased video game for Sega CD (that Genesis add-on) which has since made its way online. Desert Bus requires the player to drive a virtual bus across a virtual desert from Tuscon to Las Vegas… in real time.

The game takes eight hours to complete. The road is perfectly straight, but the bus veers to the right unless its course is corrected, so it requires the player’s constant attention.

If you crash the bus, you are towed back to Tuscon, again in real time, and you must start over (or quit the game in a huff). Apparently people get together in groups, get drunk, and play Desert Bus.

You can even find ported versions of Desert Bus for your Android or iOS device, so you can play Desert Bus while riding in a real bus.

Desert Bus was a political statement, actually: Penn and Teller were responding to the moral panic surrounding violent video games in the mid-Nineties. As Penn Gillette told the New Yorker, "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.”

Fans of the game (if that term is even applicable) have transformed Desert Bus from satirical statement to charity tool. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised for Child's Play, a charity that brings gaming to kids stuck in hospital.

Macabre and compelling

As I write this, I'm reminded of yet another slow video game, called The Graveyard.

I encountered The Graveyard at an independent games exhibition at the ACMI in Melbourne. The player controls an elderly woman as she slowly makes her way through a huge cemetery, coming to rest on a bench. A song starts playing; when it finishes, you help the woman stand up and leave.

In the free trial version, you can always lead the woman to the bench and back. In the full version, there's a probability during each session that the woman will die of natural causes: nothing you can avoid through quick reflexes or repeated play.

It's morbid, sure, yet once I started playing, I couldn't bring myself to stop until I had guided the woman safely to her bench, and then safely back out of the graveyard. The whole thing takes ten minutes. The texture and mood in The Graveyard are astounding.

Slow down, recharge

While I like Grand Theft Auto and Splinter Cell as much as the next guy/gal, there's something to be said for stopping and smelling the roses now and then. In fact, there's a game called Stop and Smell the Roses, though it's not as on-the-nose as you might expect.

A game is only pointless if you get nothing out of it.

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