“You can ask me anything,” says Vincent Desi, the CEO of game developer Running With Scissors. He’s speaking to me on the phone in a thick Brooklyn accent, at a rapid, aggressive clip. “I’ll either tell you I don’t want to answer it, or I’ll answer it.”
Desi, to his credit, answers every question that I ask him. The man does not lack conviction; he favors a straightforward, no-BS approach when dealing with the press, even though after decades in the business, he has every reason to be guarded and defensive. Desi and his development company are the creative force behind the controversial Postal game franchise, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year.
The first Postal game was a talking point for U.S. Congressmen who needed a bogeyman to deride all video games in the late ‘90s. The game was eventually banned from shelves in 13 countries.
This May, Running With Scissors releases Postal: Redux—a remake of that original. Controversy may well follow. But before the talking heads have at it, here’s what Vincent Desi thinks of all the hubbub surrounding his games, both past and present.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Running With Scissors headquarters is located in Tucson, Ariz., a far cry from the Brooklyn neighborhood where Desi grew up.
“Tuscon is a very weird, strange town,” Desi says, “There’s mining towns near us, there’s the Air Force base, there’s the ostrich farm. We’ve got professional white trash here. Trailer parks. I mean, we have so many good ingredients for a movie or game.”
Desi actually started out making kids’ games for entertainment companies like Hanna-Barbera and TV shows like Sesame Street. But after several years of this, Desi and his team were chomping at the bit. They wanted to make something that was their own, and they wanted it to be neither kid-friendly nor educational.
Back then, Desi had a classic Robotron arcade machine in his office. The game’s “shoot-and-kill then shoot-and-kill some more” formula was the seed for what eventually became Postal, he said. But rather than fighting aliens, zombies, or monsters, Desi wanted something grittier and truer to life.
The original Postal game, released in 1997, starred a character who, true to the game’s title, “goes postal.” You stalked your neighborhood killing armed civilians, police, and, most memorably, an entire marching band with an array of artillery. In most games, the player wears the white hat and shoots enemies who are definitively evil, but in Postal, the roles were reversed. The game didn’t order you to kill defenseless, unarmed people, but it didn’t not order you to kill them either.
Desi claims that he was not deliberately courting controversy. He was merely developing a game that he would find interesting to play. “It was not part of the plan,” he admits. “I’d like to say I was a marketing genius, and that I devised it that way. But the truth is, it all ‘just happened.’”
For some there was a shocking, “I can’t believe I just did that” thrill to playing Postal. It was vicarious fun, and it felt really good to be bad.
The response of the mainstream press, however, was overwhelmingly negative. Probably the biggest blow came from the Wall Street Journal, which made an objectively false claim on the front page of their print edition: that Postal allowed players to harm children.
“It invites players to spray protesters, mow down marching bands, and char-broil whole towns,” the Wall Street Journal wrote in 1997. “As children writhe on the ground, bleeding and screaming for mercy, the assailant must pick off police and other ‘hostile’ attackers.”
Unfortunately that isn’t true, and it never was. At the end of the game, your guns fail if you try to shoot children, and the main character is locked away in an asylum. This, according to Desi, was meant to draw a figurative line in the sand between what was acceptable violence and what was unacceptable violence in video games.
I told [the journalist] I was going to shove his phone up his ass.
“I was really excited that we created this underlying story to convey a certain morality—that kids are off limits,” Desi says. “And what does The Wall Street Journal go and do? They completely took what was not in the game, and created something on their own. And boy, did we pay hell for it.”
“I told [the journalist] I was going to shove his phone up his ass,” Desi says with a cackle.
Later, Desi got a call from the FBI. He had been reported for making potentially dangerous threats. Desi recounts all of this to me with a slightly embarrassed, but bemused tone. He’s an older man looking back at the reaction of a younger man. I get the impression that he knows he said the wrong thing, but he meant every word of it at the time. Bad press spreads quickly, however, and it doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling.
“This is sick stuff. And sadly, it sells,” lamented U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman to the press.
“All of us at the Postal Service have a sense of humor, but there is nothing funny about your game ‘Postal,’” wrote Postmaster General Marvin Runyon in a letter to Desi. “It is in very poor taste, and is an erroneous and unfair portrayal of the nation’s postal employees.”
Desi’s spat with the USPS did not end there. The Postal Service sued Running With Scissors for a trademark violation. The case wasn’t resolved until six long years later, when the lawsuit was finally dismissed, with prejudice, by the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board. On its face, the suit seemed frivolous; the word “postal” existed before the USPS, and it will continue to exist long after the internet renders the once mighty organization irrelevant.
“With unlimited financial resources comes unlimited ego,” Desi said at the time. “Postal and Postal 2 represent everything the USPS isn’t: a successful private enterprise that will never have to rely on an irrevocable government contract to keep its pockets perpetually lined with cash.“
Incidentally, that was also around the same time that Running With Scissors released Postal 2. This time around, the violence was more explicit, as was the dark humor. You could decapitate a woman with a shovel and kick her head like a soccer ball. You could pee on yourself if you were on fire, and put yourself out. You could cause a crowd of people to vomit by throwing a diseased cow’s head at them. You could shove your shotgun up a cat’s ass, and use the cat as a silencer. You could fight and kill Gary Coleman.
The original Postal was shocking, but this sequel seemed like a deliberate attempt to piss off and antagonize critics. Now every interest group on the planet had a reason to be up in arms. And, in the game’s climax, you could storm and have a massive shootout at a “Parcel” Center with its “parcel” employees. After all of the US Postal Service’s aggressive grandstanding, Desi got the last laugh.
There are several aspects of the Postal franchise that have not aged well. In Postal 2, for example, there is a sequence where a team of terrorists who look suspiciously like Osama Bin Laden scream ululations while storming a church. There was an arcade machine in the game called “Fag Hunter,” although it got patched out in later editions. I ask Desi about his use of negative cultural representations. He denies that he is a bigot, and he tells me something very reminiscent of what Donald Trump has been saying on the campaign trail—that the stuff he puts out there is an honest reflection of how Americans feel but don’t have the courage to express.
That’s an unfortunate truth that’s become uncomfortably clear: that as a nation, we have not yet figured out how to come to terms with our racial, religious, and sexual prejudices—much less actually fixed them. Political correctness and fear of confrontation have merely driven those prejudices underground, and rather than talking about them—or in Postal 2’s case, shooting at them—we pretend they don’t exist.
Desi also accepts that many people will dislike his games. It is, according to him, a necessary byproduct to freedom of expression.
“I’m OK with their opinion,” Desi says. “There are people that just don’t like games with a high degree of violent content, and I can respect that. But I hope they’re open minded enough to realize that violence is in many different mediums, not just video games. I would find it terribly hypocritical of someone who goes to the theater and loves to see a violent horror film, who also thinks that violent video games are bad.”
“I really think the video game industry has taken an unfair hit in terms of the influence it has on people’s behavior. I am not in favor of actual violence. Not at all. But I am in favor of letting people enjoying any type of entertainment they want.”
But if someone else made a deplorable game—say, about killing American soldiers—would he object to it? Desi pauses.
“I wouldn’t like it, because it’s not something I consider funny,” he says. “But my right for freedom of expression does not come at the price of denying somebody else his or her right to make something that I don’t like.”
Desi attributes his lack of polish and political correctness to his roots. The man was raised in the working neighborhood of Bed-Stuy and he’s a brash type—a ‘round the way dude who talks loud, acts loud, and curses a whole fucking lot. He’s got a big heart underneath his bravado; he trashes journalists for much of our conversation, but by the end of it, he’s inviting me to get Italian food with him the next time he’s in town.
Pop culture critics have written thousands of words and hundreds of articles about the Postal franchise. They opine about what Postal signifies about America. Does it reinforce racist stereotypes? Does it hate women? Does it harm society? Is this a cynical grab at a young, impressionable audience? Do artists bear a responsibility towards their audience?
But the comical irony in all of this hand wringing, deserved or not, is that Desi, the creator of all this controversy, has spent the least amount of time agonizing over these weighty issues himself. There’s no agenda, no Machiavellian plot to corrupt America’s youth. Desi is no mastermind; he’s just a blue collar Brooklyn guy with a crass sense of humor. Interviewing Desi is comparable to meeting a musical artist for the first time and realizing that his critics expend more emotional and intellectual energy into his song lyrics than the guy who actually wrote them. Desi doesn’t stay up nights agonizing about the weight of his ethical responsibility. A joke, to him, is just a joke. Any controversy is grist for the mill.
Furthermore, no matter what critics say, the hardcore Postal fans will still stick by Desi’s side. They’ve shown unbelievable dedication, and Running With Scissors has repaid it in kind. Last year, the company released brand new, single player content for Postal 2—12 years after the game first debuted. Desi concedes that perhaps, Running With Scissors could have developed a game that was more mainstream and potentially more lucrative. But loyalty holds a prominent place in the man’s heart, and Desi feels grateful and indebted to his fans. So when those die-hards kept asking for a Postal reboot, Desi and his team went to work.
READY TO FEAST
In honor of the Postal franchise’s 20th anniversary, Running with Scissors is releasing Postal: Redux today on Steam. It’s a remake of the first game, and Desi is self-effacing about the original’s quality.
“The controls were real shitty,” Desi says. “Another problem was the load times. And the graphics and characters? Let’s face it, they were very rough, to be polite. Now [in the new version], the animations are smoother and greatly improved. The characters have much better definition. Overall, it’s just a better playing experience.”
Postal: Redux has a new mode called “Rampage,” which grades players on their killing sprees. It has a new Carnival level, for the veteran players who want more than just a graphic overlay. And most notably, the controversial ending with the children and the asylum has been removed entirely.
“We created a new ending,” Desi says. “We didn’t want to risk someone criticizing us [again] for something that was not even in the game.”
But is that enough? The newspapers are filled with real spree killings and mass shootings, particularly in the last three years. Has the violence in Postal lost some of its absurdist humor, especially when similar crimes have happened in real life? Where’s the line? Desi believes in latitude—that creators should be allowed to push the boundaries of good taste, and be forgiven for stepping over it.
“I don’t know where to draw the line,” Desi concedes. “What’s wrong with just saying, ‘I fucked up?’”
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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