The BackgroundEdit

"11 14 1997" - Haunted Gaming THEORYPASTAS11:50

"11 14 1997" - Haunted Gaming THEORYPASTAS

Those of you who lived at least some years back probably remember Postal 2. With tacky advertising that promoted and coaxed the sort of mild controversy that can get you banned in Australia and possibly New Zealand, and enough 'edge' to attract the die-hard support of those in the gaming and arts communities who talk about games instead of actually playing them, it was a pretty mediocre first-person shooter that did everything Grand Theft Auto tries to do - only worse. That in and of itself is hardly a crime, and hardly memorable - and the less said about Postal 3 or the film, the better.

So why are we talking about it? Most people seem to blissfully recall the games as having stemmed, fully-formed, from Postal 2; much like Troll 2, no Postal One ever existed. But before it was a design to sell manufactured rebellion and peddle dubious hot topic merchandise, there was in fact a Postal precursor, and to my interest I've run into few people who've actually played it, and fewer still who remember anything about it - positive, or negative.

But I played Postal.

The GameEdit

Unlike every other Postal game out there, the first is an isometric shooter. Similar to Duke's rocky start as a boyscout of a 2D platform-shooter hybrid, this is typical of games produced in the early to late nineties. I am reminded of a similarly bizarre point n' adventure called DreamWEB; both attempted to blur the line between what a game is, and what the audience expects a game to be. But perhaps I should start with a disclaimer.

Postal the first is not a good game.

More so than the 3rd, or even the 2nd. It is a very bad game. Everything is simple and repetitive. Even on the highest difficulty - "cleverly" labeled masochistic - you have infinite ammo for your primary weapon, and the enemy AI is questionable. Coupled with your character, the eponymous Postal Dude, having infinite lives, and every level becomes a slogfest that you know you can win so long as you play optimally. Find new ground. Entrench. Kill anyone who comes close. Repeat.

New weapons allow for broader tactical choice, but there is nothing like the thrill of games like Doom or Quake (or my personal favorite, Hexen) and no hint of the tactical strategy in a game such as X-COM or Syndicate; the closest analogue I can think of. It's clear that the developer, Running with Scissors, wasn't sure what genre to aim for, and incorporated all the 'cool' stuff from each one they liked in the hope it would sell.

Similarly, the game has hints of what would become the self-mockery of the later games. The Postal Dude will occasionally quip in with a topical taunt such as 'Toasty' for when an enemy is on fire, 'Postal' when scoring a critical hit, or 'OJ' at random intervals. Not 'Smooth... Like OJ!' or 'I got away with it... Like OJ (Could have) {If he did it...}' just... OJ. Assuming the audience would just make the assumption and roll with it, I guess.

But the lines are delivered haltingly. Bad voice acting and lines warning us that 'we gonn' getchu!' are combined with shrieks that our bullets have struck a leg, or an eye. The opening screen is a screaming mouth overlaid across a blurry figure standing in a field of skulls - I chose to upload one of the tamer images from one of the level cut-ins, to give you an idea of the disjointed art style.


The level cut-ins were what drew me to the game. When I first played it, or rather watched it over the shoulder of another, they seemed strangely beautiful, as did the lovingly rendered backgrounds. Though I never lived in Arizona, they felt like they could be any small town in most places; and each cut-in came with a bit of raving text. Some were poorly written and cliche. Others, well...

"The earth is hungry. Its heart throbs and demands cleansing. The earth is also thirsty..."

"Feast upon the frozen images of molten massacre as the machineries of death grind relentlessly, mindlessly on..."

For all the attention the later game received for being senseless and sensationalist, the first game genuinely delivers a feeling of uncomfortable dread and discomfort, at times. There is no music in most stages, just ambient noise that could barely count, even as drone trance. Occasionally, a particular sound will grow uncomfortably drowning out the rest - then fade once more into the background. This combines with the moments of ridiculous cheese and lack of planning to feel somehow more uncomfortable.

But mute the sound and just focus on the gameplay, and it's pretty subpar. Even for the time, the game is hardly more gory then something rated T, and it's only the presence of the surreal cut-ins that somewhat challenges that. It's ridiculous any attention or hype was created by the game at all; and yet that's precisely what happened - one that this time, tried to prove it's 'cred' by pointing out that this time, you never had to kill a single person.

That was true in the first game as well, though.

You never had to kill unarmed civilians. They just got in your way, and sometimes were excellent meat shields. One memorable stage has a full marching band that plays the Stars and Stripes forever as it strolls by. Both you and your opponent’s gun through them and the attending civilians without any care for casualties. Cries of 'You can stop shooting, jerk, I'm already dead!' mixed with the frantic sobbing of the wounded, fade, and then stop; I pressed Q to kill myself. The button is constantly there, should I have a bad start and want to try again.

Not so much for the other unlucky souls.

Why was so much effort put into this game if it was designed purely to drive up fear and anger, and thus generate corresponding 'buzz'? Why were there so many genuinely dark themes left in - like the ending, which has the protagonist (having killed everything else alive) open fire on an elementary school, only to find that none of his bullets do any harm and collapse in a stunned, resigned stupor?

My belief is that Running with Scissors was conflicted. They wanted to genuinely discuss the dehumanization and ritualization of violence in our culture, our authority, and every aspect of our lives - and they also wanted a quick buck, and knew just what sort of interested fear they could create with a game like this. The latter turned out to be profitable, so any claim that advocates of the series have are somewhat hypocritcal; the games surely do profit off of violence, mob mentality, and fear even as they poke fun at those who wring their arms and flail at the mere mention of such things.

But more than anything else, Postal was a product of its time. Fears about the future, about job security and increasing inability to rely on education or status, to help your family, or even just to survive, were everywhere. The narrative of the game laid forth stage cut-ins as journal entries, dates of times or massacres. Though they served as a retrospective for Postal Dude's rampage, I feel they serve better to mark as a sign of the game's age.

While Postal was the product of a then unknown and untested studio, however, we are now fed stories of such massacres daily by the same outlets that decry them - and those same outlets profit quite nicely from scaremongering the latest mass-produced killfests. Postal was never about decrying or promoting violence, making a point, or even a game. But in some way, it forsaw or perhaps even shaped the future.

One where creative sterility overcomes innovation, and where the sources that tell us most often to be cool and rebel are designed, tested, and marketed to us by the very same organizations we are told to rebel against. Any deeper look at what exactly disturbs us is replaced by talking testicles and firing guns through cats - the sort of safe rebellion that can be discussed over beers and laughing conversation, muted and yet uproarious.

The ConclusionEdit

I'm fascinated by the stories between stories. The little things that developers and writers and artists say that say more then they meant to. As those who keep up with my writings have noticed, it's probably a theme of mine. Postal is, to me at least, the perfect example of this - simultaneously far less offensive than it was claimed to be, and yet the worst - and most interesting parts - hid in plain sight.

There are several people in the credits who had no later involvement with the franchise, one only wishing to be known as the Pain Killer (sic). What, exactly, they added - and why they made no contribution to the later, and more successful games, will have to remain a mystery.

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