One of video gaming's ultimate "nasties" is returning. We spoke to its makers, Arizona studio Running With Scissors.
Even if you never playedPostal in the late '90s, if you had half an interest in video games, you were aware of it. Running With Scissors' isometric murder romp of 1997 – in which you played a gun-toting man, the "Postal Dude", who sets about slaughtering his fellow townsfolk after being evicted from his home – was targeted by US senator Joe Lieberman as being excessively violent, and he tried to have the game banned. He failed, but even as a very open-minded supporter of video games myself, I can sort of see why he tried to shut the game down entirely.
Violent video games are fine. More often than not, they're a lot of fun. What I have a small issue with is when there's no meaning or message whatsoever, to the continual killing of human enemies. The Uncharted games, likewise Tomb Raider and any number of warzone-set shooters, get away with this somewhat because of their cinema-style, PG-13 levels of not-exactly graphic violence. You know, more Hollywood than horror show. And it's violence set within the framework of something much bigger – a noble quest, a gallant retaliation, some brotherly love. The story is clear, and so too is the messaging as to why you must kill these people. The enemy forces you encounter are there to get you, to kill you, and you act in self-defence as much as you do lead a charge against their positions.
In Postal, the "dude" was in the middle of a mental breakdown and murdering indiscriminately. Sure, I've read all about the "madness plague" that's said to have infected the town, but look at the men and women you have to execute: they're not trying to take down each other, only you. Each stage ends with the player character declaring, "I regret nothing," and introducing a shotgun shell to his skull from instant-death range. At the climax of the game, he attempts to lay siege to an elementary school, soundtracked by the screams of its pupils. You don't actually kill any of them – pretty sure that would have overstepped every last line – but it's one of the most fucked-up conclusions to a video game you'll ever see.
After two sequels proper and a bunch of DLC expansions to the second game, the original Postal is now back to sort of mark its 20th anniversary – Running With Scissors presumably figured people really wanted the Redux update of the game that made their name now, and not next year. Postal Redux is available via Steam from May the 20th, with a PlayStation 4 port expected in late 2016. But why? Gaming changed a lot since 1997. The reaction to the shameless Postal homage Hatred, released in the summer of 2015, was almost universally negative. We've moved on, haven't we?
"It's the 20th anniversary next year, so remaking the game that started it all – while also giving it a new gaming mode, that makes the game actually play like it was intended, Robotron: 2084-style – was only appropriate," Running With Scissors producer Mike Jaret-Schachter tells me. "The original game had serious control issues, but always looked very good with its nice hand-painted backgrounds. Plus it has a design style not often seen: 2D hand-painted backgrounds with 3D models."
Postal is now a twin-stick shooter, then; which is an improvement, for sure. The 1997 game was notoriously an absolute pig to control. And everyone loves their old favourites redesigned into glossier playthings – save for a few Monkey Island fans, in my experience. It's also worth adding that while this is, as Mike tells me, "a level-by-level, character-for-character remake", there's one significant difference to its barely there, pray that there's not a healthy gust of wind anytime soon plot. "We've changed the ending," Mike says. "But otherwise, the tone is identical."
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Hands up: I laughed at the trailer for Redux, when "Postal Dude" takes a flamethrower to a marching band. I mean, you would, right? Given the opportunity. In all seriousness, the only thing that I think can prevent this from being just the worst train wreck of revivalist bullshit, resurrected for no other reason than to mark the anniversary of an unfortunate event, is if it's played primarily for laughs. That's what Hatred got wrong – it was so grimly bleak that it was completely boring, its shock value receding to meaninglessness eight kills deep. As I said earlier: violent video games can be fun. They should be, if the point they're making isn't titanium tipped in clarity. I appreciate that some people despise Bulletstorm because of who helped make it, but I had an absolute ball with its deliriously creative ways of dismembering foes. I'm truly not down on games for simply spilling a little blood.
"I think the Postal brand is synonymous with our fans as being extremely slapstick and hilarious," Mike says. "Although, that is more to do with the overwhelming success of Postal 2, over the years. The original Postal was never meant to become what it was."
'Postal Redux', official teaser trailer
The CEO of the Arizona studio, Vince Desi, adds: "It was the perfect storm [back in 1997]. Postal was different to anything that had come before it. I never thought of it as controversial, and it was never a conscious decision. But once Senator Lieberman denounced it, the party began."
And regarding the action that Redux will offer, Vince says: "Of course we're going to let our fans flambé away." Tiny (virtual) trumpeters, consider that a warning. "Personally, it's all about the stupid humour for me," he continues. "Watching people laugh while they play Postal has always been an elixir for me."
Mike tells me that a fourth Postal will emerge, at some point in the future; and that a proper 20th anniversary release will be coming out in 2017. He sees Redux's new Rampage mode as brining it closer in spirit to a game like Hotline Miami, which, while also criticised for its excessive violence, was undeniably an incredibly compelling experience. "The mode makes the game much more fun, and gives it a replay value that the classic campaign doesn't offer." As for Vince, all the criticism in the world from people in my position – I'm far from the most outspoken journalist on the internet when it comes to this sort of entertainment – won't stop him rewarding Postal's fans for their continued loyalty.
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"This is truly in our bloodlines. We've flirted in the past with other original concepts, and we have recently green-lighted a new, non-Postal game. But the fact remains that Postal is like the Mob: once you become a fan, you're always a fan. And as long as I keep hearing from fans, telling me how much fun they're having, we'll keep doing our best to deliver new content. And to our fans, I say: thank you, and remember to play, have fun, and leave violence where it belongs, in games and not on the streets."
I'm sure we're long past the point of readily associating real-world violence with digital displays of bloody combat, so I don't expect Redux to trigger a series of shootings across the world. But I do still have a hang-up on the need for it to exist today, with the gaming landscape so very evolved from where it was in the late '90s. If it looks like a relic, despite a new coat of paint, and moves like one too – Robotron: 2084 is a great gameplay touchstone, but it's from 1982 – then it might well be that it's something better left in the past. The ultimate proof will be in the commercial results and the fans' response, one of which is certain to be more publicised than the other.
Find more information about Postal Redux at the Running With Scissors website. The game is released on May the 20th.
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