The story of games studio Running with Scissors
- 09 July, 2010 11:01
From designing educational software to becoming synonymous with hardcore video game violence, we explore the anarchic history of Running with Scissors with CEO and cofounder Vince Desi.
Vince Desi is not easily rattled. As the CEO and cofounder of Running with Scissors -- the Arizona-based studio best known for creating Postal, a game franchise United States Senator Joe Lieberman described as one of the "three worst things in American society" -- Desi's upbringing conditioned him to not dwell on what other people think. The word "bother," he explains, is not in his vocabulary.
"My personal background allows me to not suffer shock like some people," says Desi. "I'm from Brooklyn, New York and I've seen an awful lot of sh*t in real life that people play in games. I think I have a different perspective on reality than a lot of people who play games. I've seen a lot of violence in real life."
Running with Scissors CEO Vince Desi (left) with Senator Joe Lieberman (right)
But portraying real life in his work was never something the head of the twelve-year-old developer was interested in. The carnage and causticity depicted in the Postal games is, and always has been, satire.
Reluctant to blend in with what other game companies were doing in the 90s, Desi and his team were enthusiastic about being perceived as "different." Games like id's Doom were gaining tremendous popularity on the PC, and Desi and his crew desired to distance themselves from the current trend in gaming as well as their roots in developing educational games.
"We wanted to get away from the whole 'I play a soldier who's in space, saving the world,' says Desi. "They say there's only seven scripts in Hollywood. In the video game industry, there's about one and a half."
Before relocating to Tucson, Arizona and changing their name, the studio ran out of New York City as Riedel Software Productions (named after its president Michael J. Riedel), developing games based on children's television shows like Tom & Jerry, Bobby's World, and Sesame Street -- a sharp contrast with what the company is known for today.
As the studio began forming its new identity, they needed a name -- something that embodied the kind of irreverent experience they were intent on delivering. As it turned out, the name came out of something Desi's own mother used to yell at him.
"Parents today are so friggin' liberal. When I was a kid and my mother wasn't hitting me with whatever was in arm's reach -- and that included a lot of things -- she'd always tell us 'don't run with scissors.'
Desi explains that while other names for their company were considered, it was the common parental warning from the 1950s and 60s that reflected the sense of humor and spirit of their nascent company.
A mere week after announcing the newly formed Running with Scissors, the team began work on their first game. But first, they had to figure out what to call their new project, which put you in the role of a character driven over the edge who goes on a murderous rampage.
Postal III artwork featuring the Dude.
"We came up with a number of names for our game, but for one reason or another we rejected them all," says Steve Wik, founding member of RWS and the creative director and lead designer on the Postal brand. "Vince initially came up with the idea of calling it The Last Nail, which had a cool crucifixion vibe to it.
"There was a game for 3DO called P.O'ed, and I thought 'all the good names must be taken if that's what we're down to.' I figured there must be some word in the lexicon to sum up the kind of game we were making and then I heard someone say 'whoa, that guy went Postal.' I knew that was it. It summed up what the game was and the kind of experience we're going for."
In the original Postal video game, the player assumed the role of "Postal Dude," who -- like many game protagonists -- was purposefully anonymous in an attempt to create an empty vessel for the player to inhabit. Desi reveals the name actually came out of an interview where he adlibbed the moniker when asked who the main character was.
The missions in the first game unfold via an isometric view, where the Dude, after being evicted from his home and "going postal," must survive each level by gunning down a percentage of "hostiles" and eventually reach an exit. The game provides no further backstory on who Postal Dude is or why he's gone on a killing spree. The tone of the game was admittedly vicious -- but the team counterbalanced Postal's violence by injecting their morbid sense of humor into the game. For instance, one of the first missions, The Junk Yard, begins with the quote "I will don the eviscerated organs of my enemies as party hats, wear their shredded entrails as neckties and oh, how I shall dance!"
While the original Postal was light on backstory, Postal 2 developed the Postal Dude character more thoroughly. The sequel switched from a third to first-person view, which Steve Wik feels was "a license to recreate the whole thing," including what exactly motivates this character. Early in the game, you learn that he lives in a rundown trailer in Paradise Arizona with his verbally abusive wife, referred to as the "Bitch." She's never shown -- aside from her grating nagging -- but she serves as the method through which missions and objectives are presented by means of a "to do list." The game begins with him getting fired on his first day on the job at Running with Scissors.
"The core essence of what Postal's about is tapping into everyday annoyances that people can relate to and finding ways to ramp them up," says Wik.
Most of the tasks on your "to-do list" start out mundane, but rapidly escalate into full-blown disasters. For instance, the very first objective in the game is to purchase milk from a convenience store. If you choose to not pay for the milk, the cashier will pull an assault rifle out from behind the register and try to murder you.
Vince Desi on the set of Uwe Boll's Postal movie in his Krotchy costume.
Later missions are more intentionally absurd than violent, such as one later on in the game where you need to visit the mall to get Gary Coleman's autograph. The team notes that they had a close personal relationship with Coleman, who lent both his likeness and voice to Postal 2 and even traveled with Running with Scissors to trade shows to promote the game.
Mike Jaret, producer on the Postal series, admits that Coleman's recent and sudden death hit him hard. "I personally spent a lot of time with Gary and his death hit pretty close to home," he says. "We used to take him to E3 every year to walk the show floor and sign autographs. One year huge crowds of people formed around Gary to the point where we were threatened with being removed from the show and banned for life. A lot of good memories with Gary and it's a sad day that he's gone."
"Life threw Gary endless curveballs made out of lemons," adds Wik. "He was really chronically unhappy and I think he's in a better, happier place now and seven feet tall."
Cameos, ranging from the strange to the controversial, have become somewhat of a tradition for the Postal games. In addition to Gary Coleman, al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden makes an appearance in Postal 2 as an enemy. The player can also enable a cheat code by typing "Osama" into a command prompt, which transforms every non-playable character in the game into the FBI's most wanted criminal.
Bin Laden's appearance in Postal 2 resulted in countries like Australia and New Zealand banning the game. New Zealand's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), a government censorship body, banned the game entirely from the country for its treatment of militant Islamists and other groups. In a report submitted to the secretary of internal affairs, they stated that Postal 2 features "coarse political observations with its depictions of suicidal Arab terrorists engaged in warfare against 'infidel' Catholics." The OFLC's chief censor Bill Hastings issued an official document stating that "anyone who possesses the game is liable to be imprisoned for up to five years. Anyone who supplies, distributes, exhibits, displays or advertises Postal 2 could be imprisoned for up to 10 years or fined $20,000."
Postal 3, which is currently in development, includes Ecotologists -- who the team describes as a "zesty blend of PETA and Scientology." -- as well as German filmmaker Uwe Boll, who directed the 2007 movie adaptation of Postal loosely based on the events in Postal 2. The film holds a 22% review average on Metacritic, with New York Times' Peter Nathan Lee calling it "infantile, irreverent, and boorish to the max," as well as an example of "lousy filmmaking." A number of critics cited the film's opening sequence as tasteless, in which a window washer on one of the World Trade Center towers dies a comical death after colliding with a hijacked plane during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.
While it's not difficult to see why someone could have an adverse reaction to some of the content in the Postal games, the contentious subject matter is, however, always presented in a tongue-in-cheek fashion. Still, the games are often reviled by critics, politicians, activists, and the Federal Government as a ferocious form of entertainment.
One particularly vehement Postal 2 review by Robert Coffey in the July 2003 issue of Computer Gaming World awarded the game the magazine's first ever "zero," stating that "Until someone boxes up syphilis and tries to sell it at retail, Postal 2 is the worst product ever foisted upon its consumers." Portions of Coffey's review were later reprinted on the box art of the Postal Fudge Pack, which includes both Postal and Postal 2 along with the various expansions packs available for each.
"After the first Postal game released, we had phone calls from F.B.I. agents and even the United States Treasury Department," says Desi. "Legal notices from the U.S. Post Office and the Federal Government also showed up at our doorstep. Then Senator Joe Lieberman blasted us with this list of things in our culture that he deemed 'bad.'"
Vince Desi with the late Gary Coleman, who supplied both his voice and likeness for a character featured in Postal 2.
In a statement made before the Governmental Affairs Committee on November 6, 1997, Senator Joseph Lieberman discussed "our broken culture and the risk it presents to our children and our country." Lieberman identified Postal -- along with other things in American culture that celebrate "the murder of police, gang rape, and sexual perversity" -- as something that "extert[s] an extremely powerful hold on our culture and our children in particular, [that exhibits] little sense of responsibility for the harmful values [it's] purveying."
Legal threats and angry phone calls aren't the only things Running with Scissors' staff has had to deal with at their office in Tucson. Desi says that out of the thousands of pieces of mail they get, there's one package he'll never forget.
One morning a box arrived at their office. At first, Desi thought nothing of the package. But Steve Wik warned his boss that perhaps they should take some precautions before opening the suspicious-looking package.
"After Steve warned me, I thought 'let me see if there's someone around the office that I want to fire and maybe I can get them to open the box," jokes Desi.
After cutting through the packaging tape and folding back its cardboard flaps, he got a surprise: An official postal worker's hat rigged onto a spring mechanism leapt out of the open package, startling Desi. A bullet hole, surrounded by fake blood splatters, perforated the hat.
At the time, he couldn't believe that someone would go to the trouble of constructing what he now calls "a pseudo bomb-like device." "I thought, 'okay, this is obviously one pissed off Postal worker," says Desi. "After that, I let the secretary open up everything."
With Lieberman leading the smear campaign against Postal and Running with Scissors, and interesting things coming in the mail, the negative attention quickly snowballed.
Caricatures of the Running with Scissors staff, filmmaker Uwe Boll, and characters from the Postal series.
"The heat became so heavy in Washington D.C. that Panasonic's Ripcord Games (Postal's publisher) pulled the plug despite the fact that the game sold well," says Desi. "This started the whole blacklisting of Postal. We didn't have the support the original Grand Theft Auto got when it first came out."
Desi insists that Postal was singled out and suggests that other equally violent video games are not held to the same standards. "Look at the Grand Theft Auto series. For what it's worth, you have to do a lot of killing to progress," says Desi. "We never really took that approach. Unfortunately, we've been the scapegoat for the industry that's easy to pigeonhole as being the most extreme, violent game out there."
He points out that there's one big difference between the carnage in Postal and what you'll find in other games. "The laughter is what separates us from any video games that involve strong levels of violence," says Desi. "The bottom line is: there aren't many games that portray violence in a humorous manner."
"In our games, the violence is so over-the-top, you'd have to be a moron to think that it was somehow being represented in even a pseudo-dramatic fashion."
When asked why he believes the Postal games tend to receive harsher criticism than other franchises, Desi claims a lot of it has to do with money.
"I have my opinions about why we were attacked by mainstream media and GTA wasn't to the same degree. For one, we didn't have the deep pockets of GT Interactive, who was the publisher of the series before it became Take 2. A lot of paying off goes along the way."
While Desi understands why Postal's humor and subject matter may not be for everyone, he reminds us that his games are an escape from real life and shouldn't be taken seriously.
"If there was one thing I wish would've happened differently over the entire Running with Scissors and Postal history," admits Desi "is that it's taken a really long time -- and is still in the process of -- for people to realize that Postal is about fantasy violence and what we call 'mature humor."
"We never intended it to be a serial, dramatic game."
While Vince Desi and his team have plenty of detractors, not everyone is quick to pick up pitch forks and torches at the mere mention of the name Postal. Desi points out that the games have a loyal, hardcore following of fans scattered across the globe. Publications like Maxim praised Postal 2 for its profane, but amusing gameplay with reviewer Scott Steinberg giving it 4 out of 5 stars, urging readers to "enjoy it for all the wrong reasons." PC gamer also gave Postal 2 a positive review in the June 2003 issue of the magazine. The reviewer scored it a 79 (out of 100) and admitted "[E]ven though I should be disgusted by the potty humor and derogatory caricatures, I had a blast playing through it."
Desi's even received praise from a psychiatrist who prescribed Postal to some of his patients as a cathartic form of treatment. "I'll never forget the Christmas when the original Postal came out," says Desi. "An older psychiatrist contacted me because he was purchasing multiple copies of Postal. He was wondering if he could get a discount since he was getting a dozen copies. The psychiatrist thought it would help them release their inner emotions -- but at the same time -- be able to laugh about it."
When it comes to Postal, Desi ultimately doesn't care whether people embrace its irreverent nature or avoid it like the plague as much as he cares about people who make up blatant lies about his games.
While nothing is sacred when it comes to Postal's biting humor, there's an internal rule at Running with Scissors that they never involve children. Desi explains that their games, after all, are clearly for mature audiences.
"The Wall Street Journal put us on the front cover after the first Postal released," says Desi. "I was so pissed off because the friggin moron journalist wrote this whole chunk about killing children in the game.
"I got the author on the phone," continues Desi, "and he admitted that he not only didn't know whether or not that was in the game -- he never even played the game in the first place. He didn't even have a f****** copy of the game.
Desi notes that lazy writers aren't always to blame. Sometimes, it's the person the writer reports to who perpetuates the bad reputation swirling around anything Postal-related. "Journalists yield a lot of power," states Desi. "I'll give you an example of something that happened after Postal 2 came out. A review site was going to give it an 8.5. A day later we got a call from the reviewer who said 'Look, I'm really sorry but my editor won't allow me to give you a rating more than a 2... do you want me to scratch the whole story?' I told him 'No, go ahead and run it.'"
"I've always told that story because not only was the truth not being told, but with anything in life, it's not the act itself that matters as much as the result of that act. When editors, especially gaming press, elect to arbitrarily position us in a certain way, or not take us seriously, or not give us the credit we deserve, what they're really doing is not doing justice to the video game industry and video game fans."
Discussing journalism practices, Desi makes the comparison to a fireman who races to put out a raging inferno, only to extinguish the fire in one room. "Too often the game review becomes a kind of platform for the writer to show the moral fiber they have or to make a political stance," says Desi.
Postal producer Mike Jaret notes that this wasn't the first time they've been treated unfairly by gaming media. "IGN was one of the first websites to post a review of Postal 2,"says Jaret. "Their review went up two hours after their package was delivered. You can read the review yourself -- it was very obvious the guy (Ivan Sulic) didn't even play it. The reviewer played the game and wrote the entire story in two hours."
"I'm not saying you should like every game," continues Jaret. "There're a lot of terrible games out there. But if you're going to hate something right out of the box, you shouldn't be reviewing games. A lot of work goes into games and everybody should be given their fair trial."
Former IGN writer and now head of PR at Cryptic Studios, Ivan Sulic, remembers reviewing Postal 2 a bit differently. "Though it was seven years ago, I distinctly recall playing Postal 2 review code for two days and logging in somewhere around 20 or 30 hours," says Sulic. "Despite the tone of my review, I'd never shortchange a title out of laziness. I took every game -- good and bad -- quite seriously. I played them all and I played them thoroughly... which is probably why I quit and joined development. There's only so much Trigger Man a sane fellow can take, you know? Incidentally, a 5.5 on IGN is described as 'Mediocre', a rating I believed was appropriate."
In spite of all the negative attention that tends to swarm around anything with "Postal" affixed to it, Vince Desi reaffirms that it doesn't bother him that some people just don't get his games. His views for what a video game should do first and foremost -- to entertain -- remains undiluted by the people who bash his work.
"It's always funny when I hear developers talking about 'the science of game design,'" says Desi. "This is a business like any other business, but I wish more people would realize that our business is, first and foremost, supposed to be delivering a product that makes people have fun."
"To me, that's the hardest part about game design. Anybody can make a football game or a baseball game. Let's face it: too many games are merely an enhancement of the previous generation and that's all they are. There's very little that's original and I find that horribly boring. I admire all the different kinds of creative direction in games, however, to me a video game in the classic sense is something that's easy to play, fast-paced, and always fun. Games should never be like a biblical study in seminary school, which some games are."
While adamant about how Running with Scissors' primary concern has always been about delivering a good time, Desi acknowledges that the Postal games are anything but perfect.
"Do we have the best graphics on Earth? Absolutely not. Do we have the best music? Absolutely not. We never claimed we were a triple-A franchise. We just make fun games."