Shoot To Thrill

Better find cover -- the Postal Dude is coming back.

"I was extemely offended to learn of the computer game "Postal," where players can use the main character to shoot, maim, and incinerate innocent bystanders and law officers. ... Murder is not fun nor humorous--murder is serious and should be treated as such." -- One of hundreds of form letters sent to Running with Scissors headquarters

"... the new kid on the carnage block, Postal, sets the gold standard: You come home to find your house repossessed and go ... well, postal: drilling cops, bystanders, and an entire marching band with hot lead. There's no music, only the sounds of screams and moans." -- Computerlife magazine, Feb. '98

"It's always funny until someone gets hurt ... and then it's absolutely friggin' hysterical!" -- Running with Scissors motto

You'd hardly expect that behind the beige walls of the unassuming office complex at River and Campbell lies the headquarters of a company credited with creating one of the most gruesome video games ever.

And even after you enter through the nondescript brown doors and follow the sign for deliveries and mental defectives into Vince Desi's office, you still might not realize you've entered a den of digital depravity as you browse the shelves lined with games featuring the cast of the Muppets and Sesame Street and a collection of tiny figurines: Bugs Bunny, Big Bird, Hulk Hogan, Tom and Jerry.

But then you see the other game packages on the shelf, with lurid photos of strange gunmen and Chinese writing. You notice the blood-red posters on the wall. You spy a bullet-ridden, yellow caution sign displaying a stick figure running with a pair of scissors. And it all sinks in: Here, just around the corner from the Desert Foothills Station of the U.S. Post Office, is the headquarters of Running with Scissors, creator of Postal, a shoot-'em-up video game that's been called everything from "irredeemably violent" to "anti-social, psychotic and completely irresistible."

Condemned even before its 1997 debut, Postal puts you in command of a heavily armed madman who's free to gun down bystanders, slaughter cops and set a marching band on fire. One version of the game even allows you to kill Santa.

Desi and his cohorts, the proud parents of Postal, are now preparing for the delivery of Postal 2, an update that features upgraded state-of-the-art animation and even more mayhem.

In the last five years, Desi has been denounced by politicians. He's been entangled in a protracted legal fight with the post office. He's seen his game banned in at least four countries. He's even found himself on a firing range with former Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, who has a guest-starring role in the upcoming new version.

"Since we first came out, it's been a hell of a ride," Desi says.

"The stereotype of the violent postal employee, perpetuated by software such as yours, does a grave disservice to the more than 750,000 men and women who work hard every day to deliver excellence to their fellow citizens." -- Former Postmaster General Marvin Runyon

VINCENT James DESIDERIO JR.'S Brooklyn roots show every time he opens his mouth. With his still-thick New Yawk accent, the 49-year-old Desi sounds like he'd fit in just fine on Tony Soprano's crew.

His father had a lifelong career with Con Edison, while his mother "sewed buttons on jackets."

"It's a complete, classic Italian background," Desi says. "When I was a kid, we didn't know blue collar, white collar--we were just working class. There was the working class and there was the upper class."

After an aborted high-school teaching career--he lasted all of one semester--Desi moved on to a variety of jobs: driving a cab, running a recording studio, throwing parties at New York clubs. It was during a stint as a headhunter on Wall Street that he acquired his shortened name. "My boss said to me, look, this Desiderio thing, it ain't gonna work. How about we call you Desi?"

While scouting for workers in the computer field, Desi got involved with Atari, the company that first brought game consoles into homes in the late 1970s. He struck up a friendship with one of his recruits, Mike Riedel, who had recently dropped out of the Rochester Institute of Technology. When Atari ran into financial problems, Desi helped Riedel launch a company, Riedel Software Productions, to create computer games for licensed properties. Riedel handled the creative end of RSP, overseeing programming, artwork and game design, while Desi handled business matters. (Not only does Desi not know much about programming, he doesn't even play video games.)

The first gig was designing a Spy vs. Spy game for Mad magazine in 1985. That success led to a steady stream of work designing children's games for Sesame Street, Hanna-Barbera, Walt Disney, Warner Bros. and the World Wrestling Federation, among others. The work won awards and high praise from satisfied clients. "RSP has always provided the highest quality work on schedule and on budget," wrote Gloria Revelle of the Children's Television Workshop, producer of Sesame Street. "Their work has been technically innovative and they are dedicated to getting it right."

RSP's success aside, Desi says he was ready to relocate by the early '90s. "I had been separated, the market crashed in '87, the whole industry was going through changes and I was 39," he remembers. "I was just, I'm done. I really was tired of walking around carrying a gun. It was a crazy world."

So, following the example of his boyhood hero Roy Rogers, he decided to Go West. After he and Riedel surveyed a handful of cities--Phoenix, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Seattle--they settled on Tucson. "I like Tucson," Desi says. "It has the palm trees without the attitude of L.A. or Phoenix. I had no desire to live in Scottsdale."

The company received a warm welcome from city officials and the Greater Tucson Economic Council. Desi recalls a function at the TCC honoring the companies that had relocated to Tucson in 1992. The first name to be flashed on the screen was Hughes Electronics; the next was RSP.

"I thought, this is small fucking town," Desi laughs. "The truth is, when we relocated here, there was four of us--me, my partner, and two other guys--and the night before we flew here, we had a pizza thing and said we'll all see each other at JFK, and one guy didn't even show and the other guy quit two weeks later and went back to New York. So we were like the No. 2 company that relocated to Tucson with two employees."

For the first few years in Tucson, the company continued developing games for licensed properties, but Desi says the margin was always tight and the work was getting boring. So they formed a separate company, Running with Scissors, to make a game designed for adults.

"By 1997, everybody was sick of kids games," Desi says. "The idea was go out and make the most outrageous video game we could and a game we would like to play ourselves. Everybody was bored with a lot of the games that were out there, zombies and the rest of the crap. So the idea was, let's make a game about a guy who basically goes postal and have it be really fun and fast, action-paced."

He certainly got the outrageous part right. Months before the game was released, after the company had applied for a copyright on the word "Postal" in the arena of electronic gaming, Desi got a stern letter from Postmaster General Marvin Runyan--a letter that now hangs in a frame in Desi's office next to a photo of him with former Tucson Mayor George Miller and a thank-you note from the national organization Parents' Choice for his work on a Sesame Street game.

"All of us at the Postal Service have a sense of humor, but there is nothing funny about your game 'Postal,'" wrote Runyan. "It is in very poor taste, and is an erroneous and unfair portrayal of the nation's postal employees.

"I believe you owe the men and women of the Postal Service an apology, and hope you will have enough common sense to discontinue the 'Postal Game,'" Runyan added.

Days later, Desi got a letter from the federal agency's high-powered law firm, which eventually filed suit to block Running with Scissors from acquiring their copyright. "At one point, they had a counterclaim where they said the post office might go into video games," Desi says. "That's how absurd it got."

More than five years later, Running with Scissors is still locked in a legal battle with the Post Office, although a settlement may be within sight. "It's a shame when you think about the time and money that's been wasted, but hey, we've got a whole new Homeland Security department," says Desi. "I can just imagine the money that's going to be wasted on that."

"...there remains a small but significant element within the industry that insists on churning out ever-more graphic, gruesome and grotesque products. Let there be no doubt: These games are not harmless fun, as some suggest, but digital poison." -- Sen. Joseph Lieberman

THE POSTAL SERVICE was just the first critic of the game, which broke new ground in the video game industry. "Postal went beyond what anybody else ever did," Desi says. "It was the first game that allowed you to commit suicide, first game that allowed you to take on the persona of a crazy person in a real world rather than being some kind of soldier fighting off zombies from some faraway planet."

So naturally, Postal has become the game everyone cites when talking about violent video games--a topic that flares whenever a kid opens fire on his classmates.

Desi doesn't hesitate to defend the game as adult entertainment that satirizes today's politically correct culture. "We've always made a major effort to distinguish the property as a game for a mature audience," he says, pointing to Postal's Mature rating. "We're not saying this is for kids."

The video game industry's rating system, overseen by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, has five categories ranging from Early Childhood to Adults Only.

"Of the games that were sold last year, only about 7 percent were rated M for Mature," says Carolyn Rauch, spokeswoman for the Interactive Software Developers Association, a trade organization that established the ratings board in 1994. "These games get a lot of attention, but they're not the overwhelming portion of the games that sell."

Rauch points to statistics that show the average player of a video game is 28 years old. "A lot of people who grew up with games are now becoming adults and taking their interest with them into adulthood, so you need to have a wide range of games that appeal to wide range of audiences in the same way as you have movies that are rated R and books that are written by Stephen King," Rauch says. "You have a wide range of content and not all of it is for kids. We give people the information they need so they can make appropriate choices for their kids."

Although he occasionally gripes about media coverage, Desi seems to take delight in every mention of the game. He gleefully flips through a thick stack of magazines, rattling off the names: "There's Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, U.S. News and World Report. Here's one of my favorites; I love this one: Reader's Digest." A bright yellow circle on the cover announces: "Parent Alert: Violent Video Games."

Desi hasn't been shy about jumping on the airwaves to defend--and promote--the game. He complains that critics who are rarely familiar with Postal's details see it as a convenient scapegoat. He's downright contemptuous of U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who condemned Postal upon its 1997 release. "Lieberman is the self appointed pope for American culture," Desi says. "That year, he said the three worst things in America were Marilyn Manson, Calvin Klein underwear ads and Postal."

When Lieberman visited Tucson earlier this year, Desi couldn't resist dressing in a Postal T-shirt and heading down to the union hall for the Democratic Party event.

"What a dead meeting that was," Desi says. "Some guy gets up, I forget his name, and there was 20 minutes' worth of introductions. Almost everyone in the audience is some sort of political person who wanted to stand up and be acknowledged. And at the end, he said, 'Is there anybody I missed?' and two people actually stood and said they baked cookies for the Democratic Boy Scouts or something."

Desi tracked down Lieberman to shake his hand and pose for a photo next to him. He's enthusiastic about the possibilities of using it for a future publicity shot. "He's ignorant," says Desi. "He's a robot. He couldn't bake bread."

"Sure, senseless violence is fun. But it's even more fun when it's directed at marching bands." -- Computer & Net Player magazine

DESPITE THE CONTROVERSY (or perhaps thanks to it), Postal has paid off for Running with Scissors. Desi says the game has sold somewhere around a quarter-million copies worldwide, the platinum mark for a video game. (You hit silver at 50,000 and gold at 100K.) He estimates the company invested less than a million dollars in the game, which has grossed roughly $5 million.

In the overall electronic game market, that's microchips. Bolstered by new consoles like Microsoft's Xbox and Sony Playstation 2, sales of video games rose to more than 225 million units in 2001, hitting $6.35 billion, according to figures from the Interactive Digital Software Association. Throw in the sales of hardware such as game consoles and the total reaches $9.4 billion, which exceeds last year's film box-office total.

Running with Scissors has succeeded in carving out an unusual niche within that market. Most small software companies work on licensed products, like the games RSP still occasionally tackles. But very few independent companies manage to create games that get as much attention as Postal, say industry insiders.

The company's dozen or so programmers and artists are now pounding out code seven days a week to stitch together Postal 2, scheduled for a February release. (A Christmas deadline has already come and gone.) Desi boasts that he already has distribution deals for North America, Russia, Japan and Europe--or at least those countries that don't ban the game. "We're anticipating trouble in Germany," says Desi.

The new game promises to take the mayhem to a whole new level. "The original one, you just went around blasting," says Desi. "In Postal 2, there's much more of an adventure element. In addition to the action shoot-'em-up, we have an adventure element, where you can go around an explore and find things. You can play the whole game and never kill anybody.

But, he adds after a moment's reflection, "that'll never happen."

Critics of the earlier version will have a lot more to cluck about. The new game, which features far more sophisticated 3D animation, is a first-person shoot-'em-up, while the previous version featured a more primitive third-person point-of-view. It's a working week in the life of the Postal Dude as he runs errands through Paradise, Arizona--because, as Desi puts it, "after all, if you're a psycho, what better place to live than Paradise?"

On the first morning alone, you start the day in your trailer with a tongue-lashing from the wife. You try to head to your new job at Running with Scissors, only to discover the car doesn't start. You walk to work, pushing past protesters outside, only to have Desi himself flip you off as he announces you've been fired after one day on the job. (The Running with Scissors staff all make cameos in the game.)

Before you leave the building, you have to pick up your paycheck and deal with gun-toting anti-violence protesters who storm the building. And that's just the beginning: In Postal 2, you can not only set fire to a marching band and an elephant; you can open fire on a gay pride parade, a minority parade or a police parade. If you're shot or otherwise running low on energy, you can suck on a "health pipe" that causes your health level to soar. If you're arrested, you get out of jail by setting your cell on fire and shooting your way out of the police station. You can even shove a cat on the business end of your machine gun; it lets out a yowl and a blood spurt when you fire single shots, while a sustained blast will send it hurtling across the horizon.

"It's got tons of little touches," Desi enthuses. "We have cops eating donuts for power-ups. You can urinate on the donut and then if the cop eats a pissed-on donut, he throws up. So if you're playing the game and you come across donuts, it's in your favor to piss on the donuts and put 'em back."

The game even features a celebrity appearance from former Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman. As part of his tasks, the Postal Dude has visit a mall to meet the diminutive celebrity.

"You have to get my autograph," says Coleman, an avid video-game player who enjoys Grand Theft Auto and Sim City. "You can get it one of two ways: you can get it without dying or you can get it with being bullet-riddled. Either way, there's going to be a huge gunfight in the middle of a mall, and either I kill the player and the game ends or the player kills me and he gets to go on to the rest of the days of the week."

Coleman, who has also provided his voice for the game Curse of Monkey Island, calls the chance to appear in a video game "really cool." He especially enjoyed traveling to Tucson over the summer so the Running with Scissors crew could make a videotape of him handling various high-caliber weaponry at a firing range. The footage can be seen on the Web site.

"I got to fire weaponry I'd never had a chance to fire before," says Coleman. "I really enjoyed the machine gun. Sometimes it's just fun to take a weapon and shoot at things and just see what kind of damage you can do."

Desi says the trip to the firing range "was fun, but it was a little dangerous at first, because I just wasn't sure," says Desi. "He's really small and some of these firearms are really powerful and have a helluva kick. We kept a close watch on him."

When the game debuts early next year, Desi is confident he'll have another hit on his hands.

"The fans are going nuts," he says. "They can't wait. After all, how many games allow you to throw up, shoot elephants, shoot a cat at the end of your gun, and let you piss everywhere? Everywhere, on everyone ... piss on a cop's doughnuts."

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