I’ve been playing the oddly quietly-released latest third person action’n’ urban psychopathy game from Running With Scissors, Postal III. Needless to say, I wish I hadn’t.
I have a large tumbler full of Scotch (I know, I know, you’re supposed to use a tulip-shaped glass for the full effect, but the only Scottish person currently writing for RPS is Craig and he says “it offends me” of whisky, so I think I’m safe). I have a vaguely misanthropic attitude towards life, the universe and everything. I have a deep distrust of conventional employment. I have a low attention span. Oh look, there’s a magpie outside. It’s all black and white and… oh yes. And I have a copy of Postal III installed on my personal computer. I AM READY.
Postal III is… well, any such encapsulation would entirely miss the point. Postal III is. That’s about the most accurate way of putting it. So, instead, let’s talk about some of the things Postal III simply includes. First, a warning.
Some of the things you are about to read may sound hilarious and amazing in description alone, and this drive you towards desiring a copy of this videogame. Please be aware that this is not the intended purpose of mentioning them, for they are dramatically different in practice than in concept, and you should not interpret them as recommendations unless specifically described as such.
Postal III includes these things:
- Firing sperm-soaked tissues at Sarah Palin and her army of ultra-conservative ‘hockey moms.’
- Killing people with an angry badger tied to a stick.
- Urinating on anyone, everyone. Also, making the badger urinate on anyone, everyone.
- Segway-based chases.
- Parodies of public figures including Al Gore, Osama Bin Laden, Ron Jeremy, Uwe Boll and Gary Coleman.
- Fourth wall-bothering jokes about the Source engine, GTA’s physics, branching storylines…
- Boobs! Guns! Swearing! Cats! Machetes!
- A clear and desperate desire to be controversial and thus notorious and thus successful.
Oh, one more thing: constant self-reference. Basically, Postal III is Duke Nukem Forever if Duke Nukem Forever was third person and didn’t also hope to be a smash-hit action game that could be sold in shops. I admire it for that; it doesn’t let much stand in the way of including what it wants to include. The problem is… Well, this is what Postal III is like.
Postal III is like a friend telling you that you should go to Amsterdam because there is sex and drugs and booze and no inhibitions and the wildest time you can possibly imagine.
So you go. Because it sounds amazing. Then you get there, you stay in a poky little hotel, you awkwardly have a spliff or two in the company of shouting idiots and then go visit the sex district, where you discover it’s basically just a couple of streets where dodgy-looking old men or horrible drunk thugs creep into dingy rooms. It’s not impossible to enjoy yourself, especially if you’re of a certain mind and are immune to social discomfort, but in reality all this stuff that sounded so good on paper is tawdry and awkward and doesn’t really work.
So maybe you go to the wide range of interesting museums and galleries, or stylish and convivial bars, in Amsterdam instead, and even if you can’t make people’s eyes boggle at your tall tales of adventure upon your return, at least you had a decent, even illuminating time. By which I suppose my mixed metaphors mean you play something else, something less unhinged but something that works and that you feel good about.
I’ve looked inside myself, and I just can’t find any argument against a powerfully strong feeling that Postal III is simply a bad game. I don’t mean Postal-bad. I mean bad-bad. It is full of mad ideas and merry sociopathy, as Postal games are supposed to. It is bold, it is occasionally funny, it is gruesome, it is knowingly offensive, but it is a bad game. The shooting is bad. The punching is bad. The running is bad. The health system is bad. The aiming is bad. The mid-game choice of being sort of good or entirely evil is unrewarding, and bad. The quasi-open levels are cramped and non-interactive and bad. The attacking people with a mad badger on a stick is bad. It is bad. It is a bad game, but a bad game that just happens to be wrapped up in wild abandon and a willingness to be cruel to everyone it can think of.
It’s clearly been made on a bare and fraying shoestring, so I feel a certain guilt for savaging Postal III on the basis that it looks and feels cheap. But it does, and much as that’s probably not the creators’ fault (though for all I know they slept with their bank manager’s wives and had their loans cancelled, or spent all they had on vintage Meccano sets), the upshot is that Postal III simply can’t back up its madness with anything beyond perfunctory systems and interactions. So a gag lives and dies solely on the gag itself; the game can’t do much to realise it.
And, sadly enough, more gags seem to me to misfire than find their targets. Sarah Palin, Al Gore? Didn’t we run out of jokes about those guys months, even years ago? And even if we hadn’t, “Sarah Palin doesn’t like porn stars” and “Al Gore might be a bit of an eco-hippy” makes for pretty toothless satire. That’s a problem for anything that wants to make topical jokes but has a long gestation period. South Park, to which Postal III has more than a few things in common, gets away with because it turns its episodes around double-quick these days, as well as having essentially turned low production values into a fine art. Postal III is a lumbering beast of tepid satire, hung around an outdated-looking version of the Source engine and a cludgy conflation of sometimes genuinely funny meta-commentary about videogames with twatty boobs’n’minorities cop out humour.
That said, I persevered far longer than I thought I would, as I was genuinely curious to see what the hell it would do next. What ludicrous situation, what parodied celebrity, what group or cause will be baited, what mad weapon (hallucinogenic catnip, a laser pointer that drives your dog to attack people’s groins, cat-based landmines – all funny the first time, not so much the tenth, twelfth, hundredth). It is, I suppose, impressive in a way in its unpredictability. But I wish I hadn’t persevered, because while Postal III could be said to be conceptually imaginative, mechanically it’s beyond tiresome. Almost every scenario begins with the perma-wry Postal Dude taking on a thankless job, devolves into violent anarchy and ends with him not getting paid and thus seeking a new thankless job.
That’s part of the joke of course, but the problem is the meat of the levels, which more or less exclusively involve being attacked by waves of identi-enemies and holding out until an arbitrary number have been killed/neutralised. So, throwing spunky rags at Sarah Palin actually involves tediously hoovering up tissues from the floor, plip-plip-plip firing them at hordes of ‘hockey moms’ so that they perform an unconvincing vomit animation and then… No, there is no then. There’s just that, repeated ad nauseum, until the level ends. I laughed when the Dude muttered ‘I didn’t know Valve had a shader for that‘, but otherwise I was bored an annoyed. Throwing spunky rags at Sarah Palin shouldn’t be boring, should it?
That’s the sad truth: Postal III is a very boring game. All its levels are like that: a (sometimes) ingenious setup, and then a grind until it ends. All its madness, all its anarchy, all its controversy and all the fourth wall-breaking gags that did elicit genuine chuckles can’t save it from being a tedious, repetitive, clumsy experience that, if it weren’t for the decent performance from the Postal Dude’s actor, could be mistaken for a mod. I would enjoy seeing what the minds behind it could do with a big budget and a big team, but even the best bad intentions in the world can’t redeem this wilting, look-at-me misfire of a game and misfire of controversy-courting.
The Segway chase level was alright, though.