Postal 4 and Dialogue
StoryScan: Weak Point
StoryScan: Weak Point highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that don’t live up to audience expectations. In this essay, we’re covering Postal 4 (Running With Scissors), the latest installment in the Postal franchise. This essay will cover content from the first hour of Postal 4. Players who have not completed the opening may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains minor spoilers for the main storyline.
Content Warning: Like the Postal games, this essay contains foul language. If you want to learn more about dialogue without foul language, check out our Narrative Analysis article on Dialogue.
Few franchises have histories quite like the Postal series. Released two weeks before Grand Theft Auto 2 (Rockstar Games) in November of 1997, Postal’s isometric gore-fest kicked off a fresh outcry against violence in games that culminated with the Columbine shooting two years later. Postal’s crass disregard for human life made it an easy target for hysterical parents. Senator Joe Lieberman declared it “sick stuff,”1 while the Washington Post quipped that it was “Fun for the whole (Manson) family.”2 Even by today’s standards, you don’t have to play Postal for long to see what the fuss was about. The titular ‘Postal Dude’ is a man on a mission, and that mission is to kill as many civilians and police officers as possible with the most outlandish tools available. It’s a mission series creator and Running With Scissors CEO Vince Desi not only stands by, but revels in. In an interview for the Postal retrospective from Boss Fight Books, Desi summarized his thoughts on the subject by remarking: “People say Postal is violent. Fuck you.”3 Despite Postal’s middling reviews,4 the die-hard fans who agree with Desi have fueled the creation of multiple sequels and expansions, including the most recent entry in the series, Postal 4: No Regerts [sic].
By all accounts, Postal 4: No Regerts is not a good game. With an astoundingly low Metacritic score of 30,5 the title has been lambasted for its mediocre gameplay, dated graphics, and copious bugs. Yet, despite fan outcry, representatives from Running With Scissors have been remarkably sanguine about the reception, citing budgetary and staffing constraints. “[We] dont have a real budget, let alone a AAA, AA, or A budget,” VP Mike Jaret-Schachter said in the comments section of a Bloody-Disgusting.com article on the Early Access release. “We are 10-15 people working remotely, on a literal shoestring, some as a second or third job, just making stuff we like to laugh at….”6 While he has a point about the difficulties of working with a skeleton crew, not all of Postal 4’s problems extend from limited resources. Its lackluster dialogue is a perfect example of how such limitations can be the source of some problems, while no amount of money and manpower could ever fix the others.
Context, Repetition, and Silence
For the average writer staring at an empty screen, the worst thing about dialogue is the process of putting it on the page. In game development, the reality is that the writing is just the first step. Every line of dialogue has to be implemented into the game, which is a multi-step process even in games without voice acting. Managing dialogue can be an especially burdensome task in open-world games like Postal 4, as the richness of the world lives and dies on the quality and variety of its occupants. While massive studios like Rockstar Games and CDProjektRed can spare the resources to ensure these worlds are overflowing with unique character interactions, smaller studios don’t have the cash or the staff to handle such a massive task. Most small studios get around these limitations by reducing the scope of their games, but Running With Scissors isn’t most studios. Jaret-Schachter recognized this in his Bloody-Disgusting comments, remarking: “Making an open world game with a tiny team on a shoestring is maybe even stupider [than making a regular game] lol but thats what we do…”7 It’s an admirable ethos, if a little simplistic, but it explains one of Postal’s major dialogue problems: its haphazard implementation.
Postal 4’s poor dialogue implementation reveals itself in two ways: frequency and context. The frequency is the more glaring of the two problems, as it’s one of the first things most players will notice once the characters start interacting outside of cutscenes. While Postal Dude himself has an array of lines for every situation (more on those later), the non-player characters that populate the town of Edensin rarely have anything to say to him. These incidental lines, commonly known as barks, are sporadic, and interactions result in silence as often as not. Even crowded areas feel dead when no one has anything to say (though the game doesn’t have many crowded areas). The inverse of this problem is how often the few existing lines are repeated. It’s mildly amusing when the Postal Dude throws a grenade in a sewer and says, “Now that’s a lot of shit!” once; it’s not so funny when he says it multiple times in the span of seconds with the same delivery. Repeated lines can be found all over the place, from the woefully small selection of ‘ow’s!’ the Postal Dude lets out every time he’s hit to the equally limited supply of barks from the NPCs who actually acknowledge him. Some lines are repeated so fast that they even clip over each other, resulting in a deluge of nonsensical sounds. While these cascades can be chalked up to the limitations in the studio, along with the repetition and the silences, knowing the constraints doesn’t make it any easier to hear “How-How-How’s it going?” for the hundredth time in a row.
It would be one thing if all of Postal 4’s dialogue problems could be blamed on the budget, but there are also issues with the lines the team could afford. The Postal Dude has a habit of over-explaining tasks that are self-evident from the information on the screen, wasting valuable time in the recording booth. Barks mix under-reactions and over-reactions, with bullet wounds earning minor grunts and polite greetings eliciting major freak-outs. If the Postal Dude walks up to a woman while he’s holding a cattle prod and dripping with blood, she isn’t likely to say anything, but she might express irritation if he’s holding a petition for bidet legislation instead. Reactions are a total crapshoot, so fully divorced from the context of the scenes that you might wonder if they’re intentionally mistimed to be funny. That assumes the creators have a handle on their humor, however, and the evidence suggests they very much don’t.
Humor is subjective, even more so than horror, but there are some tenants that hold true across all types of comedy. One of the main tenants is that a good joke should play with the audience’s expectations. If the punchline is obvious from the start, the audience will see it coming, and they won’t be amused when it finally hits. This is true even if the punchline was funny at one time but has since been done to death. Like many things in life, jokes have diminishing returns: the more you tell them, the less effective they are, until one day, you try to tell it and get run out of the room. Not sure what an overdone joke looks like? Look no further because Postal 4 is here to help.
From the moment Postal 4 overwhelms you with its apocryphal tattoo subtitle, No Regerts, the game is determined to hit you with jokes you’ve heard before. The developers wring every remaining drop of comedy out of the ‘number ‘69’ within the first hour, and pussy puns reach unfathomable depths when the Postal Dude is transformed into a cat. Add in every dick joke you’ve heard a million times before, and you’ll still be short of the length of the list thrust into the script. (If you thought those preceding lines were awful, those were just a taste of what you’ll have to swallow in Postal 4!)
If those exhausted adolescent jokes weren’t bad enough on their own, they’re nothing compared to Postal 4’s real comedy sin: its pop-culture references. Overdone nods run the gamut from Austin Powers to Batman and everywhere in between, including at least one off-color Trump quote that was repeated enough to rival Borat’s ‘My wife!’ before Trump was even elected to office. References to COVID are slightly fresher, and some of the sight gags aren’t half-bad, but the rare moments of actual humor are hard to dig out from beneath the mountains of endless trash.
Of the many problems with Postal 4, its dialogue is somehow one of its lesser sins. While the creators insist they made the game they wanted to make (minus some sacrifices for budgetary constraints), it’s still worth studying where they went wrong so future developers can avoid similar mistakes. So developers of the future, take warning: if you want to take on an open-world game, do it with a staff that can support the rigorous work associated with implementing good dialogue. And if you can’t do that, at least try to write some original jokes.
How characters express themselves, using spoken or written words.
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Super Mario RPG makes the most out of its lighthearted, comedic tone by integrating it in both story and scene.
1 Brock Wilbur, Nathan Rabin. “Postal.” Boss Fight Books, 2020. Page 18, ePub edition.
2 Brock Wilbur, Nathan Rabin. “Postal.” Boss Fight Books, 2020. Page 38, ePub edition.
3 Brock Wilbur, Nathan Rabin. “Postal.” Boss Fight Books, 2020. Page 38, ePub edition.
4 “Postal.” MetaCritic, 2022.
5 “Postal 4: No Regerts.” MetaCritic, 2022.
6 Wilson, Mike. “The Postal Dude Returns in ‘Postal 4: No Regerts’!” Bloody Disgusting, 2019, comments section.
7 Wilson, Mike. “The Postal Dude Returns in ‘Postal 4: No Regerts’!” Bloody Disgusting, 2019, comments section.
* Reference Footage: KariPekka. “POSTAL 4: No Regerts Gameplay Walkthrough Full Game.” YouTube, 2022.