Writing about the rise of amateur pornography in the mid-to-late ’90s, Tim Dean describes its craft in an interesting way: “It’s as if a penis can see.” He’s talking about a lot of different issues here, chief among them a question so important to tactile and responsive mediums like games and porn—how “touch can translated synthetically into vision.”
This is the essential question, and either the saving grace or the grave embarrassment, of Postal III. When I played this game, I didn’t feel like I was acting like a huge dick in any euphemistically bro-y sense of the term something like this would joke about. Playing Postal III feels more like you are literally becoming a massive phallus in a transformation similar to the one David Kepesh undergoes in Philip Roth’s novel The Breast—you suddenly find yourself devoid of all reason, transformed into a sputtering and insensate collection of impulses and nerve endings fraught with a cultural weight far beyond its own understanding.
Where does this strained metaphor come from? Postal III is one of the few games I’ve ever encountered where you can pee on anything. I mean, anything. You can sever any number of the game’s colorfully animated cultural stereotypes in half and urinate on the corpse. Or you can just gleefully chase these same people around while spraying them with your own excess. I suppose you could even walk quietly into the corner of an alley, glance over and shoulder to see if anybody’s around, and take a leak. Like, you know, most people pee in real life. You can pee on your dog, you can pee on a cat. You can even pee while wearing a hat! You can pee in the mall, you can pee on the wall, you can pee on a pornstar with a faux Southern drawl.
I’m going to stop before I break into a Dr. Seuss rhythm here. But it’s hard to avoid fixating on this, given that Postal is essentially nothing without its fascination with human excrement. There’s nothing else particularly noteworthy about Postal III. Even the innovation in human bodily functions came around in 2003’s Postal 2. But still the development strikes me as unique in the world of videogames.
You might ask why. But I hope that’s obvious.
Whoever wrote Postal III was clearly born from the Tucker Max school of douchebaggery—that element of maleness that crawls along, clutching at the coattails of an already androcentric and shit-obsessed popular culture in a bombastic, rape-joke-filled plea for continued relevance. There are people that make this type of art. And, feces and all, they make it well. South Park uses its shameless and baseless conceits to take some of America’s most glaring sociopolitical hypocrisies to task. But the Postal Dude isn’t Cartman, as much as his leather-clad non-player character isn’t Mr. Slave. Instead the Dude runs around spewing buzzwords with enough flippancy and pithiness that they lose all meaning. “I blame the lame-stream media,” he shrugs as he guns down a group of City Wok-esque Asian men trying to steal the HIV-infected cats you’re supposed to save in one level. “I blame Glenn Beck,” he smirks as he sprays a Sarah Palin lookalike with semen-encrusted tissues. “I am the Death Panel,” he sniggers as he shoots frat boys careening downtown on stolen Segways. The game calls them Thegways to drive home the Dude’s point that it’s still awesome to call stuff gay.
So why, of all these things, is peeing the most offensive? In his classic work Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud wrote that civilization itself began when man ended his homosexual competition with fire: “By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitement he had subdued the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest would thus be the reward for forgoing the satisfaction of a drive.” So the fear of human waste is a very real one when the state of nature is at stake. The success of different civilizations, a professor once told a class I was in, can be measured by how deeply they appreciated the fact that “we’re all, quite literally, full of shit.” The self-described “disgustologist” Valerie Curtis from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said in a recent New York Times piece that disgust is perhaps the one thing we all have in common:
It’s in our everyday life. It determines our hygiene behaviors. It determines how close we get to people. It determines who we’re going to kiss, who we’re going to mate with, who we’re going to sit next to. It determines the people that we shun, and that is something that we do a lot of.
We wrinkle our news and roll our eyes from fear. It’s the guilty impulse we feel to get as far away as we can from that homeless man on the subway, reeking of that “unbelievable piss smell,” the aversion to everything festering and horrible that may very well make us human.
At the same time, it’s the physical realities of life, both gross and sensual, that remind us that we’re still animals. As the Marquis de Sade puts it in Doug Wright’s play Quills, there are four main things we all have in common: “We eat, we shit, we fuck, we die.” Videogames indulge many fantasies for their players, immortality and invincibility being the most commonly cited. But maybe the thing that really keeps games in the uncanny valley is the second of the Marquis’ claims. How often do we ponder our inevitable demise? OK. How often do we think about going to the bathroom?
Fear is a bodily impulse, a guttural emotion. Another theory quoted in the Times article argues that disgust is one of our most instinctual behaviors as animals, its social nature only being achieved as the impulse was “elaborated by cultural evolution to include other forms…. Sex, death, feces and bad food all smacked of animality.” Perhaps, in my head, I inadvertently correlate public waste with an existential fear of death. But at the level of civilization I’ve lived in, going to the bathroom is a much more immediate concern than surviving. As much I’d like to think I ponder Heideggerian questions of the limits of my being more than I contemplate going to the bathroom, I’d be lying. On a daily basis, I’m much less scared of being devoured by zombies than I am of getting trapped in a subway car when I just really have to go and accidentally shitting my pants.
There are a lot of videogames where you get torn apart by zombies. There are probably a lot fewer where you have to make frantic lunges into the bathroom. Peeing on things is a more raw and human moment of vulnerability, disgust, and ultimately fear than anything else in a game, even with the obvious connection between zombies and human waste. So why aren’t there more games that reflect this experience—the moment of real terror?
Postal III doesn’t exactly translate the reality of waste into rewarding gameplay. But the beauty here is how it lays bare the inconsistencies of videogames, even while being a truly awful game itself. Solid Snake has to hunt wild animals to survive while fending off dangerous and heavily armed super-soldiers in Snake Eater. He can even smoke cigarettes and look at porn if he needs to calm himself down. But does he ever have to address the complexities of pooping in the woods? Raiden gets pissed on in the prequel, but despite running around Big Shell holding his crotch for several hours, never actually has to pause for a bathroom break. You pick up lots of snack bars in Dead Island, yet somehow never find yourself in a Jurassic Park-like moment when the zombies pounce on you while you’re on the can. Maybe what’s truly unbelievable about a world like Skyrim isn’t the plethora of dragons or talking cats. No, maybe it’s the fact that for all the seemingly living, breathing, self-actualizing beings in that world, and for all the meticulously catalogued things they can eat, not one of them has to ever take a dump.