Vince Desi, Black Sheep of Gaming
Vince Desi is a bit of a curiosity to me. On one hand I adore the guy for his no-bullshit attitude, his complete willingness to be hated by everyone, and his steadfast commitment to being truly independent in a way most small developers couldn’t dream of. On the other hand he can be incredibly abrasive if you don’t have the stomach for strong personalities and I completely understand why he’s consistently the black sheep of the video game industry. However, for all the things he is, there’s no shaking the fact he’s undeniably fascinating individual.
My introduction to his work came through Postal II back in 1997 at the ripe age of 14. I’d never played anything like it and was transfixed with it’s tornado of obscene and disgusting content; I had never played a game where you could shove a shotgun in a cat’s ass and use it as a silencer. It left such a mark on me that I’d wanted to meet Vince and his crew for a long time and congratulate them for making the most offensive game I had ever seen and something I truly enjoyed. Apparently I was one of the few who carried that sentiment.
If you ask Vince about it, the early days of video game censorship sounds a lot like the wild west where you’d have a gang of simpletons chasing witches out of town for corrupting their children with black magic. Nobody could prove that Vince had cast a spell over the impressionable youth of America, but it didn’t matter to the sensationalist media or opportunistic politicians. People love having an enemy, and Vince happened to be a good target because he was small and could only fight back with his intense personality.
After years of being blamed for the depravity of youth, Vince has survived though. Sure, the latest Running With Scissors product may not have been as spectacular as its predecessors, but he’s still kicking in his Tucson home, which is where I went to meet him.
I’d only talked to Vince a few times over e-mail and only as a press affiliate, never in such a casual setting, or any environment where I’d have a real opportunity to assess his character. I was intent on figuring out whether Vince was really the underdog champion of free speech I’d always imagined him as, or if he really was just the offensive lunatic I’d read about.
When he walked into the restaurant – a small but very classy Mexican place near the infamous Fox theatre – there was an almost gangster-like quality to his entrance. The servers new his name, they talked about family, and he was seated and catered to while talking in his classic New York accent. I’d never seen anyone get such treatment, much less in the video game industry.
We sat down and started talking, going over his history making family-friendly Atari and Nintendo games like Spy vs Spy, Sesame Street Countdown, and Tom and Jerry - all games I played as a kid. Vince explained that in the early days it was easier to make games because it would just be a handful of guys. There would be maybe two on the art team, and a single programmer with music coming from the one guy in the entire company who did it for all the titles. It was a simple time and there was a lot of money to be made for small teams like the ones he worked in that could churn out the licensed work cheaply.
He said something very important about that time though. That no matter how good you are at making games for kids, you can’t properly enjoy your work because you’re not making it for yourself. So, Vince set out to make a game for himself, to bring to life a title that carried his personality and his sense of humor. Something with an Arizona vibe and a New York attitude. Vince set out to make the game that would later be listed as one of the three worst things in America by Joe Lieberman, along with Marilyn Manson and Calvin Klein underwear ads.
The backlash was completely unexpected to Vince, he says he didn’t think it would be a very big deal releasing Postal and I believe him. There’s a lot of times in life where I’ll think something is perfectly socially acceptable only to find out later that people think ill of me for it. What surprised me though is his willingness to own his pariah status and go on to make one of my favourite games of all time.
A lot of folks think he did it because of all the attention that had been heaped on him – there’s no such thing as bad press after all – but talking to the guy it really felt like he’d finally found his bliss making something he’d wanted to make for a long time. Sure, I think the celebrity villain status played a small part in creating an ego that wanted to be fed again, but I honestly feel like he was just pursuing his passion and didn’t care how infamous it made him.
There’s not a lot of developers out there who can say they’re truly isolated from the rest of the industry – no company is an island when there’s marketing and distribution to consider – but time and time again Vince has flipped the bird to publishers who wanted to control his vision or censor his employees. It’s a hard line to walk and the company could be much more profitable if he learned to play ball, but Vince just isn’t the sort of person to bow to anyone for anything.
I understand the joy of being the outcast, I’ve danced the line professionally more than a few times posting articles that I knew people would find offensive, but Vince has made a career out of it and for better or worse I don’t think there’s any going back now. 15 years of pissing off politicians, being slandered by journalists, and getting kicked out of E3 will be too much to recover from. You have to either love Vince or hate him for who he is, and the most important part of that is…he doesn’t give a fuck.