For a 15-year-old Belgian high school freshman in 1988, I spent a considerable amount of time trying to get a 40-year-old American software salesman laid.
My parents had bought me a Commodore Amiga a year earlier, considering that “there could be a future in this computer stuff,” and figuring I would use it to learn computer programming or other future-related skills. But I had way better things to do with the machine, like diving into a universe of pixellated softraunch, bondage, forced marriages in wedding parlors, “censored” bars that humped to the cadence of the fornication they were supposed to suppress and Spanish Fly abuse.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was the first mainstream videogame (and one of the only ones) with sex as one of its core themes. It’s still a curiosity, because even to this day, sex is grossly underrepresented in videogames. Under the American ESRB code, about 250 videogames between 1994 and the present were afforded an M rating due to their sexual content. The same rating was given to more than 1,000 games because of violent subject matter.
But, according to creator Al Lowe, claiming the game is about sex really doesn’t do it justice. “The erotic content in Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was just a vehicle to sell the more important part: the humor,” he says. “That was the only way to do it right. If you attempt to take sex seriously in a videogame, it ends up looking laughable anyway.”
By the time the first Leisure Suit Larry came to market, Lowe, a music teacher who took up computer programming in the early ’80s and joined game development firm Sierra by selling them three games he made for the Apple II computer, had already worked on some of Sierra’s early “sandbox-style” adventure games, like King’s Quest III and Police Quest, before he began developing Larry. Those earlier Sierra games had the same sense of humor as the Leisure Suit Larry series: brisk, unexpected, situational gags, with references to other works of popular culture and sometimes a touch of the cheesy or weird.
With Land of the Lounge Lizards, the double entendre-spewing Larry Laffer embarked on a decade-spanning career, in which he appeared in six adventure games. After losing his virginity and finding love in the first title, the character returned in 1988’s Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places), in which sex definitely played second fiddle to story and humor: The lovesick Larry ends up in the middle of a conspiracy involving KGB agents and an evil scientist, and is only awarded a quickie after he saved the day. Subsequent Larry episodes made more or less the same yo-yo move as the first two: “Real” sexual content returned in Leisure Suit Larry 3: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, but almost completely disappeared again in Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work and Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out!, only to come back in full force with the much more risqué Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail. (A fourth game was never made but often referred to in other Larry adventures.)
Lowe wasn’t very fond of Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, the most recent Larry game, in which he wasn’t involved. The game featured a new, younger protagonist called Larry Lovage, a supposed nephew of Larry Laffer, who starts his freshman year in college. The “next-generation” Larry game, the first one ever to be released on consoles (PlayStation 2 and Xbox) as well as on PC, exhibited a substantial style breach from the old games: story and logical puzzles were out, replaced by a freely explorable world in which the character could play minigames. The humor was quite different, too: There was much, much more cavorting (according to Lowe, the opening sequence of Magna Cum Laude alone was raunchier than all previous Larry games combined), there was verbal profanity and there were fart jokes.
“Playing Magna Cum Laude was like receiving a video from my son’s kidnappers,” says Lowe. “You’re glad he’s still alive, but look what they’ve done to him!”
Magna Cum Laude got one thing more or less right: Larry Lovage, much like his uncle, remained a lovable loser who tries to beat the game of life his own clumsy way. But in the first Larry game, humiliating oneself was actually a necessary skill for completing the game.
Playing Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards is an exercise in self-deprecation. From the first scenes in Lefty’s Bar, you have to go through multiple degrading situations to attain your goals. Then comes losing your virginity to a prostitute: Unless you want your crotch to start burning after the act, abruptly ending the game, you will have to buy yourself some condoms. But the proprietor of the nearby night shop submits you to a tedious and unnecessary questionnaire to get to know your exact taste in rubber protection, just so he can exclaim it loudly to the other clients.
After that, the whore – the first woman you effectively want to make love to – makes you buy her all kinds of presents, asks you to deposit substantial sums of hard-earned money to her bank account, tricks you into marrying her in a wedding parlor and consequently runs off with all your cash, leaving you tied to the bed of the hotel suite you paid for. Then you decide to feed another woman, a security guard, some Spanish Fly to get her turned on, only to watch her immediately speed off to her boyfriend. And let’s not forget all the double entendres gone horribly wrong. With the security guard, you try to break the ice with a “Hey sweetheart, what’s your sign?” only to hear “Exit!” fired back. And when you ask your future wife if you can “join” her in the dance temple where you meet her, she retorts, “Why, am I coming apart?” Women certainly don’t take any crap in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.
“I wanted to make a videogame about romance and sex, but with a protagonist who is not very good at women,” says Lowe. “That was the fun part of it for me: telling a story about a guy who is the butt of all the jokes. There were very few antiheroes in videogames at that time, and actually there still are now.”
Imploring the player to demean himself is only possible when the humor is directly integrated into the game. And indeed, the big difference between the classic Larrys and Magna Cum Laude is their humor was an integral part of the story, not something simply tacked upon the core gameplay.
Of course, the classic Larry hexalogy was part of a videogame genre that effectively went extinct by the late ’90s. The main components of graphical adventure games (story and logical puzzles) started to appear, although widely scattered, in mainstream 3-D shooters and action games, and the general gaming public lost all interest in slower-paced adventure games. But lately, there’s been a resurgence of dialogue-driven videogames, and even graphical adventure games themselves are making a comeback.
Leisure Suit Larry Box Office Bust, the newest Larry adventure made for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC and planned to hit store shelves by the holidays, sadly cannot be added to that list. The creators call it an “adventure game,” but instead show an open-world game (again with Larry the Younger in the leading role) with minigame, racing and platforming action. Lowe, however, remains hopeful for a proper Larry adventure in a more distant future.
“Videogame creators have been missing the point for years,” he says. “But that will run its course. In more recent videogames, story is becoming important again. They’re once again getting the point that games are about interactivity, not about shooting things up. Shooting things up only shortens the interaction.”
Ronald Meeus can beat the age verification process of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards without pressing Alt-X.