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Funny, Me? On Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude and the Search For Humor in Gaming
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Funny, Me? On Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude and the Search For Humor in Gaming


November 12, 2004 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

In late summer of 2002, I was summoned to the office of High Voltage Software's head design honcho, Tom Smith. I had just finished a grueling several months as part of an effort to get a platformer with a movie tie-in out of the door, and was enjoying the light schedule that came with being without a project. This made me a marked man, however; the current go-to guy for a seemingly endless demand for " and turn it into a Grand Theft Auto clone for us please" pitch docs publishers couldn't get enough of at the time. I was all the more delighted, then, when Tom let me in on a little-known company secret: Vivendi was interested in reviving the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, and High Voltage Software was in the running.


The world of hapless loser Larry Lovage.

Like many of you, I am a big fan of classic adventure games, and a big fan of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise. I had spent countless hours as a youth doing my best to lose Larry's virginity well before I began to address my own. As Tom began to fill me in on his progress, I felt a wave of excitement that eclipsed any other I'd felt as a game designer - I was going to work on a Leisure Suit Larry game.

Had I known what was in store for me during my two-year stint on Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, my enthusiasm would have been coupled with a healthy dose of real-world panic. Before it was all over, Tom, Mathew Entin (another designer/writer on MCL), and myself would write over 90,000 words of dialog spoken by over three dozen characters, direct over 150 hours of voice over, and spend over two weeks trying to motion capture as much of it as we could. If that were not enough, we had the added pressure of having to be funny with nearly everything we wrote.

Building on a Legacy

One of the first things we did as designers was to revisit the franchise. Vivendi was interested in "updating" Leisure Suit Larry for a younger, broader audience and wanted to put the game on consoles as well as PCs. While they certainly wanted to keep older fans of the license happy, all parties involved had made a commitment at the outset to seek alternatives to "point and click" gameplay, traditional puzzle solving, and other conventions of the adventure game genre that appeal less to the mainstream than to hardcore adventure gamers. In addition, it was unclear to us at the time whether we would have Al Lowe as a resource, or to what extent his involvement, if any, would be. We had big shoes to fill, and it was clear we would be taking the series in a new direction. With this in mind, we reexamined each of the classic Leisure Suit Larry games, pulling from them aspects we hoped to preserve in Magna Cum Laude and studying their appeal.

The Leisure Suit Larry games of the 80's and 90's are funny. If you disagree, you are wrong. Collectively the franchise has sold millions to people all over the world who love its brand of subtle humor, clever puns, and tongue-in-cheek innuendo. The games were targeted mostly to somewhat cerebral, adult male PC gamers, along with a healthy dose of sophisticated college-aged and adolescent fans, as well as women attracted to the caricature of the toothless male predator. By 1999, however, sales of traditional adventure games were in steep decline and Sierra pulled the plug on an eighth installment of the franchise. In their estimation, there simply weren't enough of the aforementioned target market willing to financially support another Leisure Suit Larry game.

We at High Voltage have fond memories of the series and enjoy Al Lowe's sense of humor, but as we played each game in turn, it became evident to us that trying to emulate Al's comedic style would be a mistake if we were to succeed in bringing in new fans, namely mainstream teens and young adults for whom the comedic bar has been set by The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and the American Pie films. The writing would have to change to reflect this shift in demographic.

There was never any doubt in our minds, however, that we had a wonderfully conceived character in Larry Laffer, one that could make the transition from hardcore adventure game icon to modern-day hero for Spike TV-watching twenty-somethings with ease. The traits that make him such a lovable loser are universal. Larry Laffer is resolute, obnoxious, well meaning, harmless, an anachronism, frustrated, average, and makes us laugh. The long-term appeal of the LSL franchise lies with fans' ability to relate to, sympathize, laugh with and at its main character. It was Larry Laffer's mannerisms and personality traits, more than the actual style of humor that we sought to preserve and emulate to the best of our ability.

Although we were convinced that Larry Laffer's likeable loser mentality should serve as the backbone for the writing in Magna Cum Laude, we decided to pass the torch to a new protagonist, Larry Lovage, Larry Laffer's nephew. There were several reasons for the decision. First, we really wanted to do a comedy in a college setting, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the "wild comedies" of the '80s, '90s, and today. Although it might be in character for Larry Laffer to chase eighteen year-old coeds, we weren't sure teens and twentysomethings could relate to a middle-aged lothario chasing girls twenty years his junior as much as they would someone closer to their own age. On a practical note, it also concerned us that we couldn't depend with certainty on Al Lowe's involvement (ultimately, he did not join the project). Without the creative mind behind Larry Laffer, we were reluctant to try and put words in his mouth, fearing they would not sound as authentic to older fans. Lastly, we felt that passing the torch was the right thing to do, out of respect for the legacy we were building on. Older fans have referred to Magna Cum Laude as a spin-off, which is not too far off the mark. Taking the series in a new direction was a risk, and we felt good about leaving the door open for the spotlight to return to Larry Laffer if we failed.

Looking back at the previous Larry games was fun and rewarding. We got reacquainted with a beloved character from our gaming past and found nearly everything about him (save his age) worth preserving. We made a conscious decision to take the style of comedy in a new direction, one that would appeal more to a younger, mainstream audience as well as to us game designers who in the absence of Al Lowe, would have to write the scripts. Armed with screenshots of our favorite Leisure Suit Larry moments (many ended up as Easter eggs in Magna Cum Laude) we forged ahead to the next phase of our research: our competition.

It is my opinion that most video games which seek to amuse can be placed in one of two categories: mainstream and "nerd humor". Please note I use the term "nerd" with the utmost affection. Being 50% nerd myself, I don't seek to exclude myself from this category or tout the virtues of one group over the other. Nerds are good people. Some of my best friends are nerds. Nerds are the bedrock on which this industry was able to grow into the largest entertainment medium in the world, and it is my sincere hope it will never turn its back on those who made it what it is today. But mainstream audiences, by virtue of their sheer numbers are the brass ring for which many a publisher doth reach, and it is my experience that there are some clear differences between what the two groups will find amusing. I am generalizing of course, I don't mean to say that high school jocks never tell each other amusing EverQuest stories in the hall, or that nerds can't appreciate Animal House (indeed more nerds venture into the mainstream for entertainment than vice-versa), but if you are developing a comedy you better know which group you are targeting, or you might be unpleasantly surprised at the results.

A good example here is the recently released Bard's Tale. For those of you unfamiliar with its premise, Bard's Tale is the fantasy role playing game that turns the genre upside-down, taking a tongue-in-cheek look at its many well-worn conventions. I am enjoying the game immensely, thanks to the hundreds of beautiful summer afternoons spent in my friend's basement playing Dungeons and Dragons as a youth, as well as countless hours spent killing rats, collecting treasure, and upgrading spells on my PC. My nerd half has seen every boring quest and stale story arc fantasy RPGs have thrown our way and is amused at the satire. To people who have never rolled a twenty-sider or thumb their nose at games like Balder's Gate, however, its humor will most likely go over like a lead balloon.

Conker's Bad Fur Day on the other hand, is an unabashed mainstream success story. It's crude, vulgar, and downright lowbrow, and proud of it. Older gamers and nerds tend to be more intellectual than their younger mainstream counterparts, and most (but not all) fail to see the humor in a level boss who is a giant lump of poo. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of teens and young men in their early twenties for whom Conker's has a special place in their heart, and a million plus or more will likely buy the updated Xbox version this spring. BMX XXX similarly polarized gamers on a much smaller scale.

So where exactly does this observation get us? Knowing the difference between what is exclusively nerd fare and what will amuse the casual gamer is your first, most important step to winning over your audience. The next is to make sure you have writers who can effectively speak to them. Know your place on the nerd/meathead spectrum and evaluate your chance at success honestly. If you have a burning desire to write jokes that refer to Penny Arcade and Fark, you are a nerd. If your target market shares your enthusiasm for this type of humor then they are probably nerds too, and you have a fighting chance. If however, your target market has never heard of Penny Arcade, Fark, or Slashdot, and you have a feeling they wouldn't have much use for them if they did, you may want to hand over the reigns to someone else.

In our case, Entin and I felt that our mainstream sensibilities, at times a hindrance in our industry, put us in a good position to write dialog that spoke well to the casual gamer. Had we been asked to write something similar to Bard's Tale we would have been better off passing the buck to an extremely talented someone else. By aiming for a broader audience we would undoubtedly lose some older fans, but we felt we could successfully appeal to a wider audience while still keeping many whose tastes ran more highbrow.

As our research into our competitors concluded, and although we found a lot that amused us in the games we looked at, we felt there was nothing currently on the market similar to what we wanted to achieve with Magna Cum Laude. Conker's Bad Fur Day and BMX XXX are targeted to a much younger audience than the one we were after. We wanted to do something mainstream, yet something that did not necessarily aim for the lowest common denominator (at least not all the time). We wanted MCL to be the video game equivalent of The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park, and although we knew our writing would never quite compare with the genius found there, we felt it would be fun to try, and if we were even halfway successful, we would be in an enviable position as the only game of its kind for fans of the type of comedy we most admired.

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