Leigh Alexander reflects on the subtle humor of the original Leisure Suit Larry as she levies her disappointment at the Kickstarter-funded remake.
Very early in my games writing career, I got an email from Leisure Suit Larry
creator Al Lowe. It was only one line, if I remember correctly, but it seemed at the time like an indisputable laurel of victory, evidence I was on the right track. Until that day the man had been a legend in neon pixels and nothing else.
My early career in games writing, like anyone's, was a series of luckless almosts and accidents, a few bylines that seemed, intellectually, like Excellent Gains, things to tell friends about, even though I privately wasn't terribly sure of my own meaningful progress. I felt confident and accomplished and crowned and yet not-so for many years, projecting a sort of grinning confidence, a rehearsed smoothness I hadn't yet owned, playing the success game only as adeptly as the person next to me, all the while feeling like facility with the form at which I so desperately wanted to excel was a fleeting and complicated thing. Like there were incredible figurines just out of my reach who'd mastered this thing, whose fealty I could earn with the precisely-right combination of words, items, actions.
When Mr. Lowe wrote me in response to a minor notation in a sex game article in which I said I'd learned the word "prophylactic" from Leisuire Suit Larry
at an incredibly young age, I thought, yes, I'm getting somewhere
. He wrote: "You played Leisure Suit Larry
when you were 8?!"
The very idea that Mr. Lowe would read something I wrote whatsoever was surreal. I spent a good portion of my childhood banging my little Curly-Sue head against Leisure Suit Larry: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards
-- I thought if I persisted in it I'd arrive at some mythical alter-world where genuine lizards sprawled in poolside lounge chairs. That's how young I was.
Yet even back then I sort of knew intrinsically it wasn't a game for young people: The abstract vocabulary of bright cursive and angular palm trees and fluorescent signage, the seedy swing music, the setting of "Lost Wages," something I immediately grokked as a sad, sticky and wrung-out simulacrum of the Las Vegas ideal. As a child one can outline, loosely, the shiny pink sketch-lines around things that are meant to be adult, perceive a certain naughtiness about them, even if one isn't really at the age where sex makes sense. I intuited that there had to be some illicit reason that Leisure Suit Larry: In the Land of the Lounge Lizards
was profoundly an Adult Game, even if that reasoning floated above my grasp like an inflatable love doll borne on the winds.
That original Leisure Suit Larry
game is ostensibly a relic, a game about a man small in every way, hunting earnestly for sex. I learned this way, way later, when I became one of those purse-lipped, humorless feminists forever angrily disassembling, dispossessing, the unexamined and eternally-creepy male power fantasies that lie like a still black seam at the root of video games.
But, you know? I never stopped loving Leisure Suit Larry
. I never lost my empathy for that comically height-disadvantaged, greasy-quiffed little dude who wants sex only until he learns that the manufactured, candy-and-roses vision of sexual success is just a media-generated vehicle to True Love. It's romance and partnership that Larry seeks -- Larry Laffer, his name, Laffer
, a piquant little homage to laughter
and the sad life of the stand-up comic who bares his soul and his manhood for the amusement of others, hoping against hope that brutal honesty and the gut-rooted humor that comes with it will generate an empathetic connection with the rest of humankind.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
Seriously, to call Leisure Suit Larry
a game about a creepy guy looking for sex would be to do it a disservice, and this is coming from a woman who has maybe-regrettably little pity for creepy guys seeking sex. So, okay. I think a lot about the old days of Sierra On-Line, and how in 1988 Roberta Williams spearheaded King's Quest IV
, a lovely yet properly-brutal traditional parser adventure about a dispossessed princess navigating sprawling fairy-tale tropes at great peril. Come the 1990s and the great appetite for capital-M maturity in computer games: the technology was there, so why not the thematic sophistication, and so forth?
Just a year earlier, 1987, Al Lowe had made Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
like a sullen nerd throwing a paper plane from the back of the class. Like, oh, c'mon, kids, really?
Awkward dorks engaging with the high-class world of Vegas glamour, sensuality, prostitution, seamy saxophones? Seemed like the hay for humor to Lowe, who'd made a properly-brutal traditional parser adventure game about the sheer absurdity of outsiders, of video game nerds -- of anyone
, really, approaching life as if a man wanting to connect with a woman romantically were really the sort of thing one could sexualize, bling up, gamify.
Leisure Suit Larry
is, at every twist and kink, a lavish essay on the sadness of that dream: You're a socially awkward "funny" guy trying to forge his way through the land of the polyester fashionistas, the dice-slinging gamblers, the pneumatic vinyl ladies in strapless slinkies. These people are depressing and disappointing. You demean yourself by trying to be one of them. Your innocence, your naivete, the gooey disingenuousness of your oiled hairdo and your try-hard leisure suit a tribute to both the grotesqueness of the ideal and the disappointment of your failing to achieve it.
As an old-school graphics-assisted parser game, it would probably qualify for a "bad design" description these days -- in other words, there are a lot of things you can 'do wrong' without realizing you've done them wrong, or failed to do them, or done them in the wrong order until it's too late. You can Save-Game yourself into a corner. Be a little kinder to the 1980s, though: The objective was to make these games, handfuls of kilobytes, last their consumers months and months, seriously. To meticulously spend several hours in pursuit of the wrong answer, only to have to start again, was basically the only solution people had to games being too-consumable too-quickly. It was the only way they'd learned back then to prolong the magic rather than satisfy too intuitively, finish too quickly, like an inadequate lover.
Leisure Suit Larry
was an abuse of the player, intentionally. These days, a lot of the traits of old-school adventure games are held up as bad design logic -- that you should have to fail at the game, be tricked by it, in order to learn the correct path just seems unfair, a relic whose purpose is only to extend engagement and not to please the player.
But let's just presume the idea is to send-up that particular sort of man for whom wooing women is a poorly-understood objective: The very idea that a game should be "mature," for Lowe, illuminated the hilarious conflict between applied game design logic and the human urge. It was funny, to him -- the player's unconsidered pursuit of ass, a world where your adventure can abruptly end if it doesn't occur to you to remove a condom and zip your trousers. Where you fail again and again, you sleazy polyester-try-hard nerd, you. That was the joke.
That's why Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded
, Replay Games' Kickstarter-funded, fully-animated and voiced remake of the original seems so grotesque and offensive. It's a high-res (being generous) re-rendering of that intentionally-frustrated world, except the joke is missed, lost. The thing that was funny about Leisure Suit Larry
wasn't the sex jokes, or the sticky-nasty world of Lost Wages, but the fact such a universe was created as a computer game at all.
References to the high-tension world that was Sierra On-Line at the time are everywhere
. Should players lose, they're treated to a comical "inside look" at the re-assembly of their new avatar, another Larry being reconstituted and ready to resume along similar assembly-line constructions of the protagonists from the company's other franchises, Space Quest
and King's Quest
Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded
Yet more transparently-damning, in order to access a bar back room where a paid hooker is available, the player needs to tell a pimp speaking through a slot in a Naugahyde door that "Ken sent me," a jab at Sierra overlord Ken Williams. The games of the 80s were rife with self-conscious references to the fatiguing machinery of game-making, and a game about lonesome perverts was even more weighted in that context.
The game isn't excellent or worthwhile in a vacuum, but as a sign of its times, as an expression of its creator illustrating the vast, weird gulf between sex-chasing dorks and neon-washed lounge lizards. Upgrade it and it just seems sad, fan-pandering to gamers who still haven't gotten the joke.
The original game is misogynistic -- women are just objects to be wooed and pursued, who ultimately reveal themselves to be opportunists ready to infect the player with disease or to steal his hard-earned money. And its quaint racism, like the funny-talking shopkeeper or the shady muggers, taxi-drivers, pimps and horny security guards, is best left in our uncomfortable past. But I like to think the original game wants the player to be victimized for perpetuating the misogyny, laughed at for seeing sex as a goal. Wants the player to be pathetic and empathetic alike for not really knowing any better.
The remake brings the world into awkwardly-glossy, highly-detailed modernity -- if you can call it that -- and as such misses the opportunity for actual humor, downgrades the wittiness of the original Leisure Suit Larry
into the gross and stupid. That was never what it was about, really. And that's why the original game, with its humble pixels and opaque, reserved breath-holding until the players made horrible revelations, is wincing-funny, pity-piquing, having posed a question about the possibility of "adult" games and having come up with the awkward and distinctly-unsexy universe of pink-flamingo Vegas pornography. It's even funnier that gamers backed the remake without really realizing the fun being had at their expense.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
is an amusing and important signpost of history. It's shocking that it got remade, that the sheer tidal wall of gamer nostalgia moves forward with such inconsiderate force. The original game posed some interesting and funny questions of what migrating computer gaming into a poorly-conceived vision of "Adults Only" would look like. We still wrestle with those questions, writing glossy Hollywood-style profiles of today's industry creative directors, pointing to Real Actors brought into our world as evidence of maturity and legitimacy.
Indeed, though, even in the 90s when Sierra would ultimately doom itself by bringing absurd cinematic ideals to its adventure games, hyping absurdly-expensive, realistic and "dark" actor-driven games like Phantasmagoria
, someone still thought a modern incarnation of Larry would not divest the original statement of its meaning. This isn't maturity, this isn't a beneficial use of advanced technology. Expanding its puzzles now means grotesquery, vulgar over-descriptions, nasty excess that makes a joke of itself, not of its subject matter.
And what was an important cautionary tale about the ignorance inherent in gaming's ideas about "sexuality" and "adulthood" has now, through the Leisure Suit Larry
remake, become a cautionary tale about the blind nostalgia and brand loyalty that drove an early vein of game investments on Kickstarter. Let me be blunt: Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded
should just not have happened. It's unsettling, should prompt some self-examination, that it happened. It should make us leery of popular brands, retro-remakes, needless revisitations made possible thanks to the "magic" of crowdfunding.
Let me think back: I'm eight years old. A computer game wants me to prove I am an adult by asking me questions about the Cold War, about the 1980s political climate, about the Beatles. These days I struggle to answer some of 'em, to be honest. But back then it felt exciting, delightful. Of course, like other kids in those days, I passed the gatekeeping through trial and error, because I was determined, although I learned nothing. Sigh.