Leisure Suit Larry [1987]

You ever been to Las Vegas? I don’t gamble — too cowardly — but I got a grandma who lives in Vegas. Strange place, you know. Probably my least favorite place in the United States. Most of it is a normal mid-sized American desert city, just with abnormally wide roads, I mean even by American standards it’s a pedestrian-unfriendly town. Not that there’s anything worth walking for. Vegas has this bizarre, pulsating, sugar-fed cavity right down the middle of it called the Strip, the promised land of a thousand casinos. It’s uncanny, gross, and grotesque to soak in half-sober and alone, I can tell you that. I felt a little sick to be there, feverish, disoriented with a headache, but it felt like the place itself was the sickness, some kind of diseased rot, like an infected scar or a tapeworm, something that’s parasitic but stable and can just keep feeding off of its host indefinitely. It’s confrontationally superficial, wallpaper over termite-bit wood. The Strip is a monument to gaudy glitz and glamor and greed, essentially daring you to balk. I saw beggars moved by its spirit with cardboard signs reading things like “YOUR WIFES HOT” or simply “FUCK YOU.” In a lot of places, the Strip is so narrow, such a paper-thin facade, that the moment you step a block off of it you’re back in a sleepy town where you’re hard-pressed to find a building more than two or three stories tall. It’s a theme park of a town, complete with a roller coaster. The only city Las Vegas can be compared to is Washington DC, another monumental theme park built on inhospitable land surrounded by an irrelevant city, just too wet instead of too dry, and both are hyper-American, just in different ways for different audiences.

Singin’ MC Breeze – Discombobulatorbubalaator [1986]. Content warning for an overbroad comedic Chinese accent paired with slurs and stereotypes so infamously offensive that this was allegedly the first rap record to get censored through the legal system. This is sadly consonant with part of today’s game.

Leisure Suit Larry In The Land Of The Lounge Lizards [1987] takes place in an obvious parody of Las Vegas called “Lost Wages.” It’s even cheaper and seedier than the real thing, even calibrating for the real thing being really cheaper and seedier in the actual 1980s. It looks like a dump that struggles to work its way up to “tacky” (nevermind “gaudy”) through seagreen paintjobs and moose heads. The eight-story casino is right next to a lousy wooden shack. It mainly takes place in the two-story-tops buildings of Las Vegas’ backroads but puts elements of The Strip into those, synthesizing the two halves into a fuller picture of the reality, then it amps up the dilapidation for good measure.

I’m not actually much of a stickler for playing the most historically-accurate versions of these games, but Leisure Suit Larry’s remakes did change and add quite a bit so I played the original. This was a valuable experience, because it meant experiencing some pretty illegible graphics in the vein of “is that a trash can, or a human being?” or a rose being depicted in about 8 pixels total so it had to take fallback recourse to good ole prose narration. This notably was not at all a problem in King’s Quest [1984], which had generally bigger simpler sprites and worked in the world of iconography. Leisure Suit Larry maybe has a less deft hand in artwork, but it also takes on the task of approximating contemporary real life and is in places visibly straining to capture that ambition past the technical constraints.

The visual perspective also adjusts to match, and the world design follows. Most of King’s Quest is outside, with a wonky angle where you can’t see any horizon line, so not quite god’s-eye top-down view but certainly high-up, befitting of a monarch, but the actual things were depicted not at a tilt but generally directly side-on, befitting of its nature as a collection of symbolic and allegoric cliches instead of reading as a real space. Leisure Suit Larry drops the perspective back down to about eye-level, maybe a couple feet higher, closer to the side-on view traditionally used to get audiences to identify with the protagonist than the top-down view used to get a fuller, more detached picture. But there’s still a distance here, this isn’t the first-person perspective of Sierra’s debut, Mystery House [1980]. Most of LSL takes place inside, and the walls, floor, and ceiling create depth staging, an effect like you’re looking into a box with people running around inside it. It’s a theatrical proscenium.

King’s Quest attempts to convince you of an entire kingdom and maybe even impress you with its wide open plains. Many screens have absolutely nothing in them, existing for the sake of sheer scale. Leisure Suit Larry feels palpably smaller than King’s Quest, though I haven’t actually gone through and counted screens. (Not gonna quantify this feeling.) It’s in a tight urban environment, but it’s denser. Every screen is packed with things to look at or interact with or pick up. Non-player characters litter the whole game, even if they don’t do much but fidget around.

Rather than there being no reason to go off the beaten path, it is brutally enforced that you don’t go off the beaten path because you will be nigh-instantly killed by a fat black mugger from behind a dumpster — the suburbanite’s nightmare of visiting the city. The other also-fat black man is a pimp, and he’s extremely stupid and libidinal. That’s the only two black characters, then there’s the ambiguously foreign brown-skinned convenience store cashier whose command of English slips from line to line, from full-on gibberish representing a language neither Larry, the narrator, nor the audience can understand (ala Takeshi’s Challenge [1986]), to a thick accent and broken grammar, to correct grammar with the Ls and Rs swapped — really running the bases of hack racial comedy. Every other character in Lost Wages is white. That’s very telling.

The question of how much, exactly, the players are meant to identify with Larry is a multifaceted one. While anyone can get something out of art no matter who they are, the implied target audience for this text is someone who’s pretty close to Larry in real life, at least in terms of demographics: A straight white American male in the late 80s, born sometime in the 60s at the earliest. The opening age gate pop quiz underlines the particularity of place and era by asking many trivia questions that boil down to “were you cognizant of the Nixon administration?” A leisure suit, after all, is also a quintessential 1970s relic. It just doesn’t have the same cultural associations (if any) to people who do not remember the Nixon administration, which means the joke of Larry wearing a costume that’s about 10 to 15 years out-of-date has to be reconstructed.

There’s a number of jokes at Larry’s expense. He’s a pathetic, misbegotten, clueless buffoon to be clowned upon by the world and the narrator. A 30-something virgin and a dweeb with no self-awareness. So clearly, though the implied audience is someone somewhat like Larry, they’re not to strictly identify with the protagonist, otherwise they’d be insulted. Larry is in modern parlance “cringe.” He’s the character that’s extra-embarrassing because you can see a little bit of yourself in there, a slightly awry, askew reflection. But by the same token, you can also easily sympathize. And when he’s the recipient of its slapstick and misfortune, that makes us root for him more. The game doesn’t really hate Larry like it hates, say, the hacky stand-up comedian.

On a macro level, the plot of Leisure Suit Larry is to have sex with three women. King’s Quest also had three objectives to pursue, and King Graham even makes a cameo, so it becomes tempting to read the two texts in an allegorical relationship such that Larry is also becoming a kind of king by getting notches on his bedpost, but one important distinction that I think stymies this read is that King’s Quest’s notably nonlinear approach where all three objectives can be pursued completely independently of one another is not present in Leisure Suit Larry. Instead, Leisure Suit Larry nests its three objectives such that they must happen in a specific, canonical order.

Most of the puzzles in the game hinge on giving things to the various characters hanging around, in excess of the amount of adventure game kleptomania you engage in. Larry is fundamentally a charitable person, willing to give to beggars with no expectation of a return, which is tied to his naivete but is never punished. One of Larry’s primary motivations and first instincts as a character is he just wants to make everyone happy by giving them things… even if that means giving, like, a free beer to an alcoholic. But as a matter of adventure-game dependencies, almost every time he gives someone something, he DOES get something out of it. From the player’s perspective, this is all still transactional.

This transactional nature gains a slightly dark but not quite ashen edge when applied to the premise of the game: the player is to guide Larry into having sex with beautiful women, who are lavishly-rendered in close-up cheesecake with their nipples pointing through their tops, except the topless one. These women are highly sexualized and highly objectified, true, but that’s not like, a crime. I struggle to think of any more appropriate context for such depictions than a raunchy work about (and a little bit for) the straight male libido. And unlike say a strip poker video game or other outright porn games, ogling the women is interestingly not really positioned as a reward-in-itself for good gameplay. The goal is ultimately not to peek down dresses but to get laid, which is depicted comically, unerotically, and from a distant vantage point if at all. Instead, the pin-ups come matter-of-factly at the start of the courtship process. These images are not prizes to be won, doled out and withheld as as a precious commodity, nor arguably are the women themselves. This slightly dulls the transactional feeling. The components of the stereotypical “gacha game” are actually all already here, including simulated gambling which the player is to grind through, but they’re all scrambled up and not really meshing with one another. The game, like Larry, doesn’t really expect to get anything out of its audience, just to give them something.

The first sequence in the game actually needles on the transactions-for-sex concept in the most stark terms possible: prostitution. If you think the goal of the game is just to get Larry laid, you can pointedly accomplish that within minutes of booting up the game without venturing beyond the opening location. First, you have to read the bathroom graffiti to get a password to a speakeasy-like door in the bar. The reading is an action you have to perform multiple times for no mechanical nor instrumental reason at all, but you’re likely to do it for the inherent entertainment value of reading the funny little blurbs of text you get from doing it. Comedy has a certain gravitational pull on the adventure game, and this is one of a few key reasons why. Bafflingly, designer/writer Al Lowe claims in multiple interviews that nobody was doing comedy adventure games before Leisure Suit Larry despite the existence of multiple hit comedy adventure games and even the existence of Sierra’s own farcical Space Quest [1986]. Either he means “comedy” or “adventure game” in a very particular sense (like comedy as a genre being grounded in everyday circumstances, or text adventures not counting despite Sierra being one of the very few developers making graphical pure-adventures up to this point,) or this is another example for the “Sierra existed in a creative bubble of their own devising” file.

Anyway, then Larry has to either pay or distract the pimp to get to the prostitute’s room. Now whatever you happen to think about the ethics of legal prostitution, it seems to me plenty obvious that it is worse to sleep with a prostitute under false pretenses of having paid than it is to pay for sex. However, one, Larry does not otherwise do anything coercive nor deceptive en route to sex, which given the standards of the bawdy 1980s sex comedies it’s one of is miraculously conscientious, and two, Larry needn’t actually have sex with her to progress forward in the game, he just needs to take an item from her room. However, if he does, Larry’s post-nut clarity provides his most important character and thematic beat, because he is unsatisfied with having merely lost his virginity in a mechanical sense. He does not simply want to ejaculate, he decides, he wants to form a real emotional connection, and this is the basis on which the rest of the game’s story proceeds. There’s an obvious lob towards a moral-of-the-story here: Sex as a mechanical and economical transaction of goods and services is insufficient for your humanity.

So Larry moves on to the second woman, found lounging at a disco surrounded by Larry lookalikes. He’s going to court this one. He tries to butter her up with cheesy lines that can’t work, and through a dance, but primarily through gifts, including the aforementioned trophy from the prostitute’s lair, serving at once as a mechanical progress gate and a symbolic totem of his sexual experience, and finally a large sum of money to seal the deal. After which comes… even more fetching of gifts and money. Seen through Larry’s rose-tinted glasses this is what a whirlwind romance looks like — they even get married! But obviously, this is still all transactional, arguably even moreso than with the prostitute, and it subsequently backfires on Larry in equally transactional terms. It turns out (of course) that she was only ever using him to get the material things, and Larry wasn’t savvy enough to see this even though the audience probably was. The culmination of the plot, the punchline, is that this logic extends to robbing Larry blind instead of having sex with him. I generally wouldn’t call this a particularly misogynist text, to my own surprise, but so far we are two for two on sexy women using a hapless male horndog as a wallet.

But now that throughline is gone, and curiously, so are all the ideas that it seemed to be developing about sex-as-transaction. In the home stretch, these themes it really hammered on completely dissolve, and without those as guidelines the game turns to puzzle-ass puzzles. Larry’s next task is to… tie a rope around himself and hang off a fire escape to smash a window with a hammer to steal some stranger’s bottle of pills that you don’t know what are and have no motivation for getting other than that they’re there, a huge upgrade in both nonsense and blatant scuzzy immorality for the character. I honestly thought it was going somewhere with these ideas, that it was probably overall structured according to the “rule of threes,” where you have two things that establish a pattern and then a punchline that twists the pattern and resolves the thought, here probably into a final moral-of-the-story.

Admittedly, it kind of does do the rule of threes thing, in that the third woman to get a high-res portrait left in the game actually isn’t the third woman Larry can sex up. It turns out those pills are Spanish Fly, and she’s stubborn to all other possible approaches, so you just do what you did with the second woman, and give her the dang pills. There’s a pun here, in that most of the time when you talk about “giving” someone Spanish Fly you mean that they ingested it, but here instead of Larry doing that he just gives her the whole pill bottle. She gladly accepts and leaves the game to go use them with her boyfriend, leaving her post at the casino hotel desk unattended.

At this point, Larry the burglar opens the big notable gold door to move from smash-and-grab to break-and-enter. Sure, this is all normal adventure game stuff, the casual plunder, but it’s jarring to me because for 2/3rds of the game it wasn’t like this and Larry was basically a helpful elf. He enters the casino’s penthouse suite via elevator, where he can get optionally laid with a blow-up doll, which seems like a bit of formal self-critique. There’s also a “real” woman in this area, who looks a bit like the blow-up doll and doesn’t amount to much more. She happens to be lounging around already nude and alone in her hot tub and is inexplicably horny for Larry, an unexpected stranger who just broke into her hotel room. Plausibility and logic is here abandoned in the name of delivering softcore pornography. Her name is Eve, so you naturally give her an apple…

Earlier, I said I played the original version. But Leisure Suit Larry is actually already a beat-for-beat remake of an older Sierra game, Softporn Adventure [1981], and this is where their plots diverge for some reason. In Softporn Adventure, Eve leads the proto-Larry to a literal Garden Of Eden, which is a pretty easy allusion to read: you’ve just enacted the Biblical fall from grace in reverse, and thereby entered a pre-Lapsarian paradise of innocent sexual freedom. There is nothing to suggest this reading in Leisure Suit Larry, although the allusion is still slap-in-the-face obvious. Instead, Eve leads Larry back to the bedroom (immediately adjacent to the sex doll.) The game ends with metaphorical fireworks, and the narrator drops the fiction and speaks directly to the player about the production context of the game, somewhat reminiscent of the playful fourth-wall drop of Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77].

It’s more immediately at-hand to read the situation as the biblical fall in forwards, such that the giving of the apple makes Larry a satanic figure of temptation into sin here. Leisure Suit Larry is a naughty game and Las Vegas is “sin city” — the game gets some of its charge from the giddiness of its perceived boyish transgression of morals, so it does fit to round it out as a mildly Satanist text. I was a fool to even half-expect a moral to this story, it’s cheekily immoral. It is an indulgence. It’s hard for me to get too worked up about that; if anything, in that light, I kinda wish Larry had sucked MORE.


Hello everyone, and welcome back to me. It’s been an extremely turbulent and stressful time in my life recently: for a while depression incapacitated me from functioning, and then when I came out of that fog I simply had too much to think about and do about the big-picture life stuff, which meant being tired all the time. It drove a few of my hairs gray at the temples. You’ll all surely be glad to hear that I have, in fact, sorted my life out, made a gameplan for the future, and my mood has dramatically improved this summer. I’ve been swimming every day, which is lovely, and I’m actually excited for my new job, which I think will really fit into my ideal work-life balance (that means, leaving time for more posts.)

Huge thanks to Drew Cook.

10 thoughts on “Leisure Suit Larry [1987]

  1. The LSL games celebrate titillation but do not themselves attempt to titillate, which makes more sense to me now than it did back then.

    Some good points about adventure games, “key puzzles,” and transactional relationships!

    Like

  2. I take it you’ve never met an actual pimp before.

    The crime rates in the 1980s were through the roof. Muggings were common in the urban core.

    The game asks questions about the Nixon administration because these are dull questions that kids wouldn’t know. It’s a form of age verification, in an age before game ratings. LSL was definitely not for children – although today with pedophilia being normalized we see how times have changed.

    You missed a golden opportunity to take swipes at incels. Everyone doesn’t like them so they’re open season for hate speech.

    I always found the term incel to be pretty funny. It implies the only real use for a woman is status though penetration. It’s true.

    Sex as a mechanical and economical transaction of goods and services is insufficient for your humanity.

    What 30 year old virgins want more than anything else is to be judged as worthy by desirable women. Not the old in-and-out itself. Paying a prostitute does nothing to achieve this goal.

    sexy women using a hapless male horndog as a wallet.

    The game correctly predicts Onlyfans and simps.

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      1. What changed after the 1980s, when New York went from crime-ridden streets full of muggers to the safe place where women could freely walk around at night just like in Sex And The City?

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        1. I must ask, why do you hang out here? Absolutely nobody here likes you. You’re a banal pedant, in love with the sound of your own voice, but with nothing of value to say. You aren’t changing minds or winning hearts. You are wasting hours of your precious life crafting elaborate line-by-line takedowns that do nothing to prove your intellectual superiority and everything to prove that for all the time you spend here, it’s not all that clear whether you can even read.

          Like

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