Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

It seems only fitting that to accompany my lengthy interview with Al Lowe, I look back at his infamous breakthrough game, which was also one of the first graphical adventures I ever played.

Now, I will start by saying that the very first time I played this game, I certainly wasn't old enough to buy this game, let alone understand all of the situations and innuendo contained within. As I touched upon in my interview with Al, this lead to many hours of guessing and re-playing the age-verification quiz. This was made even more difficult that a lot of the American pop culture and U.S. history questions were straight over my head - being a young boy, born and raised in England.

But once I finally got past the interrogation and I stood outside the flashing neon of Leftys Bar, with the internal speaker bleeting out the Leisure Suit Larry theme tune, I was introduced to a new world of gaming. From recollection, this and Police Quest were the first Graphical Adventures I ever tried - which came first I'm not sure - but Leisure Suit Larry helped shape what I expected from future adventure games. It had humour, colourful characters and backgrounds, fetch-quests, irritating death scenes and everything else which you might associate with the "Classic" age of adventuring.

For those of you who may have never played the game - you play as Larry Laffer, a hopeless failure with the ladies, who is looking for the right woman - or any woman that will take him. With less than $100 in your pocket, you must traverse the city of "Lost Wages", to track down and win that elusive prize.

The character of Larry is that of the lovable loser, and whilst this is shown more fully in later games, there isn't a great deal of character development in this first outing.
Honestly, the game is very short and the puzzles aren't too taxing. For a game where you are required to jump through hoops to find the perfect lady, the puzzles are actually fairly logical and most won't have you stumped for extended periods of time. Whereas Leisure Suit Larry 2 : Looking for Love (in Several Wrong places) definately wanders into the ridiculous at times, Lounge Lizards is a simpler and more down-to-earth premise.

That was probably the huge charm of the game. Most guys who might have played the game on it's initial release would have been able to sympathise with the common man, useless when it comes to talking with women - a lovable loser. The settings were all identifiable and the characters were all ones we could have met ourselves. Compared to King's Quest and Space Quest - Larry was real, but unlike Police Quest - it still kept the great Sierra sense of humour.

Al Lowe approached the project with the idea of doing a semi-parody of an earlier Sierra game - Softporn.
Upon playing Softporn, Al found it horribly dated and humourless, and set out to dress it up in a Leisure Suit.

Larry wasn't anything revolutionary - it used the same game engine and sprite graphics as the rest of the Quest games. The parser text typing input was the sole control method and the graphics, athough far from spectacular, were charming. With the limited pixel and colour palette, animations and illustrations created the world vividly. The music was limited to internal bleeps and bloops.The theme tune - written by Lowe - was horribly catchy, although sound effects in general were basic.

The staple of Sierra games - the death scenes - were commonplace here too.
The comedy set it apart though. When it comes to the point that you want the character to die in every permutation possible, so you can see the outcome, you know the designer has done something right. Jokes were everywhere, and no opportunity to deliver a punchline was missed.

Larry being re-built after another death scene.

When I was young and hadn't yet grown accustomed to the Sierra adage of Save early and save often, I remember particularly well - after an encounter with a lady - being arrested for public indecency, because I hadn't opted to zip up after the act. It made perfect sense. Of course you should do that, but who would have thought of it? As frustrating as it was, you had to laugh at the thought of it all. Never before had game over scenarios been so entertaining.

This is the secret of the enduring popularity of Larry. The games were never gratuitous with their depiction of sex and women. Innuendo and suggestion were abundant of course - but so were they in the Carry On series of films. Despite frequent 15 and 18 age ratings being plastered on the games, there is nothing in them that you wouldn't see at 8pm on cable TV nowadays. The genius of the writing was to make the women the characters with the power. Their needs or whims are really fueling the puzzles, not Larry's desire to copulate. Larry is the fall guy and your job is to get him out of the predicaments he gets himself into.

Playing the game after many years with fresh eyes has shown me the laughs are still there. It is still funny to repeatedly trample over a drunkards' crotch. The animation and character models still bring a wry smile.
Although Larry is more rounded and his motivations more sympathetic in later iterations of the game, here it is most accessible and immediately enjoyable. You need little to no history in adventure games to "get" Leisure Suit Larry. I suppose that is truly what allowed the game to become such a runaway success.

It may be hard to come back to this game for those who have never experienced the vintage Sierra Adventures before. They are ingrained on early adventure gamers, they illustrate to us all that was good - and bad - about adventure games.

Clunky? Yes. Unforgiving? Certainly. But endlessly charming.