Heads up: This post is going to have some rougher language than what I normally post. We’re going to be talking about the kinds of things teenagers type into videogame text parsers, which means we’re going to get into some naughty words and otherwise unusual subject matter for this blog. I don’t know why I’m warning you. I know you’re going to read it anyway. But it seems like the polite thing to do is to give people fair warning when you’re going to transition to a more graphic type of content. If you’ve got sunglasses you wear when you’re worried about seeing the word “fuck”, then now is the time to put them on. Actually, I guess you’re a sentence late. Shit, sorry about that.
A few years ago I read a review of Leisure Suit Larry. The review was by a youngCompared to me, anyway. person who probably wasn’t around when the original game came out in 1987. The review was about as negative as you can get without declaring vendetta against the developers and their families. It basically dismissed the whole thing as ghastly, ugly, unfunny trash.
Leisure Suit Larry is an adventure game classic and I have many fond memories of it, so I dismissed this person as a crank who doesn’t appreciate a good dick joke – the kind of person who has decided to cultivate a sense of smug superiority in lieu of a sense of humor. But reading the review put me in the mood to play it again, so I picked up the 2013 remake and gave it a go.
What I discovered when I returned to the game in 2013 is that the reviewer was basically right. Maybe they were trying a little too hard to be offended by things and maybe their ignorance of old-school adventure game mechanics hampered their ability to understand the puzzles, but it was pretty hard to argue with their conclusions regarding the humor. The game wasn’t nearly as funny as I remembered it. It’s a strange sensation to revisit a joke that made you howl with laughter 30 years ago and find it doesn’t even cause you to move any of your facial muscles. Not even the potent forces of nostalgia could salvage it. It just wasn’t amusing or fun.
So what happened? Why did Larry stop being funny?
In Case You Missed It
For the young and innocent among you: The name has been shortened over the years. Originally it was titled “Leisure Suit Larry and the Land of the Lounge Lizards”. It’s an adventure game in the style of the Old Sierra titles like King’s Quest, Police Quest, or Space Quest. You walk around a lo-fi 16-color world, type broken sentence fragments into the parser, pick up inventory, and try to untangle the dream logic behind the various puzzlesStrangely enough, the puzzles were a lot less insane than its contemporaries. A few of them even made some kind of sense..
The game was remade with modernized graphics in 1991, and then again in 2013. The original was based on an even older work, a 1981 text-only game called SoftPorn Adventure. I never saw or even heard of SoftPorn Adventure until decades later when I looked up the series on Wikipedia. I know Leisure Suit Larry borrowed the premise and puzzles of SoftPorn, but I have no idea if they shared jokes or if the text game was even intended to be humorous at all.
In the game you control Larry Laffer, the original 40 year old virgin. He’s decided to hit the town and lose his virginity once and for all. He’s a dorky, balding (and in the remakes, also short and pudgy) traveling salesman in a Leisure SuitHe was also a stealth mockery of a salesman named Jerry who worked at developer Sierra On-Line back in the 80’s. He would come back from business trips with improbable tales of all of the incredibly hot women he’d bedded. The programming staff hated him and so borrowed a lot of his attributes for their loser protagonist. The leisure suit itself was mocking how old and anachronistic SoftPorn Adventure had become.. An important detail that gets lost on younger audiences is that Leisure Suits were faddish novelty clothing and that by 1987 they were shockingly, woefully out of date. The closest analogy I can make is this: Imagine a dumpy middle-aged white guy showing up at a rave in 2016 while wearing MC Hammer parachute pants and a Flava Flav clock. That was who Larry Laffer was. He was a man with breathtaking social ineptitude.
So your goal in the game is to overcome your seemingly insurmountable shortcomings with regard to looks, career prospects, social standing, personality, personal taste, and sex appeal, and somehow convince a woman to have sex with you. The game takes place in the city of Lost Wages (Las Vegas, obviously) and features a handful of locations: A dive bar, a convenience store, a 24 hour wedding chapel, a casino, a Hotel, and a few others.
Did You Know?
I’ve never heard anyone else mention this, but it’s a gameplay detail I discovered as a teenager. I noticed there was an in-game clock, and that the story began at 10PM. The clock ran in real-time. So I wondered what would happen if you let the game run until morning? What happens when the sun comes up? I correctly intuited that they wouldn’t have daytime versions of all of the locations. My guess was that the game would just ignore the clock and that the game would continue with night scenery. It turned out I was wrong.
But finding out was actually kind of difficult. You couldn’t just walk away from the game and come back 8 hours later, because the game randomly pops up messages that would stop the clock. It would tell you how bad your breath was getting, prompting you to use the breath spray object in your inventory. These messages come up every five minutes or so, meaning you’d have to sit there and hit enter every five minutes for 8 hours straight to keep the clock moving. After some experimenting, I found a situation where the game wouldn’t give you these messages. I know it had something to do with the alley beside Lefty’s Bar. Maybe it was hiding in the dumpster, or maybe it was hanging from the rope on the fire escapeIt’s a long story., but somewhere in that alley was a spot that disabled the breath spray prompts. Once I found that, I let the game run overnight and came back to see the result in the morning.
What happens when the sun comes up? Nothing right away. The game continues to run. But as soon as you walk outsideThe alley counts as an “indoor” location for some reason. the game ends. Larry realizes that the night has ended and that he’s still a virgin. So he pulls out a gun and blows his brains out. It was a surprisingly dark ending that I’m sure most people never saw.
Where Did The Funny Go?
Despite the morbid threat of suicide, Leisure Suit Larry was hilarious to my 17 year old self when I played it in 1988, and yet I was numb to it in 2013. Why? Why has the funny left Leisure Suit Larry when Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Three Amigos still maintain a lot of their original charm? It would be easy to dismiss this as the damage inflicted by my ongoing reluctant slide to maturity, but I laughed while watching Spaceballs last year. While there are a lot of things you can call that movie, “mature” isn’t one of them.
The problem is that Leisure Suit Larry was very much a product of its time, and while the various remakes have given the game a graphical facelift, they can’t re-create the particular arrangement of gaming culture and gameplay tropes that made the original such a hit.
A Subversible Vehicle
The main joke of the game was that it constantly subverted the normal expectations established by the existing [$Genre] Quest titles, which were basically clean, family-friendly adventures. You had the same interface, the same pointless score bar at the top, the same style of inventory-driven puzzles. Except this game was about boning instead of saving the kingdom. It was a game about dick jokes and innuendo in a style of game that was usually a collection of common story tropes and lame puns.
The joke isn’t the joke itself, the joke is that this joke was told in this context. It was like a newscaster telling a dick joke, or hearing a Muppet say “fuck”. It was shocking and transgressive. Players had never seen a game “go there” before.
The joke – the idea of doing something edgy or profane in this kind of adventure game – was as old as the games themselves. It was born about thirty seconds after the first player booted up the original King’s Quest and typed “fart” into the command line. It was a joke players had been creating for themselves, and a joke that the games had stubbornly refused to participate in.
You don't have one of those.
>PISS ON FARMER
The farmer doesn't need one of those.
You don't see one of those here.
>SHOW KING MY DICK
I don't know what that means.
Leisure Suit Larry was just the first gameNot actually the first game. It was just the first one that became popular. to participate in the joke. Suddenly there was a game that would respond humorously to your shenanigans instead of replying with clinical bafflement. When you tried to screw someone (or everyone) the game understood your intent and explained why you couldn’t. Just having the game correctly parse these crude actions was a punchline all by itself. The fact that it followed up with a humorous reply was just gravy.
But today? That’s not even a joke anymore. We’ve got entire genres of games dedicated to ribald matters. We’ve got games about showering with your dad. Games about running a pornography empire. We’ve got action shmups engorged with homoerotic imagery. We’ve got match three games about trying to screw anime girls. Penises are no longer a secret in the world of videogames. It’s no longer shocking or edgy to make these kinds of jokes.
There’s nothing left to subvert.
Another thing to kill the laughs for me was the move to better graphics. I know I’m already redlining on the scale of “stuff old guys say” in this article, but hear me out.
In the other adventure games, upgrading their graphics made it possible to create more moods. Once you had more than 16 colors to work with, you could make places that seemed genuinely spooky. Places that seemed forlorn. Cheerful. Vibrant. Muted. The designer had more options. But the 4-bit graphics of Leisure Suit Larry were already pretty good at conveying the mood of the world: Cheap, sleazy, and gaudy. As graphics got better, it created an odd distortion. Suddenly those pixelated ladies weren’t so pixelated anymore. Their presence began to overshadow the rest of the scene, and now the dominant mood was “vaguely titillating”. As the years went on and graphics continued to improve, this progressed to “overtly titillating”.
It was kind of funny to have a game make a fuss over how “sexy” a lady was when she had the same number of pixels as old 16-bit Mario. But once they started looking like actual pin-up girls, that dimension of the humor was lost. It gradually felt less like a joke about a guy who wants to hook up with sexy ladies and more a vehicle for actually looking at sexy ladies. This changes the tone of the jokes. It’s the difference between a comic where two stick figures are screwing, and the exact same joke told with photographs of real people. To wit: It’s no longer the exact same joke.
I’ve said before that there’s nothing more uncomfortable than someone else’s turn-on. That’s what the That’s My Fetish meme is all about. When you’ve got blocky graphics, there’s a certain distancing effect going on. The images are safe for everyone because you get the sense that nobody is really getting off to thisWhich isn’t remotely true of course. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no boundaries to the things people will get off to..
But once the game starts delivering cheesecake images as a reward for progress, that safety is gone and lots of people get uncomfortable. “Ew. Are people really… uh… into these cartoon ladies?” You feel like you’ve stumbled into someone else’s kink. It’s no longer a game laughing at porn, it’s a game that is porn. (Ultra-tame, PG-13 porn. So… lousy porn. Great. Now NOBODY is happy.)
This is not to say that you’re a bad person if you like the newer games. I am not one to judge. By all means, enjoy what makes you happy. That’s what entertainment is for. It’s just that the move away from pixel graphics changed the nature of the humor and created something that could be off-putting to some people. It narrows the audience.
No Text Parser
The later remakes weren’t just modernized in terms of graphics, they were also modernized in terms of interface. Computer mice were finally standard, so games were moving away from text-based input to mouse-based input. Instead of trying to figure out what phrasing the game expected in order to “USE POTION ON GUARD”, you could just select the potion in your inventory and click on the guard. This solved the infuriating problem in these games where you couldn’t tell if you had the wrong solution to a puzzle, or if you had the right solution but weren’t using the right phrasing to describe it. It also solved this problem:
You don't see that here.
You don't see that here.
You don't see that here.
An iron portcullis stands before you, barring entrance to the castle.
The player doesn’t need to play “guess the synonym”. You don’t have awkward situations where the player needs to explain WHICH door they’re talking about if there happen to be several. You don’t need to worry about typos, misunderstood visualsThat blob of chunky pixels isn’t a statue in front of the wall, it’s an engraving., tricky spelling, ambiguous grammar, or the problem where the player is trying to interact with clutter items scattered around the scenery. You just give the player a mouse pointer and let them click on stuff.
But while the text parser was the source of all misery in a regular adventure game, in Larry’s world it was also the source of all humor. In fact, it was the frustration of having the game misunderstand you ten times in a row that often led players to type something rude or absurd into the command line. The frustration of being misunderstood by a parser is one of the reasons the profane responses of LSL were so cathartic.
When Larry got his remake, they gave you an “open zipper” icon to use when you wanted to do naughty things, and this murdered the humor. Instead of feeling subversive, it became a sanctioned action in the game. I mean, it was always a sanctioned action because the developers wrote text responses for it, but showing the icon to the player made it obvious. Instead of feeling like a prankster for typing, SCREW HOBO, the game was making it clear that this was an expected course of action. The surprise was gone, along with the sense of mischief.
It also removed a lot of the depth. You no longer had distinct responses for fuck, shit, piss, and whatever other profane things the player might devise. You had all of the “normal” icons, and then you had the zipper as a generic catch-all for “naughty stuff”.
Lost in Translation
So that was the original Leisure Suit Larry. It was a game that provided an absurdist joke about sexy pixel women that entertained an audience of people frustrated with text parsers by subverting genre expectations.
The recent in-name-only sequels went in totally the wrong direction and exacerbated everything that’s hindered the series over the years. The sexy content has been ramped up, the adventure game mechanics are gone, and you’re left with a fiddly game that rewards you with animated tits when you win. And long-time fans hated them. This wasn’t a Leisure Suit Larry game. This was a game that Leisure Suit Larry himself would be embarrassed to play.
Al Lowe, designer of the 1987 classic, said of these newer games, “It was like getting a video from your son's kidnappers. On the one hand you're glad he's still alive, but oh shit what've they done to him!?”
 Compared to me, anyway.
 Strangely enough, the puzzles were a lot less insane than its contemporaries. A few of them even made some kind of sense.
 He was also a stealth mockery of a salesman named Jerry who worked at developer Sierra On-Line back in the 80’s. He would come back from business trips with improbable tales of all of the incredibly hot women he’d bedded. The programming staff hated him and so borrowed a lot of his attributes for their loser protagonist. The leisure suit itself was mocking how old and anachronistic SoftPorn Adventure had become.
 It’s a long story.
 The alley counts as an “indoor” location for some reason.
 Not actually the first game. It was just the first one that became popular.
 Which isn’t remotely true of course. If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that there’s no boundaries to the things people will get off to.
 That blob of chunky pixels isn’t a statue in front of the wall, it’s an engraving.
Quakecon Keynote 2013 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.
C++ is a wonderful language for making horrible code.
A programming project where I set out to make a gigantic and complex world from simple data.
A Lack of Vision and Leadership
People fault EA for being greedy, but their real sin is just how terrible they are at it.
Quakecon 2012 Annotated
An interesting but technically dense talk about gaming technology. I translate it for the non-coders.