From the gender fluid romancing mechanics of the Mass Effect series, to horned-and-horny sex scenes with Dragon Age warrior the Iron Bull, there's a lot of on-screen grinding going on in the gaming industry these days. In part, we've got Al Lowe to thank for that. The retired computer programmer may not have been the first to have brought heavy petting to personal computer culture, but his Leisure Suit Larry series—starring a balding, pathetic pick-up artist named Larry Laffer—thrusted sex-themed game graphics into the mainstream back in the late 1980s.
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the first instalment, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Full of pervy puns and puzzles, the animated adventure had an aging virgin cruising bars and a sex worker's bedroom in order to score—in all applicable senses of the word. Despite the raunchy reputation, Lowe points out that Larry was more of a porn parody than a substitute for skin flicks.
"I didn't want to do a pornographic game," Lowe told VICE on a call from his home in Bellevue, Washington. "There was [computer animated] pornography out then, but, you know, the resolution was terrible. Shit, you could go down and rent a really nice VHS tape for a buck or two, why would you want to buy a game and go through the mental gymnastics of playing an adventure game just to see a few pixels that might be sensual?"
The history of adult-themed games is, unsurprisingly, a long one. Early on, you had porny unlicensed Atari 2600 titles like Beat 'Em and Eat 'Em, a Kaboom knock-off that where you rack up points catching mouthfuls of semen instead of bombs, and the infamous Custer's Revenge, a beyond offensive outing where the goal is to get the US general to rape an Indigenous woman. Back in 1981, before Laffer got his first on-screen rejection, computer game publisher Sierra (then named On-Line Systems) distributed an adult-themed, text-only offering for the Apple II called Softporn Adventure. Created by Charles Benton, you impressed women with gifts of candy and jewelry in order to get them to bed. The game-closing text command is "screw girl." It was a big hit, with sales hitting an estimated 50,000 copies.
By the mid 80s, Lowe—a music teacher who changed careers to make games for Sierra—was tasked by company founder Ken Williams to remake Softporn with graphics. The programmer, whose early titles included educational games based on Disney properties like Winnie the Pooh and The Black Cauldron, rebooted the original Adventure and quickly realized its antiquated dating values would have to be overhauled.
"I came back and said, 'Oh shit, Ken, this game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit,'" Lowe recalls with a laugh, this prophetic quip giving sleazy try-hard Larry both his nickname and his intentionally outdated, all-white polyester outfit. "I said the only way I could possibly do this game is if you let me make fun of it. This was the time when AIDS was really scary…. back in the mid 80s, AIDS came along and nobody knew what it was, how it worked, or what the deal was. And people were scared to death! We'd had 20 years or more of pretty open sexual relationships, and suddenly you can die? [ Softporn Adventure] just didn't seem like the right project for that time."
Though Land of the Lounge Lizards isn't exactly a PSA, you do, in fact, die if you sleep with the in-game sex worker without wearing protection. Getting around this problem, you go to a convenience store to buy condoms. Much to your shame, the clerk calls you out in front of the rest of his customers for being such a "pervert." Even more painful for the horndog protagonist, a typed command of "bite clit" when you're back in the bedroom leads to the following oral exchange:
"Come on over here, Larry!" She says, "Me first!" as she goes to work on you. Then she smiles as she bites it off! Sorry, Larry."
"I wanted to make fun of guys, because guys talk about sex a lot. And the whole game was about sex, but not necessarily good sex," Lowe says of his intentions, adding that it was "funny to make the protagonist a character who wanted to get laid, and couldn't."
Another of Lowe's interests with developing the Larry series was that it was so drastically different than the rest of the games on the market. Even within the Sierra family, the fantasy-themed King's Quest and goofball galaxy adventure Space Quest were twists on familiar scenarios. Navigating a guy through his failing love life made Sierra's self-deprecating, humour-laden "Sex Quest" unique.
"There were 'save the planet' stories, and there were 'swords and sandals' stories. Not much else," Lowe says of the 80s landscape. "I thought I was doing something that would stand out because it wasn't one of those formats. It was a current day, modern setting, and it wouldn't look like every other game that's on the shelf."
Keeping that in mind, Leisure Suit Larry initially had trouble finding its audience. Between Sierra's budget issues at the time ("the company was short on cash"), and chain retailers like Radio Shack balking at promoting a risqué title to a conservative clientele, Larry's floppy wasn't exactly flying out of stores at first. Early sales reports pegged it as selling 4,000 copies at a time when its publisher was used to pushing 50,000. Slowly though, word of mouth led the game to becoming a sleeper hit; the Software Publishers Association crowned it the Best Adventure or Fantasy/Role-Playing Game of 1987.
Despite the praise, the game—as well as six follow-up entries Lowe put together until the mid 90s—was also routinely lambasted for being sexist. Lowe recalls meeting people at trade shows and being chastised for his work, but he thinks the satirical edge of the series was lost on many.
"It's the exact opposite of misogyny, the guy is the dumb one!" he says of Laffer, who deflates more than his sense of self-esteem in Land of the Lounge Lizards during an off-screen tryst with a blow-up doll. "He's making fun of men, and the women are always smarter, more attractive."
Even if idyllically shapely animated characters named Eve and Faith were intended to parody the male gaze with their 16-colour come-hither looks, the game's guffaws still play off outdated stereotypes. There's the "dirty hooker" angle, of course, but other elements inspired by the original Softporn Adventure's plotline include a gold digger trope where Larry, after wooing a woman named Fawn with presents, is tied to hotel bed and robbed. Elsewhere, he creepily gives Spanish Fly to a desk attendant at a hotel, but the pay-off is that the woman quickly dashes out of the scene to go home and have sex with her partner. Outside of the sex jokes, it's cringey when the brown-skinned convenience store owner pronounces his "r's" as "l's" as he shames you for buying "lubbers."
"Things have grown to where today Larry would be seen as a prudish game, because the original had no four letter words, and had no nudity—it had no sex, to speak of."
Lowe notes that his sense of humour has changed since his early programming days. Since retiring from full-time programming in the late 90s, he's been sending two jokes a day—one dirty, one clean—to an email list of thousands. There's still plenty of low-brow groaners ("How is tofu like a dildo? They're both meat substitutes!"), but he's evolved past pure shock value. "At first, I did send out some jokes that I thought were funny that included rape. I got some feedback from people and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, 'yeah, rape isn't funny.'"
By today's standards, though, the Larry series' approach to on-screen sex is downright quaint. Throughout all of his x-rated affairs, you never see an actual sex act in Land of the Lounge Lizards—his romp with the sex worker is covered by a jiggling "censored" bar. 1996's Leisure Suit Larry: Love for Sail was the first entry to actually show light nudity, but even that seems tame compared to the supremely steamy sex scenes presented in contemporary gay dating sim Coming Out on Top, or adult virtual reality title BeacHouSex.
"We ended up opening up software to more liberal attitudes, I guess would be the way to say it," Lowe concedes. "Things have grown to where today Larry would be seen as a prudish game, because the original had no four letter words, and had no nudity—it had no sex, to speak of. I mean, there was a lot of talk about it—he was thinking about it a lot—but he wasn't getting any [on-screen]."
Like Softporn Adventure before it, Larry has become a screengrab of a long-gone era. The title was remade twice, first with a point-and-click 1991 upgrade and again in 2013 as the Kickstarter-funded Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded, but the industry has taken a hard-left away from Sierra-styled, humour-based adventure titles.
"Larry was a game of its time, and it worked at that period; It doesn't work now," Lowe says. "I think that's why when we redid Larry 1, with the Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded project, we didn't set it in today's time. What we did was set it in the late 80s and keep Larry in his world, where he made sense."
Even if Lowe wanted to produce a modernized Larry game, he can't. The rights to the character—not to mention, in a bizarre twist, a fictionalized version of Lowe that had appeared in the series—are currently owned by British game developers Codemasters. We may not be getting any more animated Laffer entries from the series' creator, but Lowe's legacy endures in other ways.
He deadpans: "I think it's easier to buy condoms today. I'd like to take some responsibility for that."
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