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Story of a Game: Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards

Games have stories. Not just stories of how they were developed, but stories from the people that played them and the way they affected the gaming world.

In this series, Ultimate Gaming Paradise is going to bring you some of the stories of games, from headline-making triple-A titles to some indie masterpieces.

Have you ever wondered what life was like for a sleazy American in the 1980s? No? Let’s take a look.

The Dawn of Sex in Computer Gaming

The 1980s were a very important time for computer games. While the concept of computer games was born in the 70s, it was the following decade that the structure was defined. The 80s holds a huge number of influential titles, and games that burst with original ideas and created precedents for everything that came since.

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It is of little surprise that into this fledgling industry came the idea of a game that crossed gently into the pornography sector. Despite the limitations of technical hardware, in 1981 a game came out that trod this line of explicit content. It was called, somewhat unsubtly, Softporn Adventure.

Softporn Adventure was a pretty poor text-based adventure game for the Apple II. Even calling it an ‘adventure game’ is a bit of a stretch as it was actually little more than a technical exercise and demonstration for cross-disk data access. It wasn’t very good, and it wasn’t particularly exciting, but it sold by the bucket load. Why? Because it was called Softporn, it had a cover photo with naked women on it, it had a lewd theme, and it was released in America.

That last point may seem slightly bigoted, even racist, but it’s not. It’s an important cultural point that we’ll come back to later.

Softporn Adventure was released by On-Line Systems, the company that would soon become Sierra On-Line. Some years later, Softporn would be redeveloped and significantly redesigned to become the huge hit Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.

Selling the Softporn Adventure

Softporn Adventure was a project that had been written by Charles Benton in Applesoft Basic for the Apple II. Initially, Benton had no intention of writing a game. Instead, he was looking to test the capabilities of the Apple II’s data transfer to see if it was a suitable platform for more serious business-led software. To test whether or not he could hold the core program on one disk and access data on a second floppy, he wrote some code that did exactly that.

This test project became a simple adventure game shell and some puzzle-based data that was on disk number two. As he was only writing for himself, his ‘plot’ about a middle-aged virgin lacking people skills who was trying to get laid for the first time wasn’t really designed for public consumption. However, when his friends enjoyed the demo, he was convinced to try to publish it and he found himself selling Softporn Adventure to the fledgeling Sierra.

The numbers were impressive. At the time, official figures showed that there were 100,000 users of the Apple II and yet, On-Line Systems managed to sell 25,000 copies of the game. One in four Apple II owners with a copy of Softporn Adventure was impressive enough, but given the heavy level of piracy of the time, it’s more likely that something closer to 75% of Apple II owners actually had the game. That’s the sort of market penetration companies today dream of.

As a game, though, Softporn Adventure was definitely lacking. There had been no quality-assurance testing and the parser (which is the bit that tries to understand what the user has typed in) was incredibly basic. Plus, the plot was a sleazy mess that was badly written with more a programmer’s sensibility than a writer’s skill.

In its favour though, the core of the puzzle suite was actually quite well designed, something that would help the later remake solidify itself as a truly-playable title.

Redeveloping Softporn as Leisure Suit Larry

On-Line Systems / Sierra On-Line was a small company at the time, but already was developing software that would become heavily influential. During the 1980s they became known for their graphical adventure games. Spurred on by game designer Roberta Williams, who had a passion for writing fantasy adventures, and her husband Ken, Sierra On-Line developed a system for point-and-click adventures that includes classics such as Mystery House, and the King’s Quest and Space Quest series.

One of their programmers was Al Lowe. Lowe had worked for Sierra on a selection of Disney tie-in educational titles, such as Donald Duck’s Playground, and The Black Cauldron. When, in 1986, their license with Disney expired, Lowe suggested to Ken Williams that they remake Softporn using the experience and new tools that they had available to them. Williams agreed and Al Lowe started the small side project that would grow to become Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards.

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It didn’t take Lowe long to realise that the content of Softporn was already out of date. Even though the older game was less than a decade old, it relied on both cultural references and a culture itself that had become embarrassingly dated by the mid-80s. If he was to rework it into a new game, he was going to have to update all the humour and storyline elements considerably. Famously, Al Lowe said, “This game is so out of touch it should be wearing a leisure suit!” in his first proper meeting with Ken Williams about the remake, leading to the visualisation and moniker of the protagonist.

With a little tweaking—at one point, Leisure Suit Larry was called “Gary” after one of the less-classy salesmen on the Sierra payroll—the main character was crafted.

Sex Sells – Especially to Teenage Boys

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was a sought-after game on this side of the Atlantic. While its main market was the States, there were plenty in the UK who wanted to try it out, and most of those were technically underage. Though it had a few little attempts to keep the game out of the hands of children, it was teenagers to whom the game really appealed. Pornography in the 1980s, and access to it, was a completely different beast to the widespread internet-based monolith of today, and it was both a lot tamer and a lot more difficult for eager adolescents to get their hands on.

The rumours and whisperings of Larry and his adventures spread through the common rooms and playgrounds of upper schools and sixth forms across the country. Like most rumours, these were heavily exaggerated and if they were to be believed, Leisure Suit Larry was a game that somehow managed to show scenes of a sexual nature that were unlike anything previously imagined. Of course, this was complete rubbish; not only was LSLitLotLL a really unerotic game with absolutely no uncensored explicit content, but even if it had been the hardcore porn title of legend, the computers of the day would have been unable to display its fabled imagery. Four-colour 16-bit IBM-PC clones of the late 1980s struggled with decent graphical representations of racing cars; a photo-quality naked woman was light-years away from reality.

Nonetheless, these rumours ensured that copies of the game (pirated, of course) were handed between enthusiastic teen-gamers (almost universally male) to be stuffed under shirts and brought out that evening in a private gaming session, hopefully once Mum and Dad had gone to bed.

What a disappointment it turned out to be!

The American Issue

Perhaps the greatest barrier between British people and Americans is each culture’s sense of humour. Simply put, they find us unfathomable, and we consider them pretty pathetic. Though there are definite cross-over points and occasional well-written Hollywood comedies that can elicit a smirk from even the most stoic Englishman, for the most part, Americans just aren’t funny.

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards suffered heavily from this affliction. Even at the time, when the culture was a lot more forgiving of its offensive casual racism and stereotyped depictions of both men and women, the game comes across like a bad version of the early 80s Porky’s movies. It was always pretty cringe-worthy.

Part of that can also be blamed on how tame the game actually is, something that marks another difference between the social environments on either side of the Atlantic—that of Christianity and religious fervour. There was a huge portion of Sierra’s team whose religious stance meant they didn’t even want to work on the title; even Al Lowe himself wanted to hold back from anything too lewd due to his own Christian beliefs. The feeling in America at the time was very much that the game would be crossing a line they weren’t actually willing to cross. Various shops in the US refused to stock the game, including Radio Shack, which represented a third of Sierra’s typical sales channel. Only one of the graphics team was happy to put his hand to the work, and it was all effectively done off-payroll, as an extra-curricular activity within Sierra itself.

This meant that the “X-rated” content of LSLitLotLL is actually little more than some poor sleazy jokes, a little bit of schoolboy innuendo, and the constant embarrassing thread of a middle-aged offensive arsehole trying to inappropriately assault women. Or just offend them. It doesn’t even reach the high-brow level of Viz magazine. If it were released today, it would fall very flat.

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Despite that, people were (and still are) keen to describe it as a bit of a classic. It was rare to find someone who had genuinely completed it, and this meant that exaggerated tales of what you might find later on in the adventure helped maintain that mythological status. Pre-internet, if your friend told you that something happened in a part of the game you’d never seen, you had no way to dispute it.

The truth is, however, that while the puzzle and adventure elements of Leisure Suit Larry were both worthy components and helped create a good game, it was never going to live up to the hype for people with a more British style of humour (and expectation of actual boobs).

The Impact of Leisure Suit Larry

Whether Leisure Suit Larry is or is not a good game doesn’t stop the fact that it is definitely one on the list of influential games of the 1980s.

On a minor level, the development of the game and the techniques used helped Sierra step up their internal game design process. It was the first of their games to go through proper beta testing, as Al Lowe was keen to make sure that the parser was able to handle more situations than simply the ones he and his teammates could think up. Consequently, they parcelled out the game to 100 beta testers, a move not previously done in the company, and were able to log those gaming sessions and input commands to greatly improve the system’s responses.

On a larger level, the success of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards opened up other game developers and publishers to the idea that perhaps sex need not be a taboo subject in the fledgling industry. Alongside Leather Goddesses of Phobos, a text-based adventure from Infocom a few years previously, Leisure Suit Larry showed the world that they didn’t have to be scared of the public’s reaction to a little innuendo and sexual content in the computer game market. Scenes in Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age: Origins, and The Witcher, some of which are more tastefully done than others, all owe their inclusion to the groundwork done by Larry.

Today the game can still be played. Though the original version with its blocky graphics is unlikely to appeal to any but the most hardcore of retro audiences, a remade version entitled Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded exists for a multitude of platforms, including mobile ones. With its narrated script and updated graphics and control system, it’s worth a look.

References

Jimmy Maher’s Article on Leisure Suit Larry at The Digital Antiquarian

Archived Interview with Al Lowe

Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded

MetalJesusRocks Behind the Scenes with Al Lowe