By Richard Cobbett on February 26th, 2011 at 6:00 pm.
We continue our Gaming Made Me series with a quick visit to the brain of Richard Cobbett, who might just have been exposed to an excessive amount of point ‘n’ click as a youngster. Let’s see what he has to say…
Yes, that Larry. No, not because of that. Or that. Maybe a little of that. But definitely none of that. When I first played this game, I was far too young to really care what it was about, or to get most of the jokes. The only reason I even had a copy in the first place was that a friend’s father had a pirated version of it that he used as an ice-breaker on boring management training courses – to get technically inexperienced office people more comfortable using the scary glowing machine from the future, before teaching them how to make project management flow-charts.
For me though, it was something to play on my PC that wasn’t Bouncing Babies or Flightmare or one of the other dreadful games I had courtesy of a box of floppy disks with suspiciously hand-written labels. Not having a ‘real’ copy, I neither knew what the point of the game was, nor did I care. I didn’t know what a leisure suit was, what a lounge lizard was meant to be, or why there was a fat man blocking the stairs to some smelly girl‘s bedroom in some seedy run-down bar. In my defence, she actually does turn out to have cooties… if by cooties, you mean an STD that literally makes Larry’s penis explode if he sleeps with her without a condom.
As far as I was concerned though, the game wasn’t about sex, whatever that was meant to be, but just about this guy in town, doing stuff. Larry was one of the first adventures I remember playing that used the real world as its playground, and more importantly, which encouraged experimentation. (Let’s just assume the double-entendres are noted from this point on, okay?) It wasn’t just that it used a text parser for controlling the game, but that you could generally see at a glance what things were and had a good idea of what they were meant to do. Buy a drink at the bar. Use the jukebox. Watch a comedy show.
Bang a hooker. Kiss a girl. The relatable setting made it a much more interesting game to explore than any of the random fantasy dreck over in King’s Quest CXVII: Boring Is The Head That Wears The Crown.
The moment that really stands out for me was realising that you could call a cab. It seems simple, but up to that point, I’d figured the whole game took place in the bar where you start. If you go left or right, you’re beaten up and killed by a thug. If you try to cross the street, a car will always run you over. Every time I played it, I just went into the bar and ambled around a bit, just typing things into the parser and seeing what happened. Realising that there was a whole world out there was simply… incredible. “Where to?” demanded the cabbie. “I DON’T KNOW!” I replied, before spending the evening trying to think of all the possible places this seedy magic carpet of filth and depravity might be able to take me. I later found that you could just ask him for a list. I’m glad I didn’t. In that form, Larry is a very small game. BAR. CASINO. SHOP. CHAPEL. DISCO. In my head, it was huge – a whole city! – because I’d discovered them myself. I was the Christopher Columbus of slightly porny graphic adventure games.
(Larry 2 on the other hand, Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places, is genuinely an epic – and one of the most insane sequels I’ve ever played. Amongst other things, it sends you onto a TV dating show, lets you cheat to win the lottery, involves taking a cruise on which the KGB is trying to kill you, drops you off on two different tropical islands, has you mistaken for a Russian spy, features a joke where Larry has to prove his worthiness to marry a beautiful native girl by showing her father that he knows how to program in assembly language, and ends when you blow up a supervillain’s volcano lair using a molotov cocktail made out of an air-sick bag and hair products. Every single word of that is true, and none of it is out of context.)
That feeling of discovery was what I loved about the first Larry game. The interaction density wasn’t incredible by the standards of the time, but it was pretty damn good, with lots of hidden stuff. My favourite thing was collecting the deaths. Sierra Sudden Death Syndrome was in full effect – its adventures didn’t simply punish you for making mistakes, but actively sought out ways to kill you. Just check out this video. They’re on YouTube for damn near every Sierra adventure out there, mostly because Sierra took its time to make dying fun. There’d usually be a joke, or a pun, or a full animation to soften the blow. Larry only really had two proper cut-scenes in it, and both of them were for deaths – committing suicide if you took too long to get him laid by a lady, and a glimpse behind the scenes in the Sierra Factory. Finding that kind of thing was usually much more satisfying than actually solving the puzzles. Larry played relatively fair by the standards of the time, but not without a few moments of insane moon logic.
(The oddest of these in the first game is when he marries a gold-digger called Fawn, who drains him of everything he’s got, then ties him to the honeymoon bed in his underpants and runs off with his money. If you hadn’t previously collected the knife, you couldn’t cut the ropes. Exactly where he was keeping that knife, or how he used it while spreadeagled and helpless, gets somewhat glossed over because You’re Not Meant To Worry About That.)
There was something else to find though, which I found incredibly cool. Larry had cheat codes. Adventures never had cheat codes. By pressing Alt-D twice, you got to mess around behind the scenes, get all the items, teleport to any room (which is how I know about the virgin suicide death – I’d never actually taken long enough playing it to see it directly) and get all kinds of top-secret developer type information you weren’t meant to know. Lefty’s Bar for instance was Room 011, not – as you’d surely expect – Room 001. Isn’t that interesting?
No. It isn’t. But finding it was. Just picking and poking at Larry, even in the limited ways available at the time was largely what taught me that I loved adventure games. I’d play many better over the years, and I’d already played a few by this point, but this is the one that made me excited about the exploration and (relative) freedom I’d come to associate with the genre for the next decade or so. Now, one of my disappointments with it is how little of it I usually feel when I play most of the modern ones, compared to something like an adventuring RPG.
However, there was another side to Larry too, which I still keep in mind today: how easy it is to misjudge a game. The hate the series has gotten over the years is incredible, and even mentioning it usually draws mocking contempt. Leisure Suit Larry? That virtual sex game for losers? Well, no. It’s not a virtual sex game, anyway. It’s a comedy series that simply uses sex as its subject matter – the point isn’t to live vicariously through Larry as he gets off with random cartoon women, but to laugh at his misfortunes as he tries and fails.
Even then, there’s more to it than meets the eye, and it’s the original Larry trilogy I think of whenever I feel myself making a snap-judgement about a new game based on what it looks like, or how it’s been described in a few characters on Twitter. It’s a fascinating example of a series not being what it seems. Larry 1 may be a comedy remake of a game called Softporn Adventure, but it’s not really about sex at all. Nor are its two sequels. They’re about love, making Larry a more sympathetic hero than you’d think, given his reputation.
It might sound odd to say that a game where you can have sex with a hooker within five minutes is either sympathetic or about love, but it’s true. Well, mostly. It does have plenty of silly, off-colour jokes, its female characters are very two-dimensional (although in fairness, so are all of the men) and there are moments across the whole series that I find pretty distasteful. However, when you get down to the details, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Take that hooker scene for instance. Larry’s stated goal in the first game, as a 40-year old salesman, is to lose his virginity. However, he’s no playboy. He has no idea what he’s doing. His polyester suit and confidence are a front, because in his head, that’s what a cool person is like. Simply having sex, like he thought he wanted, leaves him utterly unfulfilled, making him press on in search of something that actually means something.
That’s the goal of the original trilogy. Every time he thinks he’s found it, he’s shown as completely content. When Larry 2 starts for instance, he hasn’t realised that the woman he fell for only saw him as a one-night stand and isn’t happy to find him at her place, expecting to move in. At the end of the second game, he marries a native girl called Kalalau, and is blissfully fat and happy for the start of Larry 3… when he gets home to find that she’s divorced him while he was out. He dons the suit while shouting like a petulant child that he’s had enough of love and caring and his only goal now is going to be pleasure. That lasts until he falls for the game’s co-star, Passionate Patti (I know, just roll with it) and works his backside off to be a good enough man to win her. They go to bed, mutually realise that they’re in love… with rather more surprise in her case… and are just happily drifting off when Patti accidentally murmurs someone else’s name in her sleep. Hearing this, Larry has a complete breakdown, silently giving up forever and just walking off into the lethal tropical jungle to die. The second half of the game has you playing as Patti, chasing after him to give them both a happy ending. It’s not exactly Romeo and Juliet, but it’s at least slightly touching. More than anything in Lula 3D, at least. Or Man Enough.
(After Larry 3, this element got almost completely removed from the series. It’s still there a bit in the otherwise truly diabolical, pointless, desperately unfunny Larry 5, which also splits control between Larry and Patti, and links their sections by showing their day-dreams. All of Larry’s involve Patti, who he’s lost touch with – having a romantic ride through Venice, attending a concert she’s playing and so on. All of hers… well, they’re all about banging Donald Trump, Bill Gates and Scrooge McDuck. In Larry 6 and 7, there’s no romance element at all – 6 is sleazy and mean-spirited, 7 is a really good, very underrated adventure, but one that really is about Larry running around in search of a good time. The later 3D games are hateful, misogynistic pieces of crap. Burn them in contemptuous fire and sow the ground with salt.)
This is something I like to keep in mind when easy targets come along – especially when they’re doing something off the beaten track. Look at the response to, say, Playboy: The Mansion, which was a perfectly respectable strategy game in its own right, or even the response to the Dragon Age trailers a few years back, the importance of it becomes clear. It’s so easy to be blindsided by what something ‘obviously’ is that you lose sight of the fact that you kinda need to find out for sure. If nothing else, it’s all the more satisfying when you realise you were right.