The lines between man and machine are blurred, but not in a cool cyberpunk way like in Shadowrun or anything like that. Instead, basic human interaction and social scenes are what have become digitized. Isolated and atomized individuals texting each other from across the table, more concerned with posting bangers for dopamine hits instead of talking to each other. Connecting with other people on deep and meaningful levels involves exposing our vulnerabilities and sensitive spots, our hopes and wants, fears and desires, risking rejection or scorn but also opening up the way for true communication to occur. We have to open up the pages of our book to let others see what’s scrawled on the pages, interpret it as they will, and maybe add a few lines of their own.
The extra layers of protective abstraction provided by screens remove the need for this. Your book becomes your profile page, the proverbial back of the cave wall, and we can project whatever we want on this, true or not. Human interaction becomes a game. Do or say the right things, get likes, gain followers, and level up. Instead of an open book, we become a self-serving, self-authored Amazon review, five stars, would totally recommend.
Few places bring this into such stark relief as the world of modern dating. Courtship and its associated end goals are digitized and gamified. This changes the object of your affection from a potential life mate into a digital avatar, and gamifies the delicate dance of trying to get into his or her pants. The right combination of words and/or material gifts will unlock your prospective partner, raising their affinity score above the required level for the two of you to get it on. In this way, the 1987 PC graphical adventure game Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was way ahead of the curve.
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Released during the burgeoning heyday of PC gaming giant Sierra On-Line, Leisure Suit Larry follows our 38-year-old virgin protagonist, Larry Laffer, through the city of Lost Wages (get it?) in his quest for love. Did I say love? I mean to get laid. And then love. Because this game has twin goals for Larry: have sex and find his soulmate. And for Larry, it’s a matter of life and death.
Think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Larry’s quest has a time limit, a countdown to extinction. If you look at Larry’s watch at the start of the game, the player will learn that the action starts at 10:00 p.m. The watch, however, runs at real-time, and if after two in-game hours Larry will shoot himself.
It’s a bit odd that, at midnight, the suicide screen shows the sun coming up, but we can chalk that up to artistic license. I’ve seen some walkthroughs say that it takes seven hours, bringing the game time to 5:00 a.m., for this to take place, but I have never tried this myself to corroborate.
This sex/love process can be bifurcated, however, for the player who not only wants to achieve a maximum score, but also take their time with the “love” part: Larry can get it on with a prostitute (taking all proper precautions, naturally) to obviate the time limit. However, this is not the game’s victory condition. You can win Leisure Suit Larry, in fact, without engaging with the prostitute; you’ll just have to do it within the two-hour timeframe.
Larry soldiers on, finding various items to populate his inventory as one does in adventure games. If you’re unfamiliar with how these work, think of them as extended puzzles: you need A to accomplish B; find a key somewhere to unlock a door, for example. Except in Larry’s case, it’s more like find a disco pass in an ashtray to get past the bouncer standing guard at Lost Wages’s most exclusive (and only, as far as we can tell) dance club.
In his travels through the game’s various locations like the disco, the casino/hotel, the all-night wedding chapel, Lefty’s Bar, and the convenience store, Larry will find obstacles and characters and little hints of what to do next. The disco is of particular importance, because it is where we find the lovely blonde Fawn, the object of all male desire in the club, and the driving force behind much of the bulk of Leisure Suit Larry.
It is worth noting that the only characters with any sort of personality in this game are the four women Larry either has sex or tries to have sex with: the hooker, Fawn, the security guard Faith, and the ultimate woman Eve. These four all get full-screen graphical depictions as though you, the player, are looking at them. It is here where the player, via Larry, gets to feel like they’re actually trying to woo these lovely ladies by typing commands such as “Talk woman” and “Look boobs.”
It prefigures the world of dating apps (Is it even appropriate to call these things “dating” apps anymore?). The person you are hoping to meet/sleep with presents you with a picture to simulate a first-person view. Except here, all the hard work is done. You already know, based on the dating app’s profile, the person’s age, their sexual preference, their job, their likes and dislikes (Politics? Drugs of choice?), and what they want in life (Marriage? Children? Nothing but a good time?). You swipe in the appropriate direction on the person you’d like to engage with, and the dance has begun. Like Larry, you are taken into the dating interface, except here it’s over the app’s proprietary text-messaging app where you type in commands such as “Sup?” and “Your place or mine?”
Unlike Larry, there’s not a scoreboard keeping track of your triumphs to offer hints about whether you’re on the right track. But like Larry, if you’re the male in this relationship, the higher your income and the cooler you can make yourself seem, the better. For example, to unlock Fawn you must give her flowers, a box of chocolates (taken from the prostitute’s apartment), money, and a diamond ring. And like dating apps, to figure this out you do have to talk to her, and dance with her, first.
Larry and Fawn get married at the wedding chapel next to the casino, perhaps another commentary on the strange relationship Americans have with trying to do everything quickly and cheaply with none of that stuffy tradition or morality holding them down. Even something as sacred as getting married is turned into an utter farce here in Leisure Suit Larry. Perhaps game designer Al Lowe was merely reflecting what already exists in the form of drive-through wedding services and theme ceremonies, whether they be based upon Elvis Presley as was popular in decades past, or Star Wars as in decades now. All of our so-called freedom, all of our license, and adults act like overgrown children. Hell, adults embarrass their children.
Alas, Larry does not find love here either. After a brief digression to get champagne delivered to the casino’s honeymoon suite (you can tell which one it is because there’s a heart on the door), Larry finds himself tied up on the bed with all of his money stolen. Fawn, it turns out, did not really love Larry. She used him like she, presumably, uses all of the men in her life for money via sex. The stereotype might sound offensive to my female readers, but deep down in your cores you all know that it’s a stereotype for a reason.
I would like to take a moment to discuss the way that Larry has to go about getting the champagne, because it’s peak adventure game logic. In the honeymoon suite after the wedding, Fawn tells Larry she needs something to drink to get into the mood to consummate the marriage. However, Larry can’t simply go elsewhere in the casino to get a drink, which is somewhat astounding because it’s a casino. But no: no casino bar to go to, and no room service to call. In fact, there’s not even a phone in the hotel room, which is also somewhat astounding because it’s a hotel room.
There is, however, the convenience store, the place where Larry can buy the necessary penile protection if he wishes to sleep with the prostitute, and purchase a dirty magazine which actually contains a hint for one of the game’s later puzzles. It also sells wine by the jug.
The first time I played this game (I was very young; please don’t ask how or why I was able to play this game), I just left Fawn in the casino, took a taxicab to the convenience store, and bought some wine. Purely logical, right?
Remember, though: this is an adventure game! Logic goes out the window! If you enter a taxicab with a bottle of alcohol, the cab driver will immediately take it, guzzle the whole thing, and kill you both in a drunk-driving accident. Just like real life!
Note: You can buy alcohol at Lefty’s as well, but Larry quaffs the wine and beer immediately upon purchase. It’s only the whiskey that Larry can carry with him, necessary to receive the optional remote control that will let Larry past the pimp and into the hooker’s apartment, but while the taxi driver doesn’t snag and down the whiskey, it doesn’t work to get Fawn in the mood. This is actually pretty realistic; it’s doubtful that any woman would find a glass of whiskey carried halfway across town to be a very romantic beverage.
So simply buying some alcohol goes out the window.
This stumped me, which led me to utilize the two most valuable skills every adventure game player must possess and cultivate:
- Try to use every inventory object on everything you see.
- Observe, observe, observe!
Skill number one didn’t help me, but skill number two did. It turns out that there is a radio in the honeymoon suite. After listening to some music, an advertisement pays. And not just any advertisement, but one for—get this—a champagne delivery service. How convenient! Better jot down the number, because once you hit the “Enter” key to make the text box disappear, it’s gone for good.
Delivery champagne! Splendid! This will solve the problem of the booze-guzzling cab driver terrorizing the streets of Lost Wages! All Larry has to do is dial the number and . . .
. . . oh. Right. There is no phone in the entire hotel. So back to the convenience store it is . . .
This puzzle is nothing as ridiculous as some of the King’s Quest series’ worst, or the unbelievably retarded cat-hair-mustache puzzle from Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, which you should absolutely read about, but it still stretches the bounds of believability.
Anyway, back to the plot. Fawn leaves Larry tied to their erstwhile marital bed. It’s game over . . . unless you realized that you were supposed to purchase that jug of wine from the convenience store after all and give it to the bum who sometimes appears on the street outside of the store. In exchange for the booze, the friendly vagrant gives Larry a pocketknife. Somehow, though stripped to his boxers, Larry kept the pocketknife on his person and uses it, secret agent-style, to cut the ropes and get free.
Between giving the whiskey to the drunk in Lefty’s to get the remote control, and this, who says that Larry doesn’t also teach the player what men truly want as well.
While taking all of the cash from Larry’s wallet, Fawn apparently missed a $5 bill that Larry kept hidden for emergencies. Using this, Larry is able to play casino games, either blackjack or the slots, to build up his needed reserve of dollars in order to take taxicabs to the game’s various locations.
The ropes, along with the hammer found in Lefty’s dumpster (a lefthanded hammer, naturally), help Larry get the bottle of Spanish Fly conspicuously left on the sill of the window of the apartment next to the hooker’s; here’s where the issue if Jugs magazine the player has the option to purchase at the convenience store comes in handy. A quick jaunt to the casino’s top floor brings Larry face-to-face-and-bosom with Faith, the receptionist/penthouse guard.
She gobbles down the pills, and then runs off to her boyfriend, allowing Larry to enter the penthouse and see what awaits him. Mind you, the game gives the player no indication whatsoever that he needs to come to the penthouse for any reason save for “It’s an obstacle and there’s nowhere else to go at this point in the game.” But that’s adventure games for you. Enter the unknown because it’s there. In other words, totally based.
The penthouse is nice. If you go left, you find the game’s ultimate babe, but if you go right, you find Leisure Suit Larry’s infamous blow-up doll.
Let’s rewind a little bit. If the player lingers on the game’s title screen for a few seconds to enjoy the catchy theme song, they’ll be treated to a bizarre little animation of Larry chasing what I thought of as a kid as a floating woman. And in a way, it was. Larry is pursuing a simulacrum of a woman, a latex lady, a lonely person’s device, a way to get some release without having to play the game of courtship.
Here, in the penthouse closet, is where Larry find what we might classify as the game’s fifth woman. This time, it’s a literal object that Larry—God help us all—Larry can screw until it pops.
It’s pretty funny, but pretty disgusting. Larry, apparently havingtucked everything back in, chases the doll off to the left until he sees the game’s final boss/babe, Eve, lounging in a hot tub.
Let’s recap: Larry sneaks into a rich woman’s penthouse, bangs her blow-up doll until it springs a hole, and chases it out onto the rooftop hot tub where Eve, the penthouse’s and, presumably, doll’s owner, invites him to strip down and get in the tub with her.
Larry gives Eve an apple (I hope you gave some money to the guy wearing the barrel (it’s Steve Jobs; no, for real) who sometimes appears outside of the casino to get the apple, and didn’t eat the apple), Eve invites Larry to sleep with her, and the game is over. You win, finding sex and love as Sierra On-Line president Ken Willliams comes to chat to the player about Sierra’s other exciting adventure game offerings.
Back to the blow-up doll. In yet another way, Leisure Suit Larry predicts the coming sexbot revolution. The idea of men being able to pleasure themselves with some sort of physical object to fool themselves into think they’re with an actual woman is nothing new. But the technology is advancing to the point where we’ll soon, so they say, have sexbots that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And best of all, you don’t have to ply them with gifts in order to get a little! You just need to keep the batteries charged. That the game makes no moral judgment is also somewhat striking. It’s all good as long as you get your rocks off and don’t hurt anyone. A product of the Boomer generation that made the game, perhaps?
I suppose the blow-up doll is the most accurate representation of modern sex and dating in the game.
Anyway, that’s it. Game over. Larry found love. But ah, its not a lasting love, as we see immediately in the next game. And the game after that. Though the series continues after the first three that close this particular story, flimsy though it is, of Larry’s quest for real, lasting love, there’s nothing in the latter titles that quite captures and prophesizes the desperation and confusion of modern love like the first.
And Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards was quite controversial when it first appeared (as was its precursor, the text adventure called Softporn Adventure). Many claimed it corrupted the youth—maybe they were right about that—and objectified women. Maybe they were right about that too, literally. However, in defense of Leisure Suit Larry, Sierra said the game was not misogynistic since it was the women humiliating the man. I guess that makes it all right, another societal double-standard that has become a part of the American way laid out in the fading days of the Reagan administration and the height of American power. “Father knows best” turning into “Men are borderline retards who deserve to be mocked,” as though a man looking for love is an object of scorn and ridicule. Such is life.
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The fact that easy, cheap (well, $100 if you didn’t find get the remote control) sex isn’t enough to satisfy Larry on a deeper level is a, perhaps unintentionally, profound commentary on contemporary American society’s views on sex. We’re told via advertising, media, and even deeply ingrained cultural norms, that sex, for men especially, is everything. Getting nookie is what makes a man a man. The higher the notch count, the higher the manliness quotient.
But Larry, our innocent, loveable, naïve, and dorky pixelated avatar, does not feel complete after getting his rocks off with the hooker above Lefty’s bar. He wants more. He wants a deeper connection that will turn the physical act of sex into lovemaking. For that reason, the game continues on.
Look at how excited Larry is to wed Fawn. Sure, she’s a gold-digger with bad intentions looking to use her beauty to fleece gullible men—a tale as old as time—but Larry’s in this for the long haul. And yeah, the idea of supplying a busty babe like Faith with drugs to find love only works in the confines of a comedy adventure game. And I’ll grant that trespassing into a rich woman’s apartment, screwing her blow-up doll (why she has one is beyond me) until it pops, stripping down and hopping into her hot tub and wooing her with fruit handed out by barrel-wearing software developers is weird (yes, I get the apple/Eve connection), but the point is that Larry wants true companionship. Indeed, this is the main thrust of the entire Leisure Suit Larry series, except maybe the fifth game (which is actually the fourth . . . don’t ask).
In a way, Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards truly appeals to the much-maligned male fantasy: physical companionship with love. It turns out that tons and tons of consequence-free sex doesn’t make men as happy as its proponents led us to believe, leaving aside that we already know it is making women absolutely miserable (and crazy).
Men, too, have emotional needs that require fulfilment. In exchange for only having one woman to care for and cherish the rest of their lives, men want something in return, and that isn’t just sex: it’s emotional bonding. It’s someone who cares. Women are different than men in all of the important aspects, and that is why men love women, why men want women, why men need women. Larry Laffer in his quest to lose his virginity quickly comes to the realization, though presented in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that sex alone is not the sine qua non of a fulfilling existence as a man.
Contrary to popular belief, men tend to fall in love faster and harder than women. Men need that damsel to rescue, that dragon to slay. Few things can bring the most powerful, testosterone-fueled good man to heel than the love of a good woman. This should be celebrated. And even Larry Laffer, after overcoming many obstacles (and sexual humiliation) finds his princess at the end of Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals, which actually allows the player to control a female avatar in the latter portion of the game, with all of the crude jokes you could imagine.
The less said about Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love in Several Wrong Places, the second game in the series, the better; while a funny game, it’s not a particularly good one.
But the Leisure Suit Larry series, like all franchises, was not allowed to have its happy ending. There was demand for further entries, and money to be made. So Larry, stripped of what little dignity he’d found, soldiered on for three more games from Sierra (the less said about the reboots and revivals, the better) that offered better graphics and puzzle design (except for the fifth game, which is actually the fourth) but not nearly as much poignancy and bittersweet humor as the first.
We are Larry. We are insane. And we are conditioned to think that physical gratification is all there is to the dating game. Just don’t wait until midnight because time is ticking and that gun (where the hell did Larry get the gun, anyway, and why isn’t it in his inventory?) is weighing heavily in our pockets.
Loveable, naïve Larry. His intentions are plain, his social graces nil, his entire raison d’etre an open book. And what kind of man is an open book, anyway? What kind of man keeps no secrets and opens himself up to the slings and arrows of the harsh world of dating?
A good man, actually. And one we need to emulate if we truly wish to find love. But maybe seedy bars, fast women, and transactional dating apps built upon the promise of a romp between the sheets aren’t the places for such a man to look after all. In that respect, Larry is not a role model at all, but a warning: even if your intentions are pure, your pages are waiting to be filled with heartache, and maybe groin-ache, if you go about it the wrong way.
There is no saving and reloading in life.