Remembrance of Leisure Suits Past

As will forever be the norm, my first brush with sexuality involved a computer screen and naughty intent. But the encounter, when it finally arrived, was fully censored, and moments later my avatar — sweet, fumbling Larry — had died of an STD. I was eleven.

Anyone who remembers the name Leisure Suit Larry will know that he hasn’t aged well. Published thirty years ago to mock outrage and massive sales, Sierra’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards must have confirmed the worst stereotypes about computer games and the programmers who made them. Playing as Larry, a balding schlemiel whose virginity is his one defining feature, you’re tasked with bedding a woman before the night runs out.

This proves difficult not because seducing strangers on the fly is difficult, and demands a kaleidoscope of skills inaccessible to most casual gamers. Nor is Larry’s manifest loserdom an obstacle; once you find them, his potential sexual partners are cringingly receptive to gifts (including money). The game challenges you instead by scattering those gifts across a cheesy nightscape and making you search for them — along with a dozen other handy items and scraps of information — without giving you much clue as to what you’re looking for. Losing Larry’s virginity comes down to discovering the proper application of a few “everyday tools”, like a length of rope or a shot of whiskey.

To any adult who’s not socially deficient, the premise is tasteless or worse. (Though that didn’t stop millions of people from buying and presumably enjoying the game — including my dad. (Was it part of a bundle that included Captain Comic and Reader Rabbit? Did it come with his Apple II? Did he in fact learn of the existence of Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards and decide to purchase it for his own personal use? The sands of time abrade all memory.))

But to a straight white eleven-year-old male born in the waning days of Reagan, for whom sex itself was a game to be mastered and girls an order to be feared, Leisure Suit Larry was a revelation — it felt exactly right. Of course the major set pieces of grownup life would include a disco, a hotel/casino and a guttertrash bar complete with blinking neon sign. Of course the possibility of death from alley thugs, pissed off cabbies, and aforementioned STDs would haunt every seedy encounter. Of course it would take a combination of guile, guesswork and a stolen membership card to slip past the bouncer or talk your way into the back room.

Even getting access to the game itself required forbidden knowledge. To prevent the inevitable, creator Al Lowe introduced a multiple-choice test meant to block underaged players, which questions ran from the literal to the irreverent and suggestive. (“Lee Harvey Oswald killed…” “c. John F. Kennedy”; “If a physician were stranded on a desert island with Bo Derek, he would probably…” “d. Thank God”)

I remember playdates hovering behind me, debating the biography of Sergeant Pepper. There were enough questions to make rote memorization difficult, and most of them called for judgment, not merely fact. Many teased the subject matter directly: “The most likely place to find virgins is…” (a. The Virgin Islands; b. Virginia; c. St. Mary’s Girls School; d. Hollywood). Even when the game was doing its best to dissuade you, everything presented as an inside joke — the core frustration and central appeal to an audience of eleven year olds who desperately wanted to get it. (If you missed two questions, a pop-up text screen would exclaim “You’re a kid!!” as though you had just tripped on your stilts and tumbled out of your beige trenchcoat.)

So after several reboots, you clear the final question. You rejoice. You high five. The game advises you to slip into your leisure suit. Its cheerful MIDI soundtrack issues from the speakers. You’re pretty sure you’re going to see some boobs. You barrel into Lefty’s bar and start typing all sorts of commands, most of which aren’t understood. After days — weeks? — of diligent sleuthing you discover the password to the pimp’s apartment graffitied on a bathroom wall. You gift your whiskey shot to the wino in the hallway and get his TV remote in return. You use the remote to change the channel on the pimp’s TV to porn, thereby distracting him. (The pimp’s blackness, like the Quikimart cashier’s brownness or the indeterminate sienna of the back alley thugs that serve to demarcate where Larry can and can’t go, never register with you as even mildly problematic.) You march up the stairs and greet the hooker triumphantly. You disrobe and engage in censored pixel action. The game announces that while you have technically lost your virginity, you haven’t won. After a minute your crotch begins flashing and a text box helpfully informs you that you have contracted a disease. Larry falls down dead because “while life may be possible, it is no longer worth living.” The game doesn’t respect you because you don’t respect yourself. You start over.

How many iterations of this formula can a preteen compute before the game’s worldview becomes encoded? How much exposure to an insidious attitude — a collection of ugly gestures that would almost certainly be called toxic masculinity in today’s parlance — can eleven year olds safely absorb?

It’s not as though Leisure Suit Larry was the most sexist cultural artifact of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Far from it. But by deploying sexual frustration as a gameplay mechanic, as something to be conquered by effort and cunning, it brought me closer to frank misogyny than many of its bawdier contemporaries. Thank God life, and sex, bear no resemblance to it. Never in my postpubescent years have I had to fish for diamond rings in dirty sinks, or swipe the unmarked pills from a neighbor’s windowsill just in case they might later come in handy. Money is obtained, dully but duly, from my employer and not a bank of slot machines. Women are humans and seduction is bidirectional. The world as a whole is less titillating, but more interesting. Some of these recognitions were perhaps harder-won than they should have been.

Still, there are moments when the game’s ancient perspective sneaks up on you like a dormant punchline. I remember standing in a line freshman year, mentally preparing to show a nightclub bouncer my fake ID for the very first time. When it worked and he let me by, I understood that a new stage of life awaited me, a new plane of existence had been achieved. As I walked into the dark space I could feel my eleven-year-old self taking over — palms sweaty, limbs limber. I looked around. An empty dance floor dominated the room, flanked by hordes of identical men huddled in leather booths: an ocean of Larrys, just trying to get lucky.

I write sporadic, minimally researched essays on topics in gaming that interest me. Follow for more, and in the immortal words of Jeb!, please clap.