The Surprising Feminist Overtures of a Leisure Suit Larry Retrospective
[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]
Like many adventure game aficionados, I grew up playing the Sierra and LucasArts classics and the Leisure Suit Larry franchise was a prominent component of my early games library. This doesn’t surprise most game developers in my age bracket, though for some it’s a little shocking when a woman says it based on reactions people have when I say that guiding Larry Laffer through the seedy splendor of Lost Wages and numerous Aerodork terminals was a seminal part of my formative years. Diving into those game worlds was like biting into good bread: it was satisfying, sustaining, and years later I’d realize it was literally keeping me alive.
I’m not the only girl who played Leisure Suit Larry growing up. I’m not even the first to say that it got undeserved flack for its content. But I might be the first to say that there is an incredible amount of unintentional feminism within the series.
I started playing Leisure Suit Larry around second grade. This was prior to those numerous Congressional hearings that heralded in the ESRB, and consuming media clearly intended for adults just hiked up the thrill factor. The cacophonous pixellated cityscapes and exaggerated character styles that fleshed out Larry’s worldview were the diametric opposite of that melange of high fantasy and realism present in other popular adventure games. The women Larry chases were drawn in such a detailed and realistic manner sharply contrasting the abstract game world, which felt like an honorific in a reality that often shunts women off to the side.
Cartoonish but not for kids, double-clicking those martini glass icons in System 7 opened up portals to locales drenched in biting sarcasm but sunkissed by blithe humor. Say what you will about Larry’s haunts being gritty, age-inappropriate, or even kind of sad: they’re still where some of my earliest dreams incubated.
I only had a vague inkling why Larry and Patti were on two concurrent voyages that convened at the end of the fifth game as I hadn’t played the second and third games in the series due to growing up in a Mac household, and didn’t get the joke about “The Missing Floppies” yet. So I let my imagination take the reins and just knew that when I grew up I also wanted to travel around the country and get into a number of sexy and hilarious hijinx with the men I’d meet in cities that breathed and paradisaical sanctums intended solely for fun and pleasure. To have those adventures before convening with The One providing that he didn’t get retconned by the sixth installment.
Fast forward to 9/11 and my junior year of high school. Adventure games were basically killed off because first-person shooters and fighting games were what studio heads figured were their bread and butter now. Narrative-driven 2D adventures were pushed aside in favor of 3D action games with more alluring fiscal potential since they weren’t behemoths of bespoke assets that would only be seen or heard for such a comparatively short time. Anything halfway sexual in this new breed of games was more for pandering to the 18–35 straight male demographic opposed to narrative devices or commentary on social mores. Whereas accidentally or not, Leisure Suit Larry was a wealth of statements about sex and romance.
As for other media aimed at my peers at the time, overly sexual music videos were constantly in our faces as were teen sex comedies like American Pie and Road Trip. The turn of the millennium had a cynical yet hopeful flavor of social commentary in its media when it came to sex and relationships. However, these movies frequently had several problematic aspects with how they depicted consent, agency, and female characters in general. My college years came and went and saw the birth of Netflix and eruption of user-created media on YouTube that was now providing “realer” content to audiences starved for it. Subsequently, over-the-top teen sex comedies died out in favor of gritty independent features geared for younger audiences.
Despite the moniker, teen sex comedies often showed sex in a negative light as far as women went. The same was true of other media from the same era for the most part. Even when a woman excitedly agreed to sex or took initiative, she couldn’t do anything right as far as agency, libido, and partner choice were concerned. Her entire worthiness as a person had to be predicated on how much she liked or disliked sex. “Good” women only enjoy sex in a relationship or ultimately want one, “bad” women fucked and moved on with no regrets and her intents (or lack thereof) had to be both analyzed and pitied to death.
Much to my dismay, I saw it translate to real life with the endless judging and slut-shaming I would experience well into my late twenties. It was a stark contrast to the brightly-colored thrall of Larryland where sex and humor intertwined harmoniously and no woman’s sexual past was ever brought up: Larry always lived in the moment. Despite being the unintended age and gender for Leisure Suit Larry, playing those games sent me a message years ahead of my sexual awakening that I had nothing to be ashamed of with respect to sexuality. That a man could blatantly flirt with a woman but he had to respect her boundaries since the outcome was dependent on how she responded, not what he wanted.
I was prompted to look back on Leisure Suit Larry after discussions on sexual autonomy and consent, but seeing Larry focus only on the present also made me realize it wasn’t any man’s business to know how many partners I’d had. I’d learn years down the line that obsession with that number was a red flag, but was shown at the time that a man pursuing a woman should focus on the present if he just wants sex. If he desires something deeper, he should only be concerned with being her last partner opposed to how many came before him. It’s ludicrous that decades after these games came out, women are still shamed for actual and perceived body counts and it’s used as justification to treat us as lesser beings.
People often think older Millennial women who date men became jaded once we grew up and got out in the real world after years of having Disney princes, flat love interests in our mothers’ bodice-ripper novels, and non-threatening teen hunks of the 90s fill us up with Surge-sweet false hope. That our expectations of living happily ever after following the kind of courtship that only exists in fan fiction were to be mercilessly shattered in a labyrinthine hellworld of unclear intentions in meatspace and draconian digital dating via social media and designated apps as we careen into our late thirties. And would we ever choke on those shards in the wake of bombardments of unwanted dick pics and itinerant lovers who majored in emotional manipulation because they wanted companionship, but minored in submarining because they see women’s time as worthless.
After a rough childhood that morphed into starting adulthood a hot mess, I grew up too fast to be disappointed a cartoon prince hadn’t swept me off my feet and saved me from any of that.
Rather, I was disillusioned when I came of age because a significant number of men I’d eventually interact with totally lacked Larry Laffer’s positive outlook on sex and romance. Leisure Suit Larry taught me about boundaries, consent, and healthy ways to process rejection long before other mediums did.
News of a new Leisure Suit Larry title in the works sans Al Lowe’s involvement has game historians and adventure game fans alike frantically abuzz. The original games are barely racy by today’s standards, but the general consensus among those discussing the game slated for a November 2018 release is that Larry Laffer is best left in a time when his eponymous leisure suit was only mildly outdated opposed to old enough to have kids in college.
As a games writer, the influence that Leisure Suit Larry had on my writing style and sense of humor is undeniable. The snappy dialog that brought characters to life even without voiceovers didn’t just influence the way I write dialog but also my internal monologues. The women Larry pursues are described in succinctly poetic, and often bluntly lustful, reverence. The settings are zany and slightly hyperbolic whether they’re urban grit and glamor thrown in a blender or idyllic getaways. What ultimately brings all that zaniness to life is that the player is shown, not told, through the NPC dialog and narration that the entire world is out to treat Larry like this unctuous inconvenience. Yet he takes all of it like a champ.
In the face of the seismic shifts from the #MeToo movement and groups of self-identifying incels vocalizing violent anti-woman agendas that have mounting casualties, a leisure suit-donning wannabe lothario from yesteryear’s games actually presents a salient talking point right now.
Consent, women’s agency, and violence against women in the face of rejection are finally being discussed but still being met with denial and resistance. People blame media for men growing up to feel entitled to women’s time, affection, and bodies and video games remain an ever-popular target. The whole “save the princess from the dragon and the princess is your reward” trope is based on the myth of Andromeda and has been present in countless art forms for centuries, but was seen in a lot of prominent early video games in a cringey manner so that criticism never died. In some cases, it was even deserved. But did Leisure Suit Larry contribute to this culture of entitlement — or subvert it completely?
The original games depict Larry Laffer as a total jobber in a ladder match against the world at large. He’s a totally average guy and nothing like the muscle-bound superheroes and soldiers with unnatural prowess we’ve seen take the reins in video games throughout time. Larry’s a protagonist the average man is far more likely to relate to: the short stature, bald spot, soft vocal timbre, and dated clothes and taste in music lend more realism to game characters than we typically saw in those days and even now. Better yet, none of those things stop him from chasing women who are disproportionately more attractive (and in some cases, successful) than he is.
Larry rarely gets the racy romps he was hoping for upon doing fetch quests for these women, but he always comes through it positively and ready for more fun and adventure in mere seconds. It’s a far cry from the broken record that screams “Bitch! You’re ugly anyway!” that most women have been subject to upon rejecting unwanted advances. This reality and expectation is so deeply-embedded that I and numerous other women have actually been impressed when we got polite and nonviolent reactions to “I’m not interested”.
Impressed. Over baseline human decency.
Larry Laffer, on the other hand, is incredibly resilient. Game critics of today write him off as a dated and uninspired casanova-wannabe seeking casual sex on vacation. But whether he embarked on some arduous quest or even wound up tied to a bed just to have his paramour steal his wallet and leave him there (twice!), Larry just moved on with an upbeat attitude every time it didn’t work out. And honestly, that should be the standard but here I need to point out just how rarely that kind of emotional healthiness is portrayed in media. Granted, those portrayals being rare could simply be realism at work given the verbal and/or physical violence women can face after rejecting a man. Given the context of a game based on sexual pursuit, it’s shockingly forward-thinking seeing how rejection and persistence have been treated in most other mediums.
In most games that center sex and romance, it’s considered a fail state to not have a date or sex with an NPC you’re pursuing. But in Larry Laffer’s case, rejection served as a game mechanic.
While the games do end with Larry having sex, it’s actually not what drives most of the core gameplay even though Larry can have sex multiple times in the first and seventh installments. Rather, Larry getting rejected repeatedly is a mechanic that pulls the story along by giving you crucial inventory items or unlocking areas. It’s not simply a narrative device but rather a type of build-up that makes you want to celebrate Larry reaching the end of the game and solving that one puzzle that makes it all come together (pun absolutely intended.) The fact that Larry goes through this constant rejection makes the player start to expect it because it also serves as comic relief. Getting turned down or having that misadventure not work out moved the plot along and provided more gameplay, but also fueled Al Lowe’s trademark jokes.
For the sixth and seventh games in particular, Larry getting laid was essentially a “boss battle” in that you had to pursue all of the other women in the game first and finish their quests in order to unlock the endgame. Speaking clinically from a game design perspective, this approach was taken when adventure games were losing market share and Sierra tried to lure new players who didn’t need to be familiar with the prior games’ storylines to play. Hence, the retconning of Passionate Patti which resulted in giving Shape Up or Slip Out and Love For Sail characters and worlds isolated from the first four games’ storylines and continuity even though Love For Sail picks up right where the sixth game left off.
Larry’s serious relationships are worth bringing up in this context because even in the first game, he expresses a desire for emotional connection after sleeping with a sex worker.
The premise? He comes to Lost Wages a 39-year-old virgin who just wanted to get losing his virginity over with. Land of the Lounge Lizards had a timer mechanic where Larry only had a few hours in real time to lose his virginity or it was game over. You could hold off until the endgame with Eve in the penthouse or sneak into the sex worker’s room at Lefty’s. You had to go for the latter if you wanted full points and/or more time to explore Lost Wages and solving the puzzles that would get you to Eve.
Having that desire for genuine connection opposed to just sex and the mere having of a girlfriend could be a reason why Larry takes rejection well: he’s not going to force connection that just isn’t there rather than believe he’s entitled to it. But in the guise of seeking that deeper emotional connection, he does the quintessential Vegas marriage with Fawn then seems to think that his night with Eve was the start of a new relationship come the second game…but she barely remembers who he is and he’s distraught. Wanting to move in with a woman he slept with just once is disconcerting in a different manner than the kind of unwanted persistence we’re used to seeing. Nonetheless, this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line of dialog and opening the second game with thinking a one-night stand in Vegas was the start of something much deeper actually had inadvertently set a tone that would later get retconned.
The second game in the series, Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking for Love (in Several Wrong Places), was notably less in-your-face with innuendo due to backlash Sierra had gotten over the first game. Going with a book-end format, the game ends with Larry marrying Kalaulau who opens the third game with a divorce where she leaves him for a woman. It’s noteworthy that Larry gets married twice throughout the series without hesitation when our media has spent decades hitting women over the head with warnings about how we’ll scare away 99% of straight men if we come off as marriage-hungry. All those warnings about men being commitmentphobic, yet women aren’t allowed to enjoy casual sex without judgement.
After Larry’s short-lived whirlwind marriages, he forms a lasting relationship with Passionate Patti over the course of at least two games before her retconning. Something that got my young feminist hopes up when playing Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work, where you alternate playing as Larry and Patti on separate missions, is the dream sequences. Larry is literally dreaming of Patti’s success and celebrating it with her as each dream becomes more ambitious than the last: she’s met with adulation at a jazz performance, they have a romantic vacation together in Italy, then Patti plays an elaborate concert at the Taj Mahal. That is, until the dreams snap back into reality and she’s playing in a barren dive bar then gets assaulted by her driver in a sharp contrast to Larry’s overall respect for boundaries.
Replaying the game and seeing those dream sequences in my thirties hit me on a visceral level as a woman who had romantic partners resentful of her ambitions.
It’s also worth mentioning that Patti’s dream sequences do not involve Larry at all. (In fact, there’s one dream she has which a lot of people will find disturbing…) Even more noteworthy? Larry has some misadventures including implied oral sex, but Patti has an option to engage in casual sex and she is not punished for it.
And it’s never brought up again, except for the variation in endgame text where it’s actually quite reverent of your choice: the sex noises become part of a hit song. Not only was this the very first instance of being able to play as a woman who does not get punished for choosing sex, it was also the only instance I would see for a VERY long time. Women are defined and judged by their pasts, but the world cries for men’s futures whether that judging takes place in the bedroom or boardroom. Even progressive narrative-heavy modern games will oftenunpleasantly remind us of this by giving us bad endings or cutting off certain characters if a woman initiates sex.
Larry’s none the wiser to Patti’s hookup as his reunion with her at the end of the game is a happy one that once again focuses on the present. He was looking for something more in-depth all along, a genuine sharing of experiences and forging a new history with a partner. Given the pure reverence he has for her and even for his short-lived marriages and lovers, Larry’s not as much of a creep as we’re told to remember him as. He understand what “no” meant. While addressing consent is equally important for one-shot deals as it is for serious relationships, ultimately, sex isn’t something you do to someone. Even if you just have an unexpected hookup at a convention because the conversation was so good you took it upstairs, it’s still mutual pleasure. Respecting a “no” is part of it — at any time of the night, or the relationship.
But even with Patti out of the picture by the sixth game when Larry’s back to just looking for sex? He doesn’t relentlessly chase women who already said no. He doesn’t act entitled to sex with them after they already told him “Thanks for the favor or that thing, bye.”
Let’s be real, there are definitely some creeper moments in the series so this isn’t an all-roses retrospective. Giving Faith the Spanish Fly pills in the first game comes to mind, there’s a transphobic scene in the sixth game, and that’s barely scratching the surface. But as for the women Larry interacts with where the player initiates the dialog exchange, he otherwise doesn’t force them to do anything without their consent. If anything, some of the women throughout the series are the ones taking charge before the comedy of errors ensues. In spite of some problematic nuances, the games actually showed women enthusiastically consenting and/or initiating sex and a male protagonist who didn’t take a lack of consent as a challenge even if sex or some flirtatious attention was seen as a reward.
So, it will be curious to see what CrazyBunch does with Leisure Suit Larry: Wet Dreams Don’t Dry where it’s been acknowledged that the discourse has changed. But now that we’re finally having these long overdue exchanges on sex, romance, boundaries, consent, and other aspects of human contact in the context of patriarchy and systemic sexism, Leisure Suit Larry is worth a reflection for numerous reasons. The series was a rare portrayal of a man handling rejection in a positive and emotionally healthy manner and even just frankly addressed that Larry is actually pretty lonely: something men are not encouraged to admit, even to women they’re dating, lest it be a show of weakness.
The franchise was quite rare in that while it seemed like just more male gaze centered media that objectified women, it celebrated women’s sexuality in a way that hasn’t been replicated much. In a world that crucifies women for having lots of consensual sex while men who commit sexual assault get forgiven for it in less time than sending an email? Seeing a game that let a woman character off scot-free for casual sex was refreshing, and even the briefest of lovers were still treated like human beings.
Many game developers, reviewers, and media analysts dismiss Leisure Suit Larry as a cheap and tawdry sex-as-laughs game franchise but underestimate how it shaped an astonishing amount of older Millennial women who grew up playing adventure games. Parents may have regarded the games as a newer form of hiding a dirty magazine under the bed, but didn’t realize it was Larry asking for permission for a kiss and dreaming of a woman’s success that wound up lending hopes — false or not — to the girls who sneaked a peek.