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Interview: Al Lowe

When you look at games throughout history that depict sex, few have managed to do it successfully. One of the earliest (and greatest) game series depicting sex was the hilarious Leisure Suit Larry (released 1987) from Al Lowe and Sierra. Nick caught up with Al in a recent interview and the two chatted about sex in gaming.

What compelled you to create Leisure Suit Larry?

I thought that it was time for a game that was funny and maybe for a game that treated current day topics and subject matter and that way that I did that was updating an old game that had been around for years called Soft Porn Adventure.  When I looked at it, it was really out of date and I made a joke about the plot was so old it should be wearing a leisure suit and I got a laugh.  And I thought ‘hey, leisure suits must be funny’  and I said ‘you know, the only way I could remake this game is if you let me make fun of it… as a parody, as opposed to really doing it’.  And everybody thought that was a good idea so I took my first stab at comedy writing.

Was Soft Porn Adventure more of a ‘serious’ game?

Yeah it was, it had an odd tone to it.  It had no protagonist, there was no central character what so ever, the game talked to you, the player in phrases like ‘I am your puppet master.  Command me and I will do as you wish’ and stuff like that.  It was basically a ‘serious’ game about a guy trying to get laid!  It just seemed too whacky to be serious, so using that same premise I thought well I should make fun of it!  The first thing I did was come up with the character that a person could relate to on screen. Someone that you could play as and think the real breakthrough for me came when I realised that its difficult to have comedy with just one voice; that its much easier to work with a side kick and that’s when I realised that the narrator could be the comedian and that Larry could be the brunt of the jokes .  Suddenly that made it a lot simpler to write the comedy.

It definitely worked well, particularly in the recent remake – he’s actually got quite a voice on him too – the narrator, which worked brilliantly. 

We love that guy! Brad Venable did a great job in that role!

So what the most important aspect with your development time with Leisure Suit Larry?  Was it the jokes? The puzzles? Or was it offering adults a different kind of video game to play? From my mind,  Leisure Suit Larry was the first ever to be a realistic world.  Everything Else was fantasy like Mario or Zelda.

Yeah, back then games, well… I’m not sure why I started this sentence with back then (laughs) because its the same way today.  Its either stories and spaceships in the galaxy right?   There’s a hole.  We’ve dug a deep rut and seem unable to get out of it.  There are a few exceptions to the rules, but by far there’s way too many games that fall back on those two dimensions.

Even the ‘realistic’ soldier games are a fantasy of war.

Exactly!   But back to your original question.  Because I used the puzzles and the structure that was in the original sort porn game, my challenge was to make the character interesting .  First of  all to create a character and give him some sort of personality and then the tough part was to make the character loveable in spite of the fact that he is kinda smarmy and sleazy! (Laughs).  It was a fine line to walk because I wanted him to be the butt of the jokes, I want ed him to be not to bright and to be kinda this, terrible  excuse of a ladies man. On the other hand, you cant really relate to a character that’s too far down that trail; he had to be an anti hero, so that was the tough part.

the jokes themselves,  I didn’t really know how to be funny in a video game.  So I just, kind of… anytime I thought something was amusing, I threw it in! And that was the biggest surprise to me of all,  that after the game came out, people actually thought it was funny because I actually had no idea what I was doing!

I think if something is funny, its funny!  It’s as simple as that.  I imagine you might have thought ‘what do gamers think is funny?’ at one point, but I guess it was largely ‘what everyone else does’. 

I kind of went for what I thought my buddies would laugh at.  You know, the people around Sierra that wrote adventure games also played adventure games and because we were so isolated away from everyone else, we didn’t really associate with any body.  We admired Lucas Games,  we played them , but we never knew anybody from there, we never had the interaction.  There were no game-cons’ of any of that stuff back then.  We were just kind of these guys laden up in the mountains and because of that, I tried to make a game that would make Scott Murphy laugh; that would make Ken Williams laugh; that would make Jim Walls laugh  and so that was really my target market.  the fact that millions of other people actually bought the game and spent hours doing it always came as a surprise.

And when you made ‘Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards’, did you ever feel you crossed the line with any of its racy content in the game?

You know, I had a pretty good censor. It wasn’t Ken Williams, because all through our development, Ken said ‘oh yeah, just go ahead and make it as adult as you want to!’ until we got close to the end and then when he actually sure the game he was ‘oh, I don’t know we can sell the game with this or not’.  (laughs) But my censor was my wife.  I would come up with some crazy idea and I would say to my wife ‘well, you know…what do you think of this?’ and she would go ‘ewwww’ and I would go ‘oh, that’s alright I can put that in’.  And if she’d say ‘NO!’ then I would say ‘oh, I guess that’s probably gone too far’.   She was my best, my judge on where my line was on this thing.

But you know, I never viewed the goal of the game as pornography.  I never thought that the sex was what the game was about.  I always thought that the game was about making fun of people who see sex as you know, an end all….so important.

Absolutely!  I think that actually comes across fairly early on in the game as well as Larry having this kind of affirmation that he wants more than just technically getting laid.

Yeah, yeah…. but he will settle for getting laid! (laughs).

How did audiences and critics react to Leisure Suit Larry’s adult content when it was released?

Well you know, it was a different time.  There weren’t many home computers and the ones that existed couldn’t play the game.  It was the rare machine that had enough graphics power and by machine, I mean PC.  The rare IBM PC had the ability to play the game and later on I realised after talking with people, that most people played the game in black and white as that’s all they had.  They had a green screen monitor – you know, green and black pixels which was horrible , I’m not sure how they watched that (laughs).  the only place that 16 colours was on an IBM 16 Junior or on a computer that had an EGA graphics card and at that time when the game originally came out,  EGA graphics cards cost $600! Just the card itself with like 16kb of memory or something, there weren’t many of those around.  So it wasn’t a big deal.  Now as the games went along as the years passed, more and more computers, more and more PC’s got the ability to render the games and therefore more people saw them.  But yeah, when it first came out, there wasn’t much. The people that did see it were mostly the people that had home PC’s and were engineers, scientists.  Very few writers or say artists, home makers, hobbyists, there was none of that.  It was pretty much an engineering machine. 

Remember it was DOS based so, if you had trouble altering your config.sys file or rewriting your autoexec.bat file or any of those sorts of things, you had to be a puzzle solver to get the damn machines to work and so therefore, adventure games were the perfect medium for that period.   Consequently, we got very few complaints from people about the games. There were a few later on that said ‘oh, police questions drinking prostitute and then have sex’ but the complaints were so few.  And remember, there was no internet or email.  People actually had to get out a pen and paper and a stamp, an envelope and walk to the mail box and stuff and it was a hell of a lot of trouble to do.  It wasn’t the same as ‘hey, I’ll just leave a comment here’ and click and type and show your stupidity.

Yeah, that’s one unfortunate side effect of the worlds connectivity now.

Well, I do my best not to read comments now a days!

Taken from the original Leisure Suit Larry (1987)

Have you kept up with any modern video games?

You know, I tend to play some casual games.  I try to play all the funny games that come out….  That was a joke! (laughs)

I was going to say!  I was trying to think of some!

No, not that much at all. 

I don’t mind that people aren’t trying to make a new funny game  because we are left with so many classics like Larry and I frequently play Monkey Island and other games like that.

I love those games!

If you haven’t kept up with any modern games, has anyone ever said to you ‘have you heard about this game?’ or anything that’s sort of crossed the line?

Oh of course.  People still keep me informed. I mean, I have a daily joke list that I call the Cyberjoke3000 that goes out to thousands of people every day.  I’ve done it for , gosh… more than 15 years now so people still relay things to be. I still stay in touch with people.  I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I try to stay current, but for the most part, I think my gaming is 98% casual games today.

Now, while you didn’t work on it, did you see much of the more sexual driven Leisure Suit Larry Magna Cum Laude that came out on Xbox and PC?

I actually went to the store and paid full retail list price for the product, sadly.  Yeah, I played it and yeah… I guess in one sense, I was… it kinda made me feel good.  It proved that what I did wasn’t that easy if you know what I mean (laughs) .

Oh absolutely!  The spirit had completely changed.

Yeah, they had a tough time. The kind of thought that the games were about tits and ass and I always thought the games were about comedy.  There were some scenes actually in Magna Cum Laude that were funny and that were original, creative and I would have been proud to of written, but they were separated by so much dead air.  So much horribly misguided game play that you couldn’t enjoy the scenes that were there.   Unfortunately Box Office Bust, didn’t even have those. It was just a disaster. One of the worst games ever.

Yeah it was unfortunate because in one of the original Larry’s, you got to a certain point that if you did the wrong thing your penis would blow up and you had to reload.  And then in the later games, there were no consequences; there were these little moral lessons that you could learn from Larry 1 with a joke and in the later games, I think Larry must have had sex about five or six times in an hour of game play and it wasn’t, and not that original games rewarded it, but it wasn’t even any sort of reward for hard work.  It wasn’t even clever.  There was one bit that was just like a hard core porno.  It was a bit full on.  So I guess, you kind of have to have you context if you are going to put sexual content in a game.  You have to do more than just throw in the sex itself.

I think the fact that particularly a few, and this was true was a few years back, that the graphics resolution and the realism of the characters and so forth wasn’t high enough that it made for a good pornography experience anyway. Why would you want to pay that kind of money for games when you could get much better porn at the video store for a buck or two? (laughs)  It seems a waste of money. 

Today, I’m sure there are somewhere, there must be really high class graphics  or pornography.  I haven’t seen it, so I’m not fair judge.

Sticky Trigger likes to look at things differently to other websites and we have had a lot of people come to us and say ‘hey, we’ve been getting raw reviews on this’ and one game was actually called ‘Seduce me’.  It was half card game, half fantasy novel, but it was written by women, for women and it actually has a lot of high resolution art work.  It was classy all the way and unfortunately they get hounded constantly by religious groups, anti gay lobby’s constantly hounding them.  So there are definitely people try to do a sexual game, but in a classy way.

That’s good,  I’m all for that.  It just hasn’t been done very well in the past. 

So what is in your mind about sex in video games that makes some people freak out?

I think its because video games were originally seen as children’s toys.  I think it all grows from that 30 years ago.  Kids play with Atari 2600’s and then Nintendo’s and you know, but all those kids are now 35 years old.  They’ve all grown up into mature adults and in my mind, they should be able to play whatever it is they want to see.  There shouldn’t be any censorship at all.  But, parents censoring what their children, I think that’s just parenting. When you’ve come of age and your old enough to see what you want to see and do what you want do, so I’m all for it.

This article actually stems from the fact that we only just recently got and adult rating approved for video game in Australia.  We never had one before.

Oh good!  Finally!

We finally got one!  I do believe that censorship begins in the home, but we have a lot of people contacting us and asking us our thoughts because they want to play absolutely everything.  If you don’t want to see something or play something, it should be as simple as you don’t buy it.

Yep!  Amen.  That’s exactly the way it should be.  It was always odd to me that the stores that sell essentially soft core pornography in the novel sections and maybe even Sports Illustrated Swim Suit issues and all the other sexual overload that modern consumers are faced with, then suddenly to be become very prudish to video games just makes no sense what so ever.  If you can watch an R rated movie, if you can buy a novel and read the novel about explicit sex, then why cant you interact with it in a game?

I think that the interactive nature as well as the fact that video games were seen for children can tend to freak out children.  I think mainly mothers.  When I was growing up, I would have been around 6 or so, but I got Mortal Combat and was sneaking around to my cousins place and playing LSL on the ol’ DOS.  My dad was of the opinion that ‘it’s just a video game. Your kids are smart enough to know what they do and don’t do.’  But it was the interactive nature of things that tended to freak out my mother a bit more.

What bothers me is the people that protest the fact that they don’t want me or you to see what they don’t like.  It makes no sense.  It’s like ‘if you don’t want to see it, fine!  Don’t buy it!  If you don’t want your kids to see it, Fine! Parent your children!’.  On the other hand, don’t tell me what to do!

I think that’s with everything, not just video games.

Based on your experiences and where you see video games today, are you able to give me a rough idea on where you think sexual content will be in the coming years?  Will it finally be universally accepted?  Do you think adult content will increase gradually?

I would hope so and I would hope that we would be able to deal with themes in a more mature way.  I mean, Larry was anything but mature, you know… it was immature! but it was trying to parody the whole problem.  Video games have a terrible record of treating serious subjects seriously and I love would to see that change in the future.    I think it will. I think its got to.

I remember at the very first awards ever given out for games – I think it was 1987.  Ken Williams was the president of the Software Publishers Association and in his key note speech at the awards ceremony he said ‘I think that some day we will view the academy awards as the ‘non interactive medium of story telling’ and that the real awards will be given and the interactive gaming awards shows.’  I always thought man, that’s a long way from that, but still that was 25 years ago and I think we are getting closer to it, but we got to have some serious games that are the equal to a serious novel.  We’ve got to have sexual content that’s equal to a serious film.  You know, I think that’s coming.  God, I just think that there’s more to gaming than just a slightly better frame rate and more pixels.

I find that video games back in the 80’s and the 90’s they were driven and the new technology kind of helped people reach their imagination quicker, but now before a game even gets approved people are asking how many sequels can we get out of it and you have to offer a familiarity about it.  I guess a games pitch now would be  ‘Well, it’s like Call of Duty’ or ‘It’s like Mario’ but instead you do this and it’s basically this much old game and then that much new.  I see that as a problem.

I couldn’t agree more.  I went through the exact problem about 8 years ago now.  I developed a game, designed a game called ‘Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure’ and it was going to be an action comedy.  Not an adventure game, but and action comedy and it featured kind of a young guy who was a wanna be detective who ended up getting thrown in a situation where he had to solve a crime.  We took it to every major publisher, this was in 2006.  Every publisher said they loved it, the writing, they thought it was funny, they liked my games and I had a good track record.  I got all these stories and when we finished the pitch, a lot of them said things like ‘well this is the first game I’ve seen in years that I would actually play myself’ which is kind of scary for a guy who is running a game company. And yet, everyone of them would say ‘what are your comparables?’ and because there were no action comedies at that time, we would say ‘there really isn’t any comparables available – it’s unique property’  and that just shut the door right there.  It was just the same as saying ‘please don’t give us your money’,  because what they would do inevitably is go back and look at what they could find in the realm of action comedy and all they could find was ‘Psychonauts’, the Tim Schafer game. I mean it was a good game, but it had very off putting graphics and it didn’t really… it looked like a child’s game and yet it was anything but and so, they checked the sales figures and said ‘that only sold so many thousand copies, so that’s all we could fund your game for.  You can’t do it for that price.  We can’t fund you’.   In other words, you cant make money, because it won’t sell any differently than this other game.   You just can’t fight that.   

In the 80’s, Sierra’s attitude, and I think most of publishers was ‘What isn’t on the market?  What hasn’t been done? Where could we push the wall?’ and the attitude is totally different now.

Finally, what advice would you give to any developer who is contemplating putting sexual content into a game?

Be prepared for the consequences.  I think that is the best advice I would give.  I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but you should be ready to  not only justify it, but also to put up with a lot of hassle from a lot of people who don’t want you to express yourself or are willing to make your life miserable because of if.  I’m hoping that will one day go away, but I don’t see it being much less today than  it was 25 years ago.


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