Did the Leisure Suit Larry series just get dumber?
I realize that is a dumb question to ask in and of itself about a games series predicated on a genre that prides itself in being dumb, but, nevertheless, I still have to ask.
Clocking in at a geriatric (in video game years) 22 years old, the Leisure Suit Larry franchise is one of the oldest series in video games. Yet its ancestry is even older than that. Most forms of visual media have dabbled in softcore pornography, especially in their infancy. Be it in the form of photography, film, or cave painting, the desire for man to capture the image of big breasts or a large penis for the sake of posterity or just the sake of some brief stimulation seems to be one that continues to emerge as imaging technology advances. Video games are certainly no different.
Thus, the 19th century had their pornographic daguerreotypes and the 1950’s had their “nudie-cuties” while gaming had Larry. Certainly, the Larry games are not the first forays into pornography by the video game industry, but they are certainly the best known early example of pixelated breasts being sold to a mainstream audience. Part of the reason for this success is that, like other attempts at softcore pornography or material concerning adolescence (Porky’s) or frat boys (Animal House), Larry was dressed up in the duds of comedy: a leisure suit, which was hilariously out of date even for the 1980’s.
By catering to the basest of human instincts (lust) through a presentation grounded upon the basest of comedic styles (the scatological), film has certainly found a successful way of getting fans of T&A to the box office. The premise of the Leisure Suit Larry games is based on the same conventions of such films. (Sort of) lovable loser, Larry Laffer, is a miserable failure at meeting the ladies, so the player must guide him through a series of racy episodes in order to find a way for this emasculated individual to potentially “score” (and potentiality is more probable than actuality given the comic tableau of the films that inspire the game). Along the way, a lot of scatological hi-jinks and near miss encounters with well developed women keep the viewer (or in this case, the player) properly attentive to Larry’s predicaments.
All of which makes the most recent game in the series, Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, a bit of an oddity within the more titillating versions of this kind of comedy. The game commits probably the cardinal sin of scatologically based, screwball comedy: it lacks any outright female nudity — something that the earliest versions of the series didn’t shy away from. This omission is a central problem for the game. Part of the “joke” of comedies of this sort are at the audience’s expense. The audience has come to see flesh and experience it vicariously through the similarly lustful and desperate eyes of the protagonist. The protagonist’s usual inability to get laid is at once ameliorated for the audience by the chance to at least see some bare flesh on screen for a few seconds prior to the failure, but it is also a reminder of the desperate voyeurism of the audience themselves. Like Larry or countless protagonists of this type of film, the audience fails to score, and the hope of actual sexual engagement being briefly dangled before them on the screen is as briefly stimulating as it is a present reminder of actual sex being denied the voyeur (after all, pornography is a simulated and thus indirect version of sex itself).
Earlier versions of the Leisure Suit Larry games while not awash in nudity seemed to recognize the sad joke of the genre: that sex denied was their films’ basic theme and therefore an experience the audience needed to experience alongside the butt of such a joke. Thus, a few seconds of pixelated breasts became the goal of these adventure games driving the player’s own goals as much as such representations of female sexuality motivated Larry himself.
Such lack of motivation tends to derail the efforts of a game steeped in a tradition of evoking what is at least considered to be a most basic of masculine instinct, subjecting that which they desire to their own gaze.
It is largely unclear to me why Codemasters made the decision to avoid nudity in the game. While this might seem a means to create a “PG-13” version of Larry following the relative failure of the most recent iteration of the series prior, Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laudi, Box Office Bust like its predecessor (which did contain nudity — much more than Larry games of the past in fact) carries a Mature rating (as it should given its very adult dialogue and still very raunchy imagery). Certainly, other next gen and previous generation games have not been damned with an Adults Only rating merely for showing nudity (with the exception of the debacle of the discovery of “hot coffee” mode in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which is a puzzling issue in regards to the ESRB rating system given that nude females performing sex acts on fully clothed men is certainly a feature of M rated games like Playboy: the Mansion).
Frankly, Magna Cum Laudi‘s failure to reach a wide audience was probably a less problematic issue than the fact that it tended to alienate series’ fans by altering the basic gameplay of the Leisure Suit Larry series. In 1987, Larry’s antics were presented through the vehicle of the point and click adventure genre. Given the slow pacing of such gameplay (in which a player is charged with collecting items and solving puzzles in order to advance the game) is highly conducive to storytelling and has been a genre that has been particularly successful with telling comedy (witness the Sam & Max games, the Monkey Island series, or Lucas Arts’ brilliant comedic gem, Full Throttle).
Magna Cum Laudi in transitioning from a PC gaming experience to a console experience reimagined the series as a semi-adventure game that was largely driven, not by puzzles, but, instead some rather simplistic mini-games. While the game was not as terrible as some reviewers at the time felt, this change was met with charges of betrayal of the basic concept of the series.
Codemasters in part seems to have recognized the failure of Magna Cum Laudi‘s gameplay by yet again re-imagining what kind of game Larry might be when presented on a console platform, which finally brings me back to my initial question: did the Leisure Suit Larry series just get dumber?
If mini-games as a dominant gameplay element were insufficient for Larry fans (let alone a broader audience) to accept the series, does turning Larry into an open world platformer help in any way to make the series more palatable or does it just dumb an already dumb series (albeit a series perfectly aware of its own dumbness) down even more?
The answer to this is fairly simple after even a few minutes play of Box Office Bust. When executed this poorly? Absolutely.
Box Office Bust is indeed a rethinking of the Leisure Suit Larry series as an open world platformer. It is plagued by the worst things that a platformer can be plagued by, unresponsive controls and a terrible camera. Sometimes it’s a fixed camera and sometimes it’s manipulable, but it still fails to allow the player the ability to see where he or she might be headed at critical moments. It is also plagued by extremely slow mobility in the world (slow running speeds and even slow vehicular speeds) and a big, open world that feels empty because there is so little to do in it.
The game is set on the lot of Laffer Studios, a B-movie production company headed up by the now retired Larry Laffer of the PC versions of the series. The game stars Laffer’s nephew, Larry Lovage, the protagonist of Magna Cum Laudi who has been enlisted by his uncle to seek out a mole from a rival studio that is seeking to sabotage Laffer Studios’ films and drive Uncle Larry out of business.
Thus, the player finds a very large and detailed studio lot to explore that unfortunately by the standards of the most recent open world games is certainly pretty enough in its cartoonish presentation but laughably barren of much else to do than run between (or drive the interminably slow studio shuttles between) mission points on that map. Chock full of big breasted pedestrians that can be leered at but not interacted with, the map seems a lifeless and sterile zone of limited voyeurism. Once you have seen the ladies’ breasts bounce and the cool giant cartoon prop shark that hangs above a set, you’ve seen everything there is to see at Laffer studio. At that point, it is on to attempting to navigate this environment via wonky controls and suffering through jumping puzzles that are sometimes absurdly difficult not because they are challenging but because the controls and ability to view the environments the player needs to traverse are so limited.
Despite the poorly executed controls, though, the only thing that saves the game from a rating of 1 or 2 is the script. While the notion of comedy in Leisure Suit Larry games generally boils down to fart, penis, fart, big breast and fart jokes, crass can be funny. There are certainly a range of approaches to such crass humor as well. There is a difference between being cleverly crass, stupidly crass, and just plain crass crass. Box Office Bust offers all three variations and a philosophy of comedy that suggests that if you just keep slinging jokes out there at least one of them will hit. In this case, that is true enough. While I am more partial to the cleverly crass than anything else, Box Office Bust was able to make me laugh at most every variety of crass humor possible despite myself. When it is clever too, it does tend to be very clever. The addition of the pretty good comic timing of Josh Wheton as Larry Lovage and the always amusing delivery of Patrick Warburton also helps some of the lines to really come off. That isn’t to say that everything in the script is funny. Again, the philosophy of this comedy is to just keep pelting the audience with one groaner after another, but what I am saying is that, when they aren’t so overtly groan inducing, some of the jokes are pretty laugh out loud funny.
Ultimately though, I just wish I had more game with what really is just an interactive script. Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust is a less than average game. However, it still is a perfectly average piece of smut, which I guess for some fans of smut might just suffice.