Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world, in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Funny People—Anthony John Agnello interviews a few icons of video game comedy. First up: Al Lowe.
Leisure Suit Larry was, not unlike its protagonist, a sleazy little oddity when it released in 1987. That isn’t to say that the adventure game about getting a 40-year-old virgin laid wasn’t lovable or funny. It was both of those things, so much so that it birthed six sequels over the next nine years. Larry was also the Al Lowe’s signature work. In the ’80s, Lowe was one of the core programmers at Sierra, a team of creators largely responsible for the whole adventure genre. Last month, Lowe and his partners at Replay Games successfully funded a Kickstarter project to remake the original Leisure Suit Larry for modern PCs and tablets. Lowe talked to The Gameological Society about the Larry series and the risks of being funny.
The Gameological Society: I would love it if you could walk me through the process of writing a game like Larry. How did the process start and how did it end?
Al Lowe: So you’re just going to ask the one question today, then?
Gameological: Yeah, that’s it. I figured I’d just let you talk for however long and then stop you when I got what I needed.
Lowe: It changed over the years. When we started, games were very casual. They were like iPhone apps are today in that you would have an idea, you would quickly make up a test case, see what it looked like and whether or not it was any fun. Pretty soon, you shipped it. There wasn’t a lot of writing or preparation. The longer I worked in the field, the longer that design process became. When I started, I was mostly a programmer. By the end, I did no programming and did only design, writing, and directing. Eventually, we learned how to do things better. Take the last adventure game that I did, Larry 7: Love For Sale. I probably spent three days brainstorming general ideas before doing anything else with that game.
Gameological: Were you already planning to make Larry 7?
Lowe: We never did a pitch. In fact, I don’t ever remember pitching a game. In the Sierra days, it was a much more casual working relationship. [Then-president of Sierra] Ken Williams and I were good buddies, and before I’d finish a project, he’d not only be pushing me to finish this one, but he’d be pushing to hear about the next one. It was, “What do you want to do? That sounds fun. Let’s do that.” I don’t remember ever writing a game description and asking, “What do you think? Will you do this?”
Let’s take Larry 7, for example. Don Munsil and I brainstormed for two or three days at my house and came up with the gist of the thing. Then I went through a process, like I always did, of watching movies for research. The internet wasn’t as big back then. It wasn’t as easy to do research in 1995 as it is today. I would go to the library, go through movie lists and so forth, and try to find things that gave me ideas. I took a lot of notes and made a lot of lists. I’d have a music list, an animation list, a gag list, a background scene and location list. Then the fun, if it could be called that, was to spin all those ideas and scattered thoughts into some kind of story.
You’ve got to understand, I didn’t know how to write comedy.
As I did that, I’d come up with characters. I’d literally start with a two-page document, and then it would grow to 200 pages. I’ve posted those on my website, so anyone interested can go to AlLowe.com and download any of my final design documents. When I say final, I mean they’re from when we gave up making changes. It took about a month to come up with those documents. Then we’d get a team of programmers and artists together, and I’d try to convey to them what the document said. Programmers read, and artists don’t. I could write stuff down, and the programmers would execute it. No matter how much I wrote, the artists would never get it. That meant I had a lot of meetings where I’d refer to the document and describe for them exactly what I was seeing. Meanwhile, they all had pencils in their hands and they were making sketches, because that’s the way they talked.
Gameological: So there were three different creative languages being spoken between you, the programmers, and the artists. How did that process end up changing the humor?
Lowe: You’ve got to understand, I didn’t know how to write comedy. I never took any classes in writing. I must have had English in high school, sure, but I don’t think I ever took writing classes or anything like that. I just needed to do it, so I tried to do the best that I could. That meant that I was always unsure about whether other people would think the stuff I found funny was actually funny.
My tendency was to overindulge, to throw in anything I thought was funny in the hope that if that guy didn’t think this other stuff was funny, maybe he’d like this! There were a lot of desperate ideas. That said, whenever one of the programmers, artists, composers, the voiceover talent, or anybody else came up with a funny idea, I threw it in. If it made us smile, if it made us laugh, we’d put that in the game.
Gameological: What would you say was the biggest challenge in creating something funny that relies so heavily on audience participation?
Lowe: There are two real challenges to making humor in computer games. One is that you don’t know the order in which people will discover the humor. It was difficult to set things up for a payoff later on unless you cut to a scripted movie, and people hate those. I made a big mistake with Larry 5. We got a new vice president in charge of development at the company. He had worked with Disney and NBC. A Hollywood type. We thought since he was hired, that was the direction we should go. More scripted things in a less random game. Larry 5 was universally described as having too damn much scripting! Too many movies, not enough interaction.
The other challenge is that if you make something you think is funny, by the time you get through the whole process of development, six or eight months later, you’ve seen it from every possible angle. You’ve gone over it dozens of times, you’ve tested it, you’ve found bugs, you’ve had to fix them, and you had to change the wording, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s so old to you at that point that there’s no humor left.
That was always my fear: We’d ship the game and no one would think it was funny because, at that point, it wasn’t funny to us. When I’d go out and do press tours after the game was released, it always amazed me when people started laughing when they saw parts of the game. The whole time I was thinking, “Oh Christ, nobody’s going to like this.”
Gameological: Why aren’t most games funny?
Lowe: Humor is hard. Part of it has to do with the style of game that’s done today. We were telling stories. My whole desire when getting into the field was to make people laugh through stories about funny characters. Today, characters are not nearly as important as game mechanic and action. It’s possible to do action comedy, but it’s difficult. Humor is also expensive. You can’t do something funny over and over and over again in a game. How you make a game efficiently is to come up with several mechanics and then use those over and over in different ways.
Gameological: It’s strange. Video games are iterative. If you do something that’s successful, publishers immediately turn around and ask developers to make them another one.
Lowe: That’s also the problem with games today.
Gameological: Back then, though, Sierra’s stock in trade was making series that people followed almost like they were serialized novels. Going back to the well for Larry 1, 2, 3, through 7.
Lowe: We didn’t have a model to copy, so the model we chose was movies. The ’80s were the time of sequels and franchise films. Once we found a game that people liked, it seemed obvious that rather than promote a new title, we would continue the old. Sure, we were as guilty of that as anybody.
Gameological: You had a taller order with Larry games than, say, King’s Quest games because the Larry games needed to be funny. Comedy sequels tend not to work because, like you said, people don’t like to hear the same joke more than once.
Lowe: The biggest problem I always faced was: How am I going to give you a happy ending? How do I make this story end yet again where this guy actually gets laid. Look at him! No woman would want to have sex with Larry! What kind of a challenge did I set up for myself? It was easy to do the parts where they would belittle him. That all came easily. The trouble was always coming up with that happy ending.
Gameological: What interests me about Larry is that he started out as a vessel for the player. You got to be this loser. His voice was yours. Later on, Larry spoke for himself. What does a silent character offer the game designer and humorist?
The whole time I was thinking, “Oh Christ, nobody’s going to like this.”
Lowe: None of us knew what we were doing. There was no body of knowledge for video game design. Everything we knew was self-taught by playing other games, stealing ideas we liked while ignoring things we thought were dumb. One thing I thought was important was to refer to the player in the text as “you” rather than as Larry. I did that because I wanted you to feel like you were that character. I tried to maintain that when the games got voice, but because you were hearing this voice that was different from the voice you heard in your head during earlier games—what are the odds that you heard [voice actor] Jan Rabson in your mind’s ear?—it took that layer away.
It’s the same way that I think 2D animation is a little more intimate than 3D animation. The most intimate of all is just plain text. The old Infocom games were wonderfully interior. You felt like you were in the game. It’s almost the opposite of the Uncanny Valley effect, the farther we get away from that intimacy. When there’s no attempt to draw the character realistically, or even draw them at all, suddenly they’re whatever your mind makes them. That makes a huge difference.
Another thing you have to remember is that the gamers then were much more patient and much more involved with problem solving. All those games required thinking. Puzzling.
Gameological: They gave you problems you’d be happy to spend a month solving.
Lowe: The reason those games were popular in the ’80s was because the only people that owned computers were the kinds of people that had to be able to solve problems. You couldn’t own an IBM PC and not be a puzzle solver. You had to futz with config.sys and autoexec.bats! It was a typed interface where if you misspelled even a single word, a program wouldn’t even run, let alone run properly. All those things that people had to deal with to make the computer work, those were the things we had in our games. Something went awry in the ’90s, and the majority of people don’t care to do that anymore. Action is addictive, much more so than thinking.
Gameological: Most games are about empowering the player through that addictive action. Big guns, big explosions. In adventure games, though, and especially the Larry games, you have weak characters that are vulnerable. In most of those old adventures, the slightest mistake usually resulted in horrid, gruesome death.
Lowe: Dozens of them!
Gameological: Do you think a game character needs to be vulnerable in order to be funny?
Lowe: Yes. I know that people say that there are funny lines in shooters where you have powerful protagonists, but it’s not the same. A wisecrack, a one-liner, a putdown—those are funny, but that humor doesn’t have the same depth the play has. I can compare the humor to sex: If it’s just a few seconds too short, it’s not going to be as pleasurable. Last night, I watched The Office, and there are like 20 characters on that show. You know every one of their personalities. They’re all different. They all have these reactions that are in character and that are brilliant. That’s a lot different and deeper than going, “Ha ha! I shot your ass off!”
Illustrations by Phillip Andrews.