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Funny, Me? On Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude and the Search For Humor in Gaming
Kuehnel, a designer at High Voltage Software, discusses the re-imagining of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise for the current generation of gamers, concentrating on how the team approached the updating of the series' renowned sense of humor.
November 12, 2004
22 Min Read
Author: by Ed Kuehnel
In late summer of 2002, I was summoned to the office of High Voltage Software's head design honcho, Tom Smith. I had just finished a grueling several months as part of an effort to get a platformer with a movie tie-in out of the door, and was enjoying the light schedule that came with being without a project. This made me a marked man, however; the current go-to guy for a seemingly endless demand for " and turn it into a Grand Theft Auto clone for us please" pitch docs publishers couldn't get enough of at the time. I was all the more delighted, then, when Tom let me in on a little-known company secret: Vivendi was interested in reviving the Leisure Suit Larry franchise, and High Voltage Software was in the running.
The world of hapless loser Larry Lovage.
Like many of you, I am a big fan of classic adventure games, and a big fan of the Leisure Suit Larry franchise. I had spent countless hours as a youth doing my best to lose Larry's virginity well before I began to address my own. As Tom began to fill me in on his progress, I felt a wave of excitement that eclipsed any other I'd felt as a game designer - I was going to work on a Leisure Suit Larry game.
Had I known what was in store for me during my two-year stint on Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, my enthusiasm would have been coupled with a healthy dose of real-world panic. Before it was all over, Tom, Mathew Entin (another designer/writer on MCL), and myself would write over 90,000 words of dialog spoken by over three dozen characters, direct over 150 hours of voice over, and spend over two weeks trying to motion capture as much of it as we could. If that were not enough, we had the added pressure of having to be funny with nearly everything we wrote.
Building on a Legacy
One of the first things we did as designers was to revisit the franchise. Vivendi was interested in "updating" Leisure Suit Larry for a younger, broader audience and wanted to put the game on consoles as well as PCs. While they certainly wanted to keep older fans of the license happy, all parties involved had made a commitment at the outset to seek alternatives to "point and click" gameplay, traditional puzzle solving, and other conventions of the adventure game genre that appeal less to the mainstream than to hardcore adventure gamers. In addition, it was unclear to us at the time whether we would have Al Lowe as a resource, or to what extent his involvement, if any, would be. We had big shoes to fill, and it was clear we would be taking the series in a new direction. With this in mind, we reexamined each of the classic Leisure Suit Larry games, pulling from them aspects we hoped to preserve in Magna Cum Laude and studying their appeal.
The Leisure Suit Larry games of the 80's and 90's are funny. If you disagree, you are wrong. Collectively the franchise has sold millions to people all over the world who love its brand of subtle humor, clever puns, and tongue-in-cheek innuendo. The games were targeted mostly to somewhat cerebral, adult male PC gamers, along with a healthy dose of sophisticated college-aged and adolescent fans, as well as women attracted to the caricature of the toothless male predator. By 1999, however, sales of traditional adventure games were in steep decline and Sierra pulled the plug on an eighth installment of the franchise. In their estimation, there simply weren't enough of the aforementioned target market willing to financially support another Leisure Suit Larry game.
We at High Voltage have fond memories of the series and enjoy Al Lowe's sense of humor, but as we played each game in turn, it became evident to us that trying to emulate Al's comedic style would be a mistake if we were to succeed in bringing in new fans, namely mainstream teens and young adults for whom the comedic bar has been set by The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, and the American Pie films. The writing would have to change to reflect this shift in demographic.
There was never any doubt in our minds, however, that we had a wonderfully conceived character in Larry Laffer, one that could make the transition from hardcore adventure game icon to modern-day hero for Spike TV-watching twenty-somethings with ease. The traits that make him such a lovable loser are universal. Larry Laffer is resolute, obnoxious, well meaning, harmless, an anachronism, frustrated, average, and makes us laugh. The long-term appeal of the LSL franchise lies with fans' ability to relate to, sympathize, laugh with and at its main character. It was Larry Laffer's mannerisms and personality traits, more than the actual style of humor that we sought to preserve and emulate to the best of our ability.
Although we were convinced that Larry Laffer's likeable loser mentality should serve as the backbone for the writing in Magna Cum Laude, we decided to pass the torch to a new protagonist, Larry Lovage, Larry Laffer's nephew. There were several reasons for the decision. First, we really wanted to do a comedy in a college setting, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the "wild comedies" of the '80s, '90s, and today. Although it might be in character for Larry Laffer to chase eighteen year-old coeds, we weren't sure teens and twentysomethings could relate to a middle-aged lothario chasing girls twenty years his junior as much as they would someone closer to their own age. On a practical note, it also concerned us that we couldn't depend with certainty on Al Lowe's involvement (ultimately, he did not join the project). Without the creative mind behind Larry Laffer, we were reluctant to try and put words in his mouth, fearing they would not sound as authentic to older fans. Lastly, we felt that passing the torch was the right thing to do, out of respect for the legacy we were building on. Older fans have referred to Magna Cum Laude as a spin-off, which is not too far off the mark. Taking the series in a new direction was a risk, and we felt good about leaving the door open for the spotlight to return to Larry Laffer if we failed.
Looking back at the previous Larry games was fun and rewarding. We got reacquainted with a beloved character from our gaming past and found nearly everything about him (save his age) worth preserving. We made a conscious decision to take the style of comedy in a new direction, one that would appeal more to a younger, mainstream audience as well as to us game designers who in the absence of Al Lowe, would have to write the scripts. Armed with screenshots of our favorite Leisure Suit Larry moments (many ended up as Easter eggs in Magna Cum Laude) we forged ahead to the next phase of our research: our competition.
It is my opinion that most video games which seek to amuse can be placed in one of two categories: mainstream and "nerd humor". Please note I use the term "nerd" with the utmost affection. Being 50% nerd myself, I don't seek to exclude myself from this category or tout the virtues of one group over the other. Nerds are good people. Some of my best friends are nerds. Nerds are the bedrock on which this industry was able to grow into the largest entertainment medium in the world, and it is my sincere hope it will never turn its back on those who made it what it is today. But mainstream audiences, by virtue of their sheer numbers are the brass ring for which many a publisher doth reach, and it is my experience that there are some clear differences between what the two groups will find amusing. I am generalizing of course, I don't mean to say that high school jocks never tell each other amusing EverQuest stories in the hall, or that nerds can't appreciate Animal House (indeed more nerds venture into the mainstream for entertainment than vice-versa), but if you are developing a comedy you better know which group you are targeting, or you might be unpleasantly surprised at the results.
A good example here is the recently released Bard's Tale. For those of you unfamiliar with its premise, Bard's Tale is the fantasy role playing game that turns the genre upside-down, taking a tongue-in-cheek look at its many well-worn conventions. I am enjoying the game immensely, thanks to the hundreds of beautiful summer afternoons spent in my friend's basement playing Dungeons and Dragons as a youth, as well as countless hours spent killing rats, collecting treasure, and upgrading spells on my PC. My nerd half has seen every boring quest and stale story arc fantasy RPGs have thrown our way and is amused at the satire. To people who have never rolled a twenty-sider or thumb their nose at games like Balder's Gate, however, its humor will most likely go over like a lead balloon.
Conker's Bad Fur Day on the other hand, is an unabashed mainstream success story. It's crude, vulgar, and downright lowbrow, and proud of it. Older gamers and nerds tend to be more intellectual than their younger mainstream counterparts, and most (but not all) fail to see the humor in a level boss who is a giant lump of poo. Yet there are hundreds of thousands of teens and young men in their early twenties for whom Conker's has a special place in their heart, and a million plus or more will likely buy the updated Xbox version this spring. BMX XXX similarly polarized gamers on a much smaller scale.
So where exactly does this observation get us? Knowing the difference between what is exclusively nerd fare and what will amuse the casual gamer is your first, most important step to winning over your audience. The next is to make sure you have writers who can effectively speak to them. Know your place on the nerd/meathead spectrum and evaluate your chance at success honestly. If you have a burning desire to write jokes that refer to Penny Arcade and Fark, you are a nerd. If your target market shares your enthusiasm for this type of humor then they are probably nerds too, and you have a fighting chance. If however, your target market has never heard of Penny Arcade, Fark, or Slashdot, and you have a feeling they wouldn't have much use for them if they did, you may want to hand over the reigns to someone else.
In our case, Entin and I felt that our mainstream sensibilities, at times a hindrance in our industry, put us in a good position to write dialog that spoke well to the casual gamer. Had we been asked to write something similar to Bard's Tale we would have been better off passing the buck to an extremely talented someone else. By aiming for a broader audience we would undoubtedly lose some older fans, but we felt we could successfully appeal to a wider audience while still keeping many whose tastes ran more highbrow.
As our research into our competitors concluded, and although we found a lot that amused us in the games we looked at, we felt there was nothing currently on the market similar to what we wanted to achieve with Magna Cum Laude. Conker's Bad Fur Day and BMX XXX are targeted to a much younger audience than the one we were after. We wanted to do something mainstream, yet something that did not necessarily aim for the lowest common denominator (at least not all the time). We wanted MCL to be the video game equivalent of The Simpsons, Family Guy, or South Park, and although we knew our writing would never quite compare with the genius found there, we felt it would be fun to try, and if we were even halfway successful, we would be in an enviable position as the only game of its kind for fans of the type of comedy we most admired.
The Conversation Game
Most games that seek to amuse rely on familiar gameplay mechanics with a healthy sprinkling of mini-cinemas and voice calls to provide comic relief (Simpsons Hit & Run for example). For Magna Cum Laude, it was always our intention that the game would be a "true comedy"; our vision points dictated humor first, gameplay second. We wanted our humor to take center stage, which meant a heavy reliance on dialog, but long cinemas can get awfully frustrating for gamers who wait impatiently for them to end, controller in hand, anxious to regain control of their destiny. There is also the problem of replayability. Typically most adventure games offered a linear story and puzzles with specific solutions. We play them every couple of years for old time's sake after enough time has passed to make them new again, but rarely do we play them over and over and again seeking fresh experiences- there are none.
Tom Smith, our Design Director, worked with the other project leads to come up with a solution that I suspect and hope will be built upon by similar games in the future. Instead of static dialog trees with limited options that invariably draw the same responses from NPCs, Tom turned speaking to other characters into a gameplay mechanic, one which allows you to control what comes out of Larry's mouth in real-time and offers a myriad of things for him to say at every point during an conversation.
The mechanic itself bears some explanation, because although we instantly fell in love with it as an unique way to turn passive dialog exchanges into gameplay, it also made our lives a living hell, greatly adding to the amount of dialog needed for our game (we ended up with over 90,000 words).
The conversation game.
At the beginning of each designated "conversation game" (MCL has 49 of them), the user-interface prompts the player to navigate a small sperm through three lanes of traffic, each filled with special conversation icons. These icons, when hit, will cause Larry to say something either appropriate or inappropriate. Many of the things Larry says are concatenated together in "mad lib" fashion. For example, during one exchange with a belligerent arcade game, the player can guide the sperm towards one of three conversation icons, causing Larry to say ONE of the following: "That's right! You're scared! Scared because you're loosely based on a movie that stopped being cool in 1983!" OR "That's right! You're scared! Scared because you know you'll spend the rest of your life hanging around second-hand convenience stores like this one!" OR "I mean c'mon tell me. When's the last time a kid bothered Sweet Lou to break a buck around here huh? What maybe 1986?" Immediately afterwards, the sperm will be confronted with three more conversation icons, causing Larry to say ONE of the following upon impact: "I mean really. No one likes side scrollers anymore! They suck!" OR "You couldn't make money in a laundromat!" OR "I mean look at you! You've got stains on your screen, cigarette burns all over the place. You're a damn disgrace." In each case, any of the phrases chosen second can follow any of the phrases chosen first, and the entire exchange will always make sense. In addition, you could play through this part of the conversation three times and not hear Larry repeat himself.
It is worth noting that without CRI Middleware's ADX sound engine, this would have been very tricky to pull off. Timing, as they say, is everything, especially in a comedy. Although the phrases that comprised Larry's lines were written so as to end with natural pauses, the concatenation had to be perfect or our conversations would sound stilted, all humor lost. Critics have noted how relatively natural our dialog sounds.
We had successfully put our dialog center stage by making it interactive, as well as added replay value to the game, but doing so increased the difficulty involved in writing our scripts exponentially. So we began our first foray into writing a buttload of dialog for a comedy. Much blood, sweat, and tears were shed over the ensuing 18 months, which we now refer to as "wisdom"; some of which I offer you here free of charge so you will like me better.
FREEDOM! (and the ESRB)
Throughout the project it was very unclear what boundaries we could cross and still maintain a "Mature" rating. Lots had changed since Larry Laffer was on the scene, and because Magna Cum Laude is a PS2 and Xbox title, we not only needed to avoid an "Adults Only" rating but Sony and Microsoft would have to approve our game before it shipped for their consoles.
Rules regarding nudity are fairly straightforward. If you want a "Mature" rating, you cannot show full frontal nudity. Intercourse is out of the question, and breasts cannot be in the same camera shot for longer than nine seconds. Any form of nudity will get you banned from Wal-Mart and most likely Best Buy and Target as well. Dialog and adult situations, however, are another story…
Can a character talk about sex acts with animals? What about seeing someone use a glory hole? How about pantomiming sex acts or discussing the merits of doggie style versus the wheelbarrow position? All of these we did, and while most of it probably sounds more graphic than it really is, the fear always existed that we would push the game into dreaded "Adults Only" territory simply because of something we said, implied, or simulated. Unfortunately we had no idea where the line was, but we recognized that holding ourselves back because of it would be detrimental to our game. Subscribing to the theory of "the more freedom, the better", Tom gave us plenty of elbow room, encouraging us to write things even we could not believe would make it into a console game. For a safety net, we wrote alternate scenes, we had replacement dialog for every line in the game deemed a likely candidate for censorship. Most of it was never used, but the psychological freedom it gave was well worth the effort it took to write and record the "less offensive" lines of dialog.
Feedback & Revision
Regardless of how talented your writers may be, they can't do it alone. Most are going to miss the mark more often than not, so how do you weed out the clunkers and keep what's left? When it comes to game design, most projects have a Lead Designer or Director who calls the shots and establishes a vision for the team. If Junior Designers stray from the path they are guided back toward the lead's way of doing things. The same system however, can be a recipe for disaster when it comes to evaluating comedy. Your Lead Designer may have excellent comedic instincts that reflect perfectly those of your target market, he/she may have a sense of humor nowhere near that of your target market or he/she may be somewhere in between. Regardless, letting one person be the filter through which all comedy is judged is dangerous. Your writers will find it very hard to be objective about their stuff, and having only one person be judge, jury, and executioner ties you to that person's sense of humor and increases the risk you will end up with crap that slips through the cracks or worse, end up with pure gold on the cutting room floor.
Early on in the writing process, we decided to abandon this method of judging our writing and opted instead for script meetings where our stuff would be tested in front of a cross-section of different personality types. We were lucky to have on the project many people we considered to be part of our target audience, and as often as three or more times a week we would gather these people in a conference room and Matt or I would perform for them. The goal was not to try and please every person in the room, but if the majority of the people laughed heartily the majority of the time, we knew we had a winner on our hands. Once a scene was deemed to have potential we would revise it as many times as was necessary, and each revision would be read in front of an "audience". This process yielded some remarkable results. There is a big difference between scenes that underwent this type of scrutiny and ones that didn't.
Ego & Neurosis: Keeping amateur writers focused under stress
My experience on Magna Cum Laude has prompted me to do some research on how comedy writers of T.V. and film approach their craft. Among other things I wanted to know how they dealt with the stress of having their ego bruised when scenes they thought hilarious only twelve hours ago utterly flopped before their colleagues. I wanted to know how they dealt with feelings of possessiveness over characters or scenes that were handed off to other writers for revision. The more people I talked to about our experiences on MCL the more comforting it was to know that we were not alone. It is common knowledge that first-time comedy writers are especially sensitive to having their work rejected or altered (one Hollywood writer spoke of a colleague who pops a valium before every script review), and that while no writer can completely separate their ego from their work, the most effective comedy writers learn over time to develop the thick skin necessary to take things in stride.
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed, and this lead to more than a few moments that we would each like to forget (a broken chair at a focus testing facility comes to mind), but with each success came confidence, and with confidence the ability to fail with the same sense of humor in which we succeeded. Matt and I have learned to collaborate more and trust each other's instincts while respecting our differences of opinion. I still get nervous before pitching an idea for a scene or reading some dialog I've written to a group, but I don't live and die with the reaction I get. If something doesn't work, it can be fixed. If it can't it'll be abandoned or someone else will fix it. You'll have more failures than successes but eventually you'll hit on something that people like. Until then, don't take it personal, and don't get big headed when you do.
What is the final result of all this research, theory, mistakes, and hard work? While we lost some of the older Larry fans who missed the comedy stylings of Al Lowe, and while the final result did divide some critics (the humor was panned by Electronic Gaming Monthly and Official Xbox Magazine) the majority of reviews have been confirmation for us that we made the right decisions, at least with regard to humor. In particular, GameSpot, one of the more respected industry websites, had this to say: "Something that has impressed us about Magna Cum Laude thus far is just how funny it is. Leisure Suit Larry has always been ribald and humorous, but this game comes off as sharply written without being coarse or vulgar. It's almost outrageously hilarious at times, and the humor isn't always about sex..."
You can't please everyone when writing a comedy, and you shouldn't try. But as long as developers take care to find talented writers who can speak effectively to their audience and give them the freedom and support necessary to blossom creatively, there is no telling how far we can take this woefully underdeveloped genre.
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