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04.03.12

Lowebrow

This interview originally appeared in Kill Screen Issue #3

Toward the end, Al Lowe expresses some frustration shopping videogame ideas to publishers. He hasn't been sitting on his laurels since we spoke with him. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new Leisure Suit Larry project!

/ / /

It’s whatever year it was when I was 10. I am in my friend’s computer room, nervous for reasons I can’t articulate. Currently the most important thing in the world is figuring out who Spiro Agnew was, because the friendly voice in the dialogue box has politely but firmly informed us that is the only way we will be permitted to play Leisure Suit Larry.

A break in my friend’s voice outpaces actual puberty by something on the order of several years. “Mom, who’s Spiro Agnew?” 

A pause before the answer comes back: “Nixon’s vice president. What are you boys doing?”

Another pause. “Playing Carmen Sandiego.”

One of the top-selling games of the late 1980s, Sierra On-Line’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards variously benefited and suffered from its reputation as a sex game. To its fans, it was a hilarious and challenging adventure, a satire of dating, desperation, and modern life. To those who disapproved, it was a baffling perversion on top of a technological idiom that was already impossible to understand.

To legions of preadolescents, meanwhile, it was as logical a point of entry into the dawning mysteries of woman and man as Carmen Sandiego was to geography—and yet if anything, Larry’s twisted adventure-game logic only magnified our wild, sex-is-an-elaborate-handshake illusions about where babies came from. One way to lose in Larry is to be arrested for failing to remove a condom after sleeping with someone, and for longer than I care to admit I believed that law existed on the books. You wouldn’t catch me doing that with a condom, whatever a condom was. Probably a kind of festive hat.

For all this, we have more or less one man to thank: Al Lowe, the game’s creator, programmer, writer, composer, alpha, omega, and conscience. Beating Leisure Suit Larry means conquering its parade of counterintuitive, at times nearly arbitrary puzzles; but simply playing it requires only that you stumble from set piece to set piece, trying what comes to mind and discovering that Lowe has anticipated your instinct to “hump dumpster.”

Lowe, plucked from a 15-year career as a public-school music teacher when Sierra bought the three games he’d programmed on the side, became one of the most prolific contributors to a game-publishing machine that, for nearly two decades, earned a sizable portion of the industry’s cultural (and actual) currency. His credits include King’s Quest I-IV and VIIFreddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, Torin’s Passage, Police Quest, and Leisure Suit Larry 1-7 and Leisure Suit Larry’s Casino, as well as licensed titles based on various Disney characters, The Black Cauldron, and Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal universe. He is in many ways the answer to the question, “What if Santa Claus had a hacker’s brain?” 

Retired from game design since 1998, Lowe now discusses the past with color, the present with wisdom, and the future with optimism, if from a distance.

/ / /

Game design now is so widespread, distributed; a lot of people have access to the tools to do it, and there’s sort of a thriving indie scene, for lack of a better word. But when you started, it was hard to differentiate the hobbyists from the industry. In some ways the hobbyists were the industry.

Well, yeah, perhaps. If you mean that you couldn’t tell much difference between what we did and what the hobbyists did, that’s true. Because the tools were so limited that it was difficult for anyone to create anything. And so you really had to be focused, and you had to be able to limit your ambitions and goals because you would just never finish. I remember people working on games for years and never getting done because they just didn’t have the ability to say, “No, I can’t do everything; I’ve got to do just this little bit because that’s all that I can handle.” 

But I think what made our games different, one of the things, is that we had this language [Sierra’s Adventure Game Interpreter] that no one else had. And we had tool makers who built tools for us to use. When I tell people that we made all those games before Photoshop, they just look at me like, “How old are you?” and I say, “Before there was paper, children!” The language was a real advantage to us because we could create sound effects, we could create music, we could edit text easily, we could write games a scene at a time and compile them within seconds and be immediately back in the game testing it. 

We called each scene a “room,” mostly because we didn’t know what we were doing, and there was no precedent. We just ended up with words like that because somebody had said, “Oh I think that’s a room. We’ll call that a room.” And making each room, I got to the point where my setup was so efficient that rather than pick up a pencil and write down notes I would just go in and write code or add a joke, compile it with one keystroke, then exit the editor and go right back into the room again, and it would take me 10-15 seconds to make the trip. Those “round trips” were so easy and cheap that you took them all the time. That’s why the games were so fleshed out, because we’d made so many iterations. 

When we started writing, we didn’t really design a hell of lot of stuff up front. We’d sit with an artist and brainstorm: “How should we do this? Should we put a bookshelf over on that side? Will there be speakers there? Will there be a tree outside the window?” We would talk it over, and as the art came about, eventhe pencil sketches would go into the game. So you would see a paper-looking pencil drawing of a character just standing there doing nothing, but at least they were in the game, so you could start programming with them. 

I noticed that the jokes in—well, Larry 1 is the one I’ve played most recently—but they do have an almost improvisational quality to them. They feel like riffs on the game, as if you came up with them while you were playing.

Oh absolutely, that’s absolutely correct. I think a big part of it is that a lot of the guys who were working at Sierra at the time were musicians. I’ve found that to be true of all programmers that I’ve known—that there’s a strong correlation between music and programming, for some reason. I think part of it has to do with the fact that both are structured environments with a lot of rules, and yet you’re expected to do your own thing and create something yourself. Jazz players and rock players in particular have an easier time as game designers, because they have that ability to riff and to improvise, to be creative, come up with ideas quickly, and just hope they’re good. 

There was a hell of a lot of that in Larry. I mean, when you have to write 10,000 lines of dialogue—like Freddy Pharkas had 10,000 lines. When you have that many lines, at least the way I worked, you didn’t have a lot of time to sit and contemplate the inner meaning and subtleties of every one. Part of it was you didn’t know whether people would ever even see the line. I mean, I wrote a lot of stuff that I just assumed nobody would ever see; you know, that I’d be the only one. What I didn’t take into account was that eventually there’d be millions of people who would play those scenes, and hell, they found everything.

That kind of treasure hunt was always one of the pleasures of playing adventure games.

Yeah, that’s still why I enjoy shopping at Costco. It’s just like an adventure game. You go in and you pick up everything. 

“What made our games different, one of the things, is that we had this language that no one else had.”

You’ve given a wide range of interviews about those days at Sierra. I’m just sort of struck; you know we’re working on this issue about intimacy, and “intimacy” is the word that comes to mind when I read anything about what it was like to work there and be a part of that community in the ’80s and ’90s.

Well, we were isolated. We were stuck up in the Sierra mountains, near Yosemite Park, and there were no other game companies around. There was nobody for us to go out and have beer with except Sierra people. 

Technically I only worked at Sierra for six months as an employee. I started in 1983, and then in the spring of ’84 the company hit really bad times. There was a Friday that we all nicknamed Black Friday, when the company had 120 employees in the morning and by Friday evening it had 40.

Oh my God.

Yeah, it was an ugly period. [Sierra co-founder Ken Williams] called us in one at a time, and basically the story was the same for everybody. But to me he said, “Your salary has to show up on the books as an expense, but if you were an outside contractor, and I prepaid you royalties, I could give you advances against your future royalties, and then suddenly those expenses would show up on the books as a prepaid asset. So you’d change from being an expense to being an asset.” And I said, “Really? Okay, what kind of advances are we talking about?” and he said, “I’ll give you this much for this project.” I was working on a lot of projects at the time, so when we were done, I added up all the advances and I was going to make twice as much as I had made on salary. So, I said, “Have I just been fired?” He said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Great! Thanks!” 

So I went home, and for the next 15 years I was an outside contractor. I often had people at Sierra that were Sierra employees, and they listened to me, they took orders from me. I was ostensibly their boss, even though I didn’t work there. My goals as an outsider were, I didn’t get paid until the royalties started coming in, and that was three months after the title shipped. So my goal was to get the game out by Christmas so that I could get some money coming in by spring. And that’s a different outlook that you have than when you’re a salaried employee. You really want to get the game done so that you can start seeing some money too.

Larry 1 was a perfect example of this. Ken said, “If you take no advances at all, I could give you a big percentage of sales. But if I have to take the risk upfront by paying you advances, then I can’t give you nearly as much.” And I said, “Okay, why not?” I had enough money coming in from other games at that point that I thought, “I’ll try it, see what happens.” So I worked on Larry for about three or four months, and when it shipped it was the worst-selling product in the history of … Everybody thought it was dirty, and the sales people were afraid to sell it. God, Radio Shack didn’t take it, and I was like “What the hell? I just pissed away a half a year of my life. I better get onto something else.” So I went to work on Police Quest with Jim Walls, and just dove into that headfirst, trying to get it done before Christmas. Larry had shipped in June, I think.

Well, it may have sold nothing when it shipped, but one thing jokes can do for you is generate word of mouth, right? Things turned around eventually.

You know, part of it was the fact that the word of mouth spread slowly. I have a thing on my wall that I’m looking at here from “The Soft Sell Hot List” from July of 1988, and Larry is third place in sales nationwide that week. But it’s been on the chart for 53 weeks.

Wow.

And it’s got a bullet next to it, which means it’s still climbing. [Laughs] So after a year, the game is finally getting up to the top three. I don’t know that it ever made it up to the top. But, I know that it got to be a bestseller.

I can’t imagine a game going out today and selling miserably the first month, and then still being on the shelves a year later.

Luckily, there aren’t shelves anymore. You’ve been retired for a while now—what are you up to these days?

Oh, I’m running my website. I’m sending out Cyber Jokes every day, a little bit here and there, but nothing big, no big projects.

I’ve been using the Cyber Joke app, the program you released for all the jokes you’ve put out through your newsletter over the years. I love that you added what’s basically a game mechanic to hearing jokes—people can choose when to hear the punch line, and giving them that sort of power over how they hear each joke is really interesting.

[Laughs] Well, I’m a fast reader, but I also love to hear people tell my jokes better than I’d read them. I wanted it both ways; I thought that was a mechanism, or a mechanic, that would serve both purposes. And there’s talk about putting in a party mode where it does joke after joke after joke automatically.

Did you program Cyber Joke?

Oh no, I haven’t done any programming since Larry 3, I think. When I retired I took up model railroading. It doesn’t seem like it would have anything in common with programming and music, and yet, amazingly it does. I’m creating little worlds and populating them with incidents and people and objects and animating them. 

I’d love to hear more about the similarities. What’s the model railroading equivalent of a room? What’s the last sort of scenario you put together?

Right now I’m creating a farm scene. So I started off, I had a farmhouse and a barn. And then I got some tractors. Then I got a combine. I got some animals, so I needed fences. I had to build fences and I put the animals out to pasture. Then I needed a loading dock, so I could load the animals into the railroad cars to ship out. Then I built some out-buildings around the place, and I got a windmill, an outhouse, a propane tank, and all these things have just been fun to create. I put humor in, of course, so that if you look at the scenes close enough, you’ll see something amusing, something funny. There are a lot of puns on the names in my cities, and a lotof tributes to people I know and things, so it’s kind of the same, only different. All of our equipment is portable, and the layout’s portable, so we take it out and set it up for a half-dozen or more shows a year. So I’m still entertaining the public, just in a different way.

There’s a whole subculture in the hobby of people who build tabletop-sized, maybe a card-table-size piece of a layout. And there’s a national association that established rules, I guess 40 years ago now, that say, “If you build this thing like so, and you make it this tall, and you make it this shape, and you put your tracks at this distance from the front edge of the table, then you can hook yours together with all these other people and create giant layouts,” and that’s what we do. We follow a standard, and, I believe the last I read there are something like 25,000 modules in the world that could ostensibly all be hooked together. I went to a show in Louisville two years ago, and they had hooked 750 of these modules together. They made a layout that was more than an acre in size. It took four hours to go around the outside of it once.

Whoa.

Yeah. It’s a fun hobby. Here again, see, it’s like jazz in that it’s a standard you have to follow. And yet, what you do on top of that table is up to you. So, you’ll see peoples’ personalities expressed in their creativity, in the layouts that they make.

I can’t help but think about it from the perspective of gaming. People walk up to the table and something draws them in, and their eye starts to roam around and they start to see the intentions behind the way you laid things out. They’re exploring a space just as surely as they are in Larry or Freddy Pharkas.

Yeah, it’s true. It’s just not as lucrative.

I’m interested in that point, because for a lot of people, neither is game design these days.

[Laughs] Well … yeah, that’s true. Game design has really changed incredibly in the past 20 years. Twenty years ago, the designer was much more like a film director. An auteur. You would write the script, you would direct the product, and everything about that product reflected my personality, or [King’s Quest designer] Roberta Williams’ personality, or [Police Quest designer] Jim Wall’s personality. Or [SimCity designer] Will Wright, to go afield, out of Sierra; or [Civilization designer] Sid Meier, or [The Secret of Monkey Island designer] Ron Gilbert. If you played those games, you knew those people. 

We were encouraged to put our personalities in the game by Ken Williams. He and Roberta were big film fans, and they really felt that the way to create good games was the same way you created goodmovies. You would hire Woody Allen, or Martin Scorsese, or George Lucas or something, and you would see their personality. And if you liked one of their films, you’d probably like the sequel or one of the other variants, because their personality was so evident. 

Of course, there were also films that were built by committee, where you would kind of go, “Yeah, I guess it was all right,” but it wasn’t very focused. You don’t get that real intimate sense that you’ve entered someone’s mind and been part of that person for a while. And that’s what I think we’ve lost in the videogame business. Because the teams now are so massive, and it takes so many people to do a product, that you end up with this more-or-less corporate game that has to be safe, and can’t really be that different from what sold well last year. Because if you’re investing 20 million dollars in a game, do you really want to take a chance on something nobody’sever seen before? Probably not. And yet, that was always Ken Williams’ instruction; “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Don’t put out some game that somebody else did; find some niche that hasn’t been filled and do it. 

That was one of the reasons I did a Western game. We thought that the Zuckers and Abrahams had such good luck with Airplane! and Spy Hard and, what were those other comedies…?

“I’m a fast reader, but I also love to hear people tell my jokes better than I’d read them.”

Genre spoofs, basically.

Yeah, and do genre spoofs; and the idea was, between Larrys I would spoof another genre, and I said, “Well, let’s start with a Western, because nobody’s done a Western game.” I think there had been one Western game. So we came up with Freddy Pharkas and it was a big success, and it was fun to do, and it was different, and there was never really a goal to do another one like it. We thought, “Well, next we’ll do a spy comedy, or some other genre, and try and do something that’s never been done.” Contrast that with today’s environment, where accountants look at the books and say, “Well, this game sold this many copies and your game is like that, only it’s a little bit better, so I’ll say that your game is going to sell this many copies, and therefore you have this much budget.”

The place where I see the maker’s mark, as it were—the hallmark of the creativity—is in the casual, independent games where you still have one programmer and maybe one or two artists who can work on a small team and produce a product in a matter of months. I think the casual games are much closer to the games we had back in the ’80s. 

Yeah, you know, in the independent community there has been a transition away from the more story-based, character-based adventure games of the past. Now, the people who I think of as “auteur” game designers are approaching the process more from the side of rules—what people call the “ludic” side of games, mechanics and all that: You know, you have a paddle and there’s a ball; we agree on boundaries and scoring, and that’s what the game is.

Uh huh. Yeah, it’s hard to do comedy that way.

I was hoping to talk about that a bit because, like I said, in Larry, the jokes really exist in the pockets between rules in the game. The rules are actually pretty simple: You walk around and you caninteract with things, but it’s in testing the boundaries of that possibility space that you find the little blank spaces where jokes can go.

Yes.

And it’s trickier, you know, as far as fitting humor in … I guess, to put it in the context of model railroading, you’re not writing those jokes; you’re arranging them in a sense. You’re setting up rules for, you know, this is a farm, and your audience has expectations for that. Now here’s something I’m going to put on the farm that takes the rug out from under those expectations a little bit, and that’s the joke, and it’s almost like a sight gag.

Well, I mean I try to do many things like that. Not only sight gags, but also context humor and the switcheroo. You said, “pull the rug out from under,” but basically it’s where you lead somebody one way and then pull something else on ’em. In addition to that I did puns, I did anything that I could.

Part of the problem was, I had never written comedy before Larry 1, and there hadn’t really been any comedy games. There was Leather Goddesses of Phobos, which is pretty funny, back in the early ’80s. But basically, [Space Quest designer] Scott Murphy and I started both doing comedy at the same time. We told Ken we were doing adventure games, but we both really were funny people and we just wanted to make people laugh. And then, maybe a year or two after that, Ron Gilbert did Monkey Island, and it was funny as hell. And so it was like, “Maybe this is catching on. Maybe comedy is going to have a chance on this medium.” I don’t know. It seems slight these days. 

Anyway, when I started I had no idea how to write a game and make it funny,so every time I had a chance to say something stupid or say something sarcastic, or whatever, I threw that in, just because I wasn’t sure how people were going to think the game was funny. So I just stacked everything I could think of in there.

“Think about it: all the strong characters in all the Larry games are women, and the guy who is supposed to be the hero of the game is a loser.”

Yeah, and it all works, because as a player you empathize with Larry.

Well, that was the luck of the thing. I knew that Larry had a good chance of coming across as a smarmy pervert, or nasty, or ugly, and I didn’t want to have that kind of hero. I didn’t mind him being a fool, but he couldn’t be a fool and also be perverted or something. 

That’s why I tried to make you empathize with Larry. I mean, you’re getting beat up and everything, and man, you just kind of go on in spite of it. It was a fun challenge to make Larry this over-sexed nerd, but also have him be a loser. And there really wasn’t any of that in games at the time. I don’t know that there were any antiheroes or losers as protagonists until Larry came along. I don’t even know if people recognize it. People just go, “Oh, that’s the dirty game.” But it wasn’t nearly as dirty, or groundbreaking in its adult aspects, as it was in the fact that you played as an antihero.

To me that’s the highest-level joke in the game, and also the most amazing: the opportunity to act sort of perverted or creepy exists in every scene. You can always try it. And the fact that the game stops you, the fact that the narrator calls you out, the same narrator that administers the age test at the beginning, this conscience….

[Laughs] Well, you know who that is, don’t you? The narrator in the game is me. I didn’t realize that when I was writing it, but it turns out that Larry is this puppet that I’m just maneuvering around stuff, but I’m God. The narrator is God in those games.

The fact that God is speaking to you before you’re even allowed to access the game—that really establishes a very clear X- and Y-axis for the comedic space that the game creates. You signal, from very early on, that there’s a tone you’re working within. And so eventually the player catches on that if they try to do pervy stuff, the game’s going to stop them, but in an entertaining way. It leaves you open to kind of stumble through Larry’s attempts at making a connection with somebody. Even if no one who plays the game has lived their life like that, in specific moments we’ve all been there.

That’s one of the reasons, I think, that women enjoyed the games. Many people find it remarkable that, I believe, a third of Larry sales were to women. Once women play the game they realize that it’s really the opposite of misogynistic, which I can never remember … messandry? There’s a word for it. You can Google it. [Laughs] There’s a word for putting down men, and, that’s what the game was. Think about it: all the strong characters in all the Larry games are women, and the guy who is supposed to be the hero of the game is a loser.

Turns out it’s “misandry.” I don’t know how to pronounce it, because I never have to use it in our culture.

Well, it’s not used much, is it? [Laughs]

And the game is also kind to Larry. The way that it lets him, and by extension you, down. The error messages are funny, not cruel. If you get let down in a way that’s kind of mean, the narrator always steps in and says, “OK, Larry, looks like that didn’t work.”

I thought I did that best in Freddy Pharkas. I had a lot of backstory that I needed to tell on Freddy, and I came up with this idea of doing the “Whittlin’ Willie” character—who was basically Gabby Hayes from the old Western movies that I used to watch. So he told the story, and then I realized, jeez, I’ve got this character who starts the story, and he kind of pops in and out to do the transitions. Why don’t I make him do the endings? And, so, every time you die, or do something stupid in the game, Whittlin’ Willie will come back in and say, “Well, that’s how that story ends. I don’t know why that damn fool did it that way.” It became really fun just to write those error messages. Those death messages.

I love the deaths in Larry, too. It’s a realistic game, but if you die, if the guy in the alley beats you up, a little platform opens up in the ground and takes you down into a sort of factory in the center of the earth, and you get a new head screwed on, and in the background we see the King’s Quest guy getting the same treatment. Like, this is the Sierra central processing unit, where all its protagonists go when they die.

Like it was a factory making widgets.

My last question is maybe the most presumptuous one: What would it take to get you back into it?

[Laughs] Well … uh … gosh. Let me answer that this way: About six years ago a producer asked me that question, and I said, “Well, I would like to have the control that I had over the product back in the old days. I’d like to be the creative director, and be allowed to be funny, and do a game that’s maybe not pushing the envelope, but certainly not retro.” And he said, “If I could come up with the money, would you do it?” and I said, “Sure, absolutely.” And by God, he did. We formed a company and we ended up hiring, I think, 25 people. And we made some mistakes along the way. We started off as a game for the first-gen consoles, the Xbox and PlayStation 2. And we were just too late to get out in time for that market, but we weren’t out early enough for the PS3 or the Xbox 360 market. Had we known about the Wii, we probably would and should have gone there, but we ended up switching horses mid-stream and going from a low-res to a hi-res game, and it cost a lot of money and we just ran out of funds. 

“I think the casual games are much closer to the games we had back in the '80s.”

I had a ball, and I think we created gameplay that you haven’t seen before. It was an action game but it was funny as hell. If you can imagine a sort of Grand Theft Auto thing, but instead of killing people you were doing funny things. The conversations were funny and the characters were funny, they’re fleshed-out, they’ve got some depth to them; and it’s a fun environment, a fun world. That was the game we tried to make. 

We took it to all the major publishers, and we had no trouble getting in because everyone knew my past history. I think I did 26 titles for Sierra, and 24 of them were on time and under-budget. And we can talk about those other two, if you want [laughs], but I think they weren’t my fault. Anyway, I had a history of being able to produce a successful game. So, when we’d go to these meetings, people would say, “Oh my God, I’m so happy to meet you. You’re the reason I’m in computers, you’re the only guy that ever really made me laugh out loud …” Blah, blah, blah. And then I’d show them the game and they’d say, “This is amazing, this is fun. It’s the first game I’ve had come through here in years that I would actually play myself.” I thought that was a pretty telling story, from a lot of the executives. You know, they don’t really play the games. 

Anyway, right around the end of the meeting, out would come the giant killer, which was, “What are your comparables?” And we would say, “You know, we don’t really have any. We’re trying to do something different; there aren’t really any games out there like this.” And they would all get tight-lipped and you could see their assholes pucker. [Laughs] And boy, about a week later we’d get a phone call and they’d say, “Well, you know, we’re not really sure we could take a chance with this kind of a product.” And, “We’d sure love to do it and let me know when it ships, ’cause I’d like to play it!” 

It’s like, damn, you know, if it’s a game you want to play, don’t you think there are other people like you? But like I said, we ran out of money, and one day we just couldn’t make payroll, so we closed the doors and turned off the lights. Fortunately we had hired such a great team that I think everybody had a new job in two weeks, but it was a really tough decision to make.

Here’s hoping you find a way to do it again.

I’m pretty spoiled, you know! Retirement is highly underrated. They don’t tell you when you’re working your ass off all those 30 years how great it is at the other end! People say; “Don’t you get bored?” and I say, “Do you get bored on Saturdays?” And they look at me and go, “No, why?” and I say, “Well, for me, every day is Saturday.” I have loads of things to do; I just don’t have to do them for anybody.

Visit Al Lowe’s Humor Site at allowe.com. Illustrations by Tim Denee