Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Where are they now? - Al Lowe

Al Lowe - creator of Leisure Suit Larry

For today's Where are they now? post I would like to take some time to talk about one of Sierra On-Line's most famous game designers: Al Lowe. If it weren't for Al Lowe, perverts across the world wouldn't have the Leisure Suit Larry series, a series that consisted of six games during its original run with Sierra On-Line. So how exactly did Al Lowe (who often calls himself "the world's oldest game designer") end up working for Sierra On-Line and what has happened since his days working there? What's he up to nowadays?

Let's start in the 1980s. Before becoming a programmer, Al Lowe was a public school music teacher for 15 years until in 1982 he discovered his passion for programming. After quickly teaching himself how to program games, Al Lowe released a few for the Apple II including Dragon's Keep, Bop-A-Bet and Troll's Tale - all children's games. Sierra On-Line was impressed with his work and decided to buy his games and hire him; so in 1983 Al Lowe started working at Sierra On-Line as a designer/programmer and would stay at the company for another 16 years.

Lowe's first projects at Sierra On-Line included more children's games or at least games licensed by a company associated with children's products: Disney. Al Lowe would develop Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred-Acre Woods (1983), The Black Cauldron (1984) and Donald Duck's Playground (1986) for Disney but he was also involved with Sierra's "Quest" games too. He composed music for King's Quest II (1983) and Space Quest II (1987), and programmed King's Quest III (1985) and Police Quest (1987).

It was in 1987 when the release of the notorious Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (or Leisure Suit Larry 1) made Al Lowe truly famous. Leisure Suit Larry's locations and puzzles were actually based off an earlier Sierra On-Line game called Softporn Adventure which was released back in 1981, before Al Lowe joined the company (interesting bit of trivia: did you know that Sierra On-Line is mentioned in Tom Clancy's novel "The Hunt for Red October"? Apparently Clancy met Softporn Adventure's designer Chuck Benton before and that's how he knew of the company). Lowe mentioned that there weren't any characters in the original game though and he had to rewrite almost all the dialogue, retaining only one line. Leisure Suit Larry involved a couple of other famous Sierra alumni, including Mark Crowe (of Space Quest fame) who co-designed the game and worked on the graphics, as well as Sierra CEO Ken Williams who helped Lowe with the programming. Lowe, already an accomplished jazz musician since the age of 13, would compose the famous Larry Theme officially known as "For Your Thighs Only" (gee, I wonder if Al Lowe is a James Bond fan). Apparently it only took Lowe 20 minutes to create the track and little did he realise that it would become ubiquitous with the Leisure Suit Larry series.

Apparently it only took Lowe 20 minutes to create the [Larry Theme]

Leisure Suit Larry became a huge success paving the way for many sequels over almost a decade. The last Leisure Suit Larry adventure game to be released by Sierra was Leisure Suit Larry 7: Love for Sail! in 1996. While not working on the Leisure Suit Larry series, Al Lowe did work on some other Sierra titles including King's Quest IV (1988), Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist (1993) and Torin's Passage (1995).

In 1998, Al Lowe went into retirement and probably devoted more time with his family and his website known as Al Lowe's Humor Site. He still runs this site to this very day along with his daily joke mailing list called "CyberJoke 3000".

It wasn't until 2006, that reports emerged of his involvement with a company known as iBase Entertainment to develop a new game which was called Sam Suede: Undercover Exposure (the rights to the Leisure Suit Larry franchise were at this time owned by Activision). Unfortunately, no publisher was found for the game so in December that same year, the company shutdown. Following this setback, Lowe expressed serious doubts whether he'd ever want to be involved in the gaming industry again. Lowe did direct and produce an iOS game called Al Lowe's Comedy Club (by Binary Mill) in 2010 but it wasn't until 2012 that Al Lowe was once again involved with adventure games and once again involved with the Leisure Suit Larry franchise.

A company called Replay Games managed to secure the rights to the Leisure Suit Larry franchise and wanted to remake the six Leisure Suit Larry games that were originally developed at Sierra. A Kickstarter project managed to raise $655,182 in early 2012 from almost 15,000 backers (one of them being me!) for a remake of the first Leisure Suit Larry titled Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded. Sierra alumni such as Josh Mandel and Leslie Balfour were also involved with the project along with Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory and after several months of work, the game was released in June 2013, Al Lowe being the first of the Sierra alumni to release a new game via Kickstarter. Although Al Lowe was originally going to work with Replay Games to develop remakes for the remaining Leisure Suit Larry games, he left Replay Games on 11 December 2013 and returned to retirement. While Replay Games stated the departure was amicable, Al Lowe disputed this claim, saying the parting wasn't on good terms.

So I guess the big question now is whether Al Lowe still has any appetite for developing new games? An interview by gaming YouTube channel Top Hats and Champagne reveals that Al Lowe isn't saying "no" to developing a future game, stating that "the future is unclear" but he doesn't seem to be working on one at the moment. He hopes that Replay Games will get enough profit from the first game in order to develop more Leisure Suit Larry games but since they had a falling out he won't be working with them in the future. He says that as long as they hold the rights, that they'd have to create the new Leisure Suit Larry games without him, although he thinks it unlikely that they would.

[ Al Lowe Humor Site ]
[ Wikipedia: Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards ]
[ Wikipedia: Al Lowe ]
[ Wikipedia: Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded]
[ Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded Kickstarter Page ]

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos Review

If only we lived in a world where "poor" meant not having enough money to buy a snack

  • Developer: Dischan Media
  • Publisher: Dischan Media
  • Release Date: 4 April 2013
  • Time Played: 2 hours

I managed to purchase Dysfunctional Systems last time it was on sale since the game was affordable, promised to have a strong focus on story (visual novels usually do), and had a nice, audacious title to grab my attention - I mean seriously who names a game: "Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos"? Dischan Media does apparently...

Plot (5/5)
Dysfunctional Systems has you playing the role of two people. In the first half of the game you play the role of a 14 year-old student called Winter Harrison. She is apparently being trained to become a mediator which sounds rather boring until you realise the mediators in this game get to travel to parallel universes or worlds or something. At the beginning of the game, she is being trained by a veteran mediator named Cyrus Addington and they both happen to be on a certain world determining what issues the local inhabitants have (if any) and how to go about bringing any order to potential chaos. In the second half of the game you play the role of Winter's roommate, Waverly where you spend most of your time conversing with people who aren't Winter.

While I'm not too big a fan of the story in the second half (it's like a teen schoolgirl drama which incidentally a lot of anime tends to be) the first half of the game is interesting and even suspenseful. I also really like the setting - it seems that humans are able to travel to parallel universes but they're not quite sure what to expect when they get there which reminds me a bit of the frontier spirit in books such as Frederik Pohl's Gateway.

Gameplay (3/5)
I've played visual novels before so I knew what I was getting into when I started playing Dysfunctional Systems. Visual novels usually involve a lot of reading; reading about the protagonist's thoughts and the conversations he or she has with other people. Every so often you're offered a choice of what to say which alters the course of the story. In really good visual novels, they might alter the course of the story quite a bit eventually leading to multiple endings - a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure. The reason they call them visual novels is because they tend to have some character art superimposed over backgrounds corresponding to which location you're at.

Dysfunctional Systems almost fits the bill except it was only after playing for 45 minutes (so about half-way through the game) that I finally came across my first choice; the first time I actually got to do something besides click through pages and pages of text. It seems you get a lot less interaction in this game than your standard visual novel which I'm a bit disappointed with. To offer some constructive criticism, I think what would've been preferable is if they allowed you to say certain things that didn't change the course of the game (i.e. small talk) which might seem disingenuous but it at least means the player gets to do something and feels somewhat involved in the story (many point 'n' click adventure games do this).

It took me 45 minutes to get to this part: my first choice

Sound (5/5)
The game contains no voice acting and has minimal sound effects. No issues with the audio.

Music (4/5)
Music is composed by Kristian "CombatPlayer" Jensen and while the soundtrack is good, nothing really sticks in my head except for the piece that plays during the final moments of the mission; that piece definitely amplifies the emotions. For those of you who like freebies, you'll be pleased to know that purchasing the game also includes the game's soundtrack in digital formats (MP3 and FLAC.

Graphics (3/5)
The artwork in Dysfunctional Systems is of the typical manga ilk that you normally see in visual novels - in other words, the artwork looks pretty damn good (if you're into that sort of thing). Animations seem a bit silly sometimes though, like when your character looks like they're facing away yet they're slowly sliding across the street at the same time.

Replay (2/5)
The game is rather short, only taking me two hours to complete but it does have a branching narrative (as most visual novels do) and the Steam achievements to prove it.

Polish (2/5)
The game doesn't have any serious bugs but there is a pretty dodgy gallery you can visit with provocative photos of what are meant to be the game's protagonists. While normally, I wouldn't have any issue with that the problem here is that the game's protagonists are meant to be 14 year-old girls; one of the drawings even has a caption that reads: "I love little girls: I want a pile of little girls when I come home from work every day... and a trap I guess". Maybe I'm reading too much into it but there's already been a complaint raised on the Steam forums about it. Including these drawings to the gallery seem to be in bad taste and I believe it would definitely help the game's reputation to have them excluded.

Score – 7/10

Dysfunctional Systems doesn't actually offer many choices to the player, even by normal visual novel standards, and the game is terribly short. There's also some questionable material floating around in its "extras" gallery which is a pity because it detracts from what seems to be a truly interesting universe to explore. In fact it's so good that I keenly await the release of the game's second episode provided it will be around the same price of $5.

If you want to get the game, you can get it on Steam.

If you like this game, you might like...

[ LINK: Official Dysfunctional Systems: Learning to Manage Chaos website ]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Choicest VGM - VGM #140 - The Ur-Quan Masters - Hyperspace - Light Years Away

Composed by: Riku Nuottajarvi
Remixed by: Jouni Airaksinen

Okay I cheated a bit with this remix. Apparently, this isn't one of the tracks that features in the Ur-Quan Masters as that would be Riku Nuottajarvi's remix of his own work titled "Hyperspace - Across the Galaxy". Nuottajarvi's remix is pretty choice and definitely has a jazzy, lounge feel to it but I reckon Jouni Airaksinen's remix which is included as additional music is a better fit - mainly because it sounds similar to the original yet it manages to make the track sound even more retro by adopting some 80s samples such as synth clapping noises. The original Hyperspace tune is probably one of the most memorable and popular of Star Control 2's tunes since it gets played every time your ship enters hyperspace (funny that!).

Special thanks to The Precursors for remixing the classic Star Control II tracks and making them available for download.