Dr. Jess Morrissette is a professor of political science at Marshall University, where he studies the politics of popular culture.
Popular narratives about the history of female video game protagonists tend to follow a standard series of milestones, highlighting similar sets of influential characters and games along the way. The story typically begins with Ms. Pac-Man in 1981 before jumping ahead to 1986 and Metroid’s Samus Aran—generally recognized as the first playable human woman in a mainstream game. From there, the timeline usually skips forward again to Lara Croft’s 1996 debut in Tomb Raider before settling in to discuss more contemporary examples like Bayonetta’s (2009) eponymous protagonist and Horizon Zero Dawn’s (2017) Aloy. Of course, like any other constructed history, these accounts omit far more than they can possibly include. Notable games like Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew mysteries (1998-2019) and once-prominent characters like superspy Cate Archer from The Operative: No One Lives Forever (2000) and photojournalist Jade from Beyond Good & Evil (2003) are often glossed over. In this essay, I highlight a significant character who is typically absent from such narratives: Passionate Patti from Sierra On-Line’s Leisure Suit Larry series (1987-2004). Patti serves as an early—and still decidedly rare—instance of a sex-positive female video game protagonist. Yet, as I argue in this essay, her legacy is complicated. Much like Samus, whose gender is only revealed as a twist at the end of Metroid, or Lara Croft, whose action hero accolades coexist alongside the character’s objectification in promotional materials, Passionate Patti reflects patterns of what I call patriarchal play. In order to demonstrate Patti’s complicated positioning and her relationship to patriarchal play, this essay explores the ways in which she is presented simultaneously as a strong female protagonist with sexual agency while also existing for the voyeuristic pleasure of straight male players.
Any serious discussion of the Leisure Suit Larry series must begin with a disclaimer. These bestselling graphic adventures, designed by Al Lowe and first released by Sierra On-Line in 1987, are semi-raunchy sex comedies with a decidedly sophomoric sense of humor. At a fundamental level, the games objectify women; as the series progresses, the plots essentially break down into a series of “babes” the titular Larry Laffer must seduce in order for players to advance the story. Moreover, there are notable instances of sexism, misogyny, casual and not-so-casual racism, homophobia, and transphobia peppered throughout the games. Suffice it to say, many aspects of the series have not aged well. These problematic elements perhaps explain why, as Shaw (2019) observes, there is relatively little academic research on Leisure Suit Larry beyond passing references in work on sex and sexuality in video games. A notable exception is Niedenthal’s (2012) work on “fragrant play,” in which the author considers how the scratch-and-sniff card packaged with Leisure Suit Larry: Love for Sail! (1996) influences the player’s overall aesthetic experience, but this research does not otherwise reflect on the thematic content of the series.
Passionate Patti figures prominently in two installments, Leisure Suit Larry III: Passionate Patti in Pursuit of the Pulsating Pectorals (1989) and Leisure Suit Larry 5: Passionate Patti Does a Little Undercover Work (1991). Introduced as a world-famous piano bar entertainer (later turned covert FBI agent), the series presents Patti as the hapless Larry’s “one true love.” While Larry initially pursues and woos Patti in LSL3, the perspective shifts midway through the game when Larry mysteriously disappears and Patti takes over as the playable character for the remainder of the adventure. Sierra had already featured a female protagonist in King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella (1988), but Patti is a far cry from the Disneyesque Princess Rosella. Whereas the chaste Rosella embarks on a G-rated fairytale quest to save her father’s life by retrieving a magical fruit from a faraway realm, Patti is a woman unapologetically in search of sexual gratification—a rarity in video games both then and now.
Pulsating Pectorals and the Pursuit Thereof
From the outset, Leisure Suit Larry 3 (hereafter LSL3) depicts Patti as a character with sexual agency. The “pursuit of the pulsating pectorals” referenced in LSL3’s title is essentially an alliterative euphemism for Patti’s pursuit of sex (not to mention a well-defined torso). While this mirrors Larry’s own amorous endeavors, he is consistently framed as a “loveable loser,” whereas Patti is described in LSL5’s documentation as “brilliant,” “multi-talented,” and “beautiful.” A GameFAQs user review describes her, without any apparent hint of irony, as follows: “Patti is sexy, confident, and self-assured, which makes her absolutely no fun whatsoever.” This statement closely echoes complaints about an early iteration of Alyx Vance, the player’s female partner in Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006), who playtesters felt was too competent and outspoken and therefore “irritating” and “bossy” (Parker, 2012). Playing as an intelligent, successful, attractive woman is undoubtedly a new direction for a franchise like Leisure Suit Larry, where the nerdy male protagonist had traditionally served as the butt of the joke. As LSL3’s packaging promises, “Whoever you are, get ready for a look at the other side of life.”
Players get a glimpse of this “other side” early on when Patti visits a Chip ‘N’ Dale’s lounge and enthusiastically cheers from the audience while a male dancer performs a striptease. For the first time in a series practically defined by the male gaze, players experience a scenario in which a male character is instead the object of desire. The bearded dancer, Dale, even receives a close-up 16-color portrait when Patti speaks to him after his performance, an honor typically reserved for women in the series. This scene, which centralizes Patti’s perspective, introduces the possibility of the straight female gaze—or even the queer gaze—to the games’ audience. This not only marks a subversive departure for the series, but also for the medium as a whole.
In her appearances as a playable avatar in LSL3 and LSL5, Patti isn’t shy about flirting, lusting over men, and otherwise expressing her sexual desires. For instance, she places a personal ad in the LSL3 manual, presented in the form of a tourist’s guide to the game’s tropical island setting, seeking casual sex. In a scene from LSL5 that plays quite differently in 2019 than it did in 1991, she daydreams about a sexual encounter aboard the yacht of millionaire real estate investor “Donald Tramp.” Later, she fantasizes about a romp in the Money Bin with Scrooge McDuck.
Setting aside her questionable taste in affluent men (and ducks), the series consistently depicts Patti as a character who thinks about, pursues, and enjoys sex on her own terms and is not penalized by the game for doing so. Furthermore, while she tritely falls for Larry after their first sexual encounter in LSL3, she ultimately abandons him at the altar to pursue her own career in showbiz. In summary, Passionate Patti is an independent, sex-positive female protagonist who debuted at a time when female protagonists of any stripe were still rare in video games. In that sense, I argue that she is a historically significant character. Nevertheless, there are problematic elements of Patti’s depiction that complicate her legacy.
The Perils of Patriarchal Play
Passionate Patti’s role in the Leisure Suit Larry series fits a pattern of what I call patriarchal play. While the games depict Patti as a certain kind of “strong female character,” this characterization is filtered through a fundamentally masculine lens. In other words, she represents a straight male ideal of what an empowered, sexual woman might look and act like. In this sense, both the narrative and ludic elements involving Patti ultimately reinforce existing gendered structures of power rather than meaningfully subverting or otherwise problematizing them. Patti may openly pursue the objects of her sexual desires, but that does not negate the fact that the games objectify and sexualize her in the process. As Jansz and Martis (2007) suggest, it’s often the case that empowered female characters like Patti “are depicted as sex objects as much as their powerless predecessors were” (p. 147).
For instance, in LSL3, one of the player’s first actions after waking up in Patti’s penthouse suite is to dress her in the bra, panties, pantyhose, and white cocktail dress strewn around the room. After stepping behind a dressing screen and inputting a series of text commands to wear each of these garments, they are added to Patti’s inventory. In contrast, Larry’s trademark leisure suit and anything he might have worn underneath it weren’t considered “useable” items earlier in game. Patti goes on to overcome most of the obstacles she encounters in the game through the creative use of these distinctly feminine articles of clothing. First, she throws her panties on stage during the aforementioned striptease to attract the dancer’s attention and trigger a conversation that provides important hints for later in the game. Patti then ties her pantyhose to a rock and uses them to rappel down a sheer cliff. After that, she tears off a strip of fabric from her dress to serve as a safety harness while ziplining across a chasm. Finally, Patti fashions a crude sling from her lace bra and a pair of coconuts and uses it to subdue a feral pig. While it’s possible to offer a subversive reading of these gameplay elements in terms of Patti using traditionally feminine-coded garments as tools to engage in traditionally masculine-coded activities, the fact that they result in Patti becoming increasingly undressed and exposed before ultimately being captured by “Amazonian lesbian cannibals” arguably weakens this interpretation.
These puzzles reflect a form of gendered gameplay, characterized here by problem-solving that is inextricably linked to the protagonist’s identity as a woman. Players have no choice but to perform Patti’s gender as coded—literally and figuratively—into LSL3’s design if they want to advance in the game. Moreover, this reflects a standard of compulsive heterosexuality, creating gameplay scenarios in which “a player is often literally unable to perform queerness or self-identify as anything other than heterosexual in a particular game” (Adams, 2015). Similar gendered, sexualized elements are also present in LSL5, where the FBI issues Patti an experimental ballistic brassiere (described by the game as “double-barreled hooter shooter”) that she fires at the “big bad” during the game’s climax, saving Vice President Dan Quayle’s life in the process. Moreover, much of the humor involving Patti in both games is directed at her womanhood and sexuality. This includes jokes about Patti’s prior sexual exploits, her self-image (“I could stand to lose a few pounds”), and a cringeworthy visit to an FBI gynecologist in LSL5 that’s played desperately for laughs.
While the games certainly subject Larry, a sexually challenged “male geek avatar” (Salter & Blodgett, 2017, p. 76), to similar instances of humiliation and degradation, it remains a franchise designed by a man for a presumed straight male audience. As Shaw (2019) points out, heterosexual masculinity is joked about in Leisure Suit Larry, “but it is not The Joke” (p. 115). Shaw goes on observe, “[i]n one interview [series creator Al Lowe] claims the games were feminist because the women always get the upper hand and were smarter than Larry. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of feminist politics” (p. 116). Lampooning an inept swinger like Larry represents a decidedly different power dynamic than creating a world where women solve problems in large part via their undergarments.
Even Patti’s walking animation in LSL5 is a near caricature of femininity, an exaggerated strut that would be more at home on a drag stage than in the real(ish) world. In fact, it’s fair to say the defining feature about Patti as a character is the fact that she’s a woman—more specifically, a straight guy’s idealized, sexualized version of an empowered woman. Writing about male players of the Tomb Raider series, Mikula (2003) suggests that “[i]t is obvious that at least part of the pleasure of playing this game involved ‘controlling’ a female character as feisty and attractive as Lara” (p. 81). Mikula (2003) goes on to argue that, for these male players, “even as they ‘are’ Lara, they are distanced from, controlling—perhaps ‘objectifying’ the character” (p. 81). I argue the same applies here. To play as Passionate Patti, interacting with the world of Leisure Suit Larry by performing a prescribed set of gendered actions, is to engage in patriarchal play.
Passionate Patti disappeared from the Leisure Suit Larry series following her co-starring role in LSL5. Later installments saw Larry Laffer and, eventually, his nephew Larry Lovage resume their quests to “score babes” without a playable female counterpart. Nevertheless, when she debuted in 1989, there was literally no other character like Patti in mainstream video games, and I’m hard-pressed to think of many others like her in 2019. Furthermore, like many other prominent female protagonists, her legacy is twofold. As noted above, galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran’s gender is only revealed in the final moments of Metroid, and the faster players complete the game, the more scantily clad she appears in the closing scene. Similarly, Kennedy (2002) evaluates the legacy of Lara Croft, questioning whether we should view her as a “feminist icon” or “cyberbimbo”—or perhaps both simultaneously. Without question, Passionate Patti is a significant, overlooked figure in the history of female video protagonists. Her portrayal as a sex-positive woman opened narrative and gameplay opportunities that remain exceedingly rare in video games. In a 2018 essay that examines the “unintentional feminism” of the Leisure Suit Larry series, game developer Rachel Presser discusses Patti, marveling that she “has an option to engage in casual sex and she is not punished for it.” She continues, “[n]ot only was this the very first instance of being able to play as a woman who does not get punished for choosing sex, it was also the only instance I would see for a VERY long time” (Presser, 2018). Yet, we cannot ignore those aspects of the character that remind us she is a “strong female character” written by men primarily for men. In this regard, I contend Passionate Patti is worthy of consideration not only as a groundbreaking sex-positive character, but also as an early example of the complexity of introducing an empowered female video game protagonist given the pervasive legacy of patriarchal play in the medium.
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