In the 1980s, Infocom had cornered the market on interactive fiction (IF), being by far the leading developer and publisher of computer text adventure games. Even so, the company was not content to continue doing what it had always done but sought to diversify its portfolio by making games that spanned several different genres. In 1986, during a time of flourishing creativity within the company, Infocom released Leather Goddesses of Phobos - a text adventure game quite unlike any other game from Infocom or even other game companies at the time.
Although Leather Goddesses of Phobos is among Steve Meretzky's most famous work, it is actually his fifth IF game written for Infocom. As an IF author, Meretzky is well known for his love of clever puzzles involving wordplay. Not surprisingly, these puzzles are present aplenty in Leather Goddesses of Phobos, including a few puzzles with coded messages to decipher as well as a puzzle that elaborately rewrites the legend of King Midas to revolve around a pun involving geometry.
The Leather Goddesses of Phobos series is often compared to the Leisure Suit Larry series due to the games' pervading sexually suggestive, but not explicit, content. Notably, the release of Leather Goddesses of Phobos actually predates the release of the original Leisure Suit Larry game by Sierra On-Line. Even so, Leather Goddesses of Phobos is not the first major computer game to include sexual content, since the game itself is predated by Softporn Adventure, a text adventure game released years earlier also by Sierra On-Line.
The game tells the archetypical story of an alien invasion involving an actual alien species called the Leather Goddesses of Phobos who are in the process of invading planet Earth and are busily performing experiments on human beings, which the game never explicitly describes but which are always implied as being unpleasant and somewhat sexual in nature. Predictably, the game's overarching plot informs much of its atmosphere and writing style. Every element about this game, from its cover art to its subject matter, evokes the flavor of Hollywood's B movies, including (sometimes deliberately) low production values and racy content. As in most adventure games of that era, most of the settings and puzzles in Leather Goddesses of Phobos do not relate directly to the main plot but are rather a relatively random series of situations and locations involving side quests and the like. Although the Leather Goddesses are occasionally mentioned to remind the player about the main context of the game, appreciably little of the game actually involves them until the very end. The rest of the game consists of travel to exotic locales such as Venus and Mars as well as more earthly locales such as Cleveland.
The game is slightly famous for its opening gender selection process. It is by no means the first game that allows the player to select the player character's gender, but it does so in an unusual way. At the very beginning of the game, the player character has an urgent need to use the bathroom. Both male and female bathrooms are available, and the room which the player chooses to use will define the player character's gender for the rest of the game. The player character's gender does not significantly influence gameplay, though some of the in-game text is slightly different based on this selection. This entails that the player must play it through at least twice - once as a male and once as a female - in order for the player to experience all of the alternative dialogs in the game.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos is also known for its 3 "naughtiness" levels, which can be selected by the player at any time and which do not impact gameplay. Rather, the level affects how mature the game's text descriptions and dialogs are. The levels, which are always spelled in uppercase letters in both the game's documentation and the game itself, are TAME, SUGGESTIVE, and LEWD. At the TAME level, the game refuses to even acknowledge sexual situations and innocently pretends not to understand coarse language. At the LEWD level, slightly graphic language appears from time to time, although the game never crosses the line from naughty to raunchy. After all, Leather Goddesses of Phobos is meant to be a mature, but not pornographic, adventure.
Like other Infocom games, Leather Goddesses of Phobos includes a number of feelies within the game's packaging such as a comic book and a map. There is even a "scratch 'n' sniff" card with seven circles on it, each with a different smell. The player is prompted to scratch and sniff a specific circle at various points in the game to experience smells associated with the game's locations. The various smells are not actually labeled on the card itself. Thus, if the player plays the game properly and does not sniff the various circles on the card until the game tells the player to do so, the player will not know what the smells are until the game describes them. Despite the risque possibilities given the game's suggestive nature, Infocom has played it safe by including only mundane smells, such as familiar food items.
Leather Goddesses of Phobos is rated as "Standard" on Infocom's self-imposed difficulty rating scale. For the most part, this accurately reflects the overall frustration and difficulty level of the puzzles in the game. Although some puzzles are more challenging, most puzzles can be solved with some reasonable degree of analysis or forethought. However, there is an absolutely appalling maze section approximately halfway through the game that is by far the most pointlessly frustrating segment of the entire game. The maze is complicated specifically because it also serves as the game's copy protection and requires the map which comes packaged with the game in order to be solved. Yet, even with the map, the maze segment is overly lengthy and confusing.
Like the Leisure Suit Larry series, the Leather Goddesses of Phobos series is best remembered today for its suggestive and sexual content rather than its puzzles and gameplay. To this end, Leather Goddesses of Phobos is perhaps more significant as a historical example of the state of the genre at the time of the game's release than as a fun game to play.
It is worth noting that Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2: Gas Pump Girls Meet the Pulsating Inconvenience from Planet X!, though being a sequel to Leather Goddesses of Phobos, is not a text based interactive fiction but rather a graphical adventure game. As such, Leather Goddesses of Phobos stands almost in a league of its own as a defining interactive fiction infused with sexual content intended for a mature audience. It is also an example of how naughty or crude humor can still be done both tastefully and with originality. As a defining adventure game of its era, Leather Goddesses of Phobos is worth playing by any gamer who is interested in understanding more clearly from where modern adventure games derive their inspiration.
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