In the 1990s, Theresa Duncan and collaborators made three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.
Two decades later, the works (like most CD-ROMs) have fallen into obscurity, but they remain as luminous and compelling as ever. This online exhibition—copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online—brings them back, making them playable online.
“CD-ROMs were booming.”
Theresa Duncan and Monica Lynn Gesue were working at the World Bank in Washington, DC when they met. The two became friendly, and when Duncan left for a job as a production assistant at Magnet Interactive in Georgetown, she helped Gesue, a photographer and illustrator, find a job there as well.
At Magnet, Gesue encountered a kids' CD-ROM for the first time (Richard Scarry's Busy Town) and became interested in the idea of creating a moving storybook. Over lunch at Dean & DeLuca in 1993, the duo drafted a pitch for a project; set in Gesue's hometown of Cortland, Ohio, it would be titled Chop Suey.
The problem was that neither had ever made a game before. But in spite of their relative lack of experience, Magnet gave the project the green light. In an interview, Duncan explained the company could afford to take risks on inexperienced game creators. "Magnet Interactive was wealthy, since at the time CD-ROMs were booming."1 Gesue, for her part, has noted that Duncan's confidence and charisma were crucial factors in getting the go-ahead.
“One of the greatest, most important games I've ever owned.”
Chop Suey was released ahead of a significant boom in "games for girls" on CD-ROM, beginning in earnest with the runaway success of Barbie: Fashion Designer (1996). That success ushered in a flood of insipid copycat productions that focused on dress-up, shopping, and dating. But when work started on Chop Suey in 1993, as Duncan noted, "'games for girls' wasn't really the marketing mantra that it is now."2 Instead of pandering to girls' perceived interests, Duncan and Gesue's game was "for girls" only in the broadest sense. Still, it holds a crucial place in feminist gaming history; as game critic Jenn Frank wrote, "It dared to represent the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12."
There was nothing else in videogame culture quite like it. Chop Suey was named Entertainment Weekly's game of the year, and it won an ardent following. Frank called it "one of the greatest, most important games I've ever owned." Tech journalist Kara Swisher remembered that "While the CD-ROM business proved to be a bridge technology and Chop Suey did not endure the onslaught of the Web, after seeing it, I have never forgotten it."
After a further attempt to collaborate fell apart, Gesue and Duncan parted ways; Duncan moved to New York and parlayed the success of Chop Suey into a deal with software publisher Tom Nicholson. She worked with artist Jeremy Blake to create two more titles: Smarty and Zero Zero.
Released over a period of just three years, the three CD-ROMs can be considered as a trilogy in which children navigate a complex adult world. Together, they also represent an intensive exploration of the videogame's potential for aesthetic and narrative pleasure rather than fast-moving gameplay. As games scholar Henry Jenkins has pointed out, "The current capabilities of our video and computer game technologies reflect the priorities of an earlier generation of game makers… Their assumptions…defined how the bytes would be allocated."3 Because scarce computing power or storage space was allocated to sensational movement and fast-paced interaction in early videogames, these aspects of the medium perhaps began to seem especially important.
It was these facets to which Duncan was drawn: complex settings and characters; sophisticated visuals and music. The result of extensive collaborations with uniquely talented artists, the games are sprawling anthologies of songs and artworks and moments, which bring vivid, delirious worlds to life.
“I wanted to expose them to the sound and cadence of really beautiful words.”4
Duncan approached the question of interactive narrative by taking a cue from Alice in Wonderland:
If you took everything in between the beginning and the end of Alice in Wonderland and scrambled up every chapter, it would make no difference to the development of the story….[Chop Suey] works the way that real life does: all these things happen to you, but there's no magical event, like there is sometimes in books, that transforms you.5
Each CD-ROM has a linear intro, and the latter two have outros as well. In between, the titles unravel as a series of vignettes, interactions, and games, like "little pearls on a long, long necklace."6
Players navigate the games by clicking on detailed cityscapes, viewed from above like maps. Henry Jenkins described the games' settings as follows:
Chop Suey and Smarty take place in small Midwestern towns, a working class world of diners, hardware stores, and beauty parlors. Zero Zero draws us further from home—into fin de siècle Paris, a world of bakeries, wax museums and catacombs.7
Duncan held a longstanding interest in the role of setting in storytelling. In 1989, she wrote in her diary:
I am transfixed by maps, colorful, blue and pink and pale green, black lines tracing the paths I will never take. Mountain ranges rising from the surface, where you can run finger down and imagine all the towns, all the places where you could go and make your life better. Maps are like words, the anecdotes to describe my life.8
The laconic pace of movement in these games reflected Duncan's sensibilities, but also the budgetary constraints she faced. As her work evolved, Duncan expressed interest in wanting to make more extensive use of movement:
That was kind of my personal aesthetic, to be more literary and meandering, which is something that I do like. But it did start to bother me, too, and I thought it might be good for girls to have the sense of speed and activity and action. That's why in my new game [Zero Zero] the girl is extremely active.9
Even with these animated flourishes, the games lend themselves to deliberate exploration. They are mysterious and lovely but also glamorously seedy—not your typical storybook environs.
Many of the settings and characters in the CD-ROMs reflect Duncan's belief that stories for children shouldn't be whitewashed.
A lot of people want to project this fantasy of purity and innocence onto children, but I think it deprives them of some of the richness of their lives…Kids see a lot, and they're wise and a little more complicated than most people give them credit for being.10
In numerous scenes in the games, the complexities of the adult world show through. Aunt Vera, from Chop Suey, has three ex-husbands (all named Bob), and a boyfriend named Ned.
When, also in Chop Suey, Lily and June Bugg travel to New York City in a daydream, even the annoyances of city life sparkle with glamor in their eyes. Narrator David Sedaris describes the shaking of the ground as a New York City subway passes underneath them. Here, the imaginative realism of the text is complemented by sound design that adds layers of noise and hubbub and excitement.
Another important aspect of Duncan's writing was its sensory quality. She said she wanted the language in the games to be "beautiful and demented," and many of her lines were rich with visual imagery and fragrance.
“Our goal was to make it look almost like folk art.”
The artwork in the games also emphasized the complexity of a child's world and sensibilities. Describing the visual style developed by Gesue for Chop Suey, Duncan wrote,
Our goal was not to be the most technically advanced but to make it look almost like folk art…handmade and warm and you could see where Monica had drawn inside or outside the lines. It's very warm.11
The artwork that Gesue and illustrator Ian Svenonius created for Chop Suey was not only warm; it was also off-kilter and surreal, just as the story was, with an almost lurid color palette.
Bodies and spaces are all slightly distorted, adding to the hallucinatory nature of the games and giving the characters pathos.
Clicking on a strange house with a picket fence reveals a witch cooking a strangely placid little boy in a cauldron as the kitchen appliances seem to crowd in on her.
With Smarty, Blake introduced a different visual aesthetic. The artwork was still warm, handmade, and folk-inspired, but less messy, and more idyllic, with more carefully rendered perspective. The backgrounds in many scenes, though, are loose and painterly.
In the hardware store, a "paint chart" hanging on the wall was apparently derived from the 256-deep color palette of Macromedia Director, the software in which the game was authored. When clicked, it transforms into a swirling abstraction, anticipating in some ways Blake's subsequent work as a visual artist.
A splash of light on the cinema screen also foreshadows Blake's later use of gradient color in his "digital paintings."
With Zero Zero, Blake shifted visual style once again. If Smarty was a summer idyll, Zero Zero was more of a period piece, and Blake used thick, crooked lines that sometimes seemed to suggest a woodcut drawing.
Smoke curling up from chimney pots and flickering hearths and lanterns gave Blake an opportunity to introduce touches of the soft digital color fields and gradients he later became known for.
Brendan Canty worked on much of the music for all three games. Then a member of the DC post-punk band Fugazi, Canty has gone on to do a great deal of soundtrack work, but Chop Suey was his first project in multimedia or moving image.
I was living in this kind of group house and we would go down into the basement and just kick the songs out. We were composing by the seat of our pants. I went on to do tons of soundtrack work, but it pretty much was the first stuff I did for multimedia, or for film.12
Across all three games, there are scenes and moments dedicated to simply listening to a song. In Aunt Vera's backyard, players can tune an AM radio; Canty recalls that Duncan asked him "for a song that sounds like Guided By Voices, as if it were played through a little radio."13
In Smarty, an important setting is the Pancake Hut, which was inspired by the real life restaurant chain Waffle House. Just as the real Waffle House features jukeboxes where diners can listen to songs about waffles, Pancake Hut featured an interactive virtual jukebox stocked with original pancake songs.
In other scenes, songs worked together with specific animations. Clicking on the food at Aunt Vera's picnic in Chop Suey reveals a song performed by each food item, from cupcakes to pickles.
Finally, musical passages were also used as leitmotifs associated with particular spaces or actions in the game.
“I worry about it all the time. It's the medium that I've really come to love.”14
In 1997, Duncan told an interviewer that she was working with Blake on a fourth CD-ROM, A History of Glamour. By that time, though, the CD-ROM market was in decline, as players lost interest in tracking down the standout titles in a sea of mediocre content, and spent more and more time online.
This may or may not have been what led Duncan to change course, but A History of Glamour was reconceived as a film. Much-lauded in art circles, it was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial and can be seen online here. It is well worth viewing in relation to the CD-ROMs as a continuation of the trilogy's central themes.
On the back of her success with A History of Glamour, Duncan came very close to making a feature film, Alice Underground. But the project fell apart, and Duncan never produced another game in any format. Instead, Duncan's most important work would be her writing—in particular her blog, The Wit of the Staircase.
In 2012, five years after Theresa Duncan's death, Jenn Frank was looking online for a recent article about her work, and could find nothing. It made her angry, she recalls, that "the circumstances of this person's death had literally overshadowed her life." She channeled that anger into a text of her own. "I'd venture to say that the game has aged 'gracefully,'" she wrote, "except that it has barely aged at all. Chop Suey is several perfect moments, suspended — 'like shiny-dull pearls on a long, long necklace.'"
Yet in one real sense, Chop Suey has aged—the game is not easy to find, and it does not run without special software. With this online exhibition, a new generation can encounter Duncan's games using only a web browser with a reasonably fast internet connection. In this initiative, cloud-based emulation is used to allow each player to connect to a dedicated computer running a 1990s operating system. The browser becomes a kind of window to that computer's display—a window into an unjustly forgotten treasure of digital culture.
"The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs" marks the first time server-side emulation has been used on a large scale to provide access to digital artwork. Rhizome's goal is to release further software-based works in the future, with the overall aim of representing digital culture in all its richness and diversity.
There are many compelling and overlooked works of the past that are ripe for reconsideration, but these CD-ROMs offer a particularly compelling case for the cultural importance of digital art, with the potential to inspire a new generation of artists, scholars, game enthusiasts, and of course, kids.
“My stated goal in life is to make the most beautiful thing a seven-year old has ever seen.”
— Theresa Duncan, 1998
The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are made available through the Emulation as Service system. The effort was led by Rhizome's Digital Conservator Dragan Espenschied in partnership with the University of Freiburg.
Curated by Rhizome's Artistic Director Michael Connor, "The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs" is copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online.
This presentation was made possible, in part, by the 463 backers of Rhizome's Kickstarter campaign to restore the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs, with assistance from Leadership Level donor Mark Matienzo and generous support from Mailchimp. The games' rerelease has been made possible thanks to the cooperation of many people, especially Tom Nicholson and Mary Duncan.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson/Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.
Additional support is provided by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund.
"Interviews with Theresa Duncan and Monica Gesue," dated July 1997, published in Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, ed., From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, p. 173.
Henry Jenkins, "'Complete Freedom of Movement': Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces," in Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, ed., The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006, 357.