Theresa Duncan was the author of three iconic CD-ROM graphic adventure games for young girls—Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero—all released in the 1990s.
Google her name, however, and you might have a hard time finding information about her work. Instead, you'll quickly learn that Duncan was found dead in her East Village apartment in July 2007, having apparently overdosed on Tylenol PM and alcohol. Her boyfriend, Jeremy Blake, also an artist, walked into the Atlantic Ocean a week later. According to friends of the couple, Duncan and Blake believed they were being harassed by Scientologists.
The two had been art world darlings; their twin deaths, which seemed inexplicable and had a flavor of conspiracy, made a splash in the press. Vanity Fair ran a profile on their final days called "The Golden Suicides;" Law and Order did an episode copping from the story. The many media eulogies emphasized the couple's deep bond, their charisma, their bohemian lifestyle, and the sensational nature of their deaths—paying relatively little lip service to their artistic practices, which were both considerable.
Blake was a digital painter; his hallucinatory compositions are familiar to anyone who's seen the 2002 P.T. Anderson film Punch Drunk Love, for which he created the dream sequences. Duncan was a filmmaker, writer—and of course, a game designer.
Duncan's CD-ROM games were poetic and not entirely linear, bursting with psychedelic colors and sardonic details. In Chop Suey, two sisters named Lily and June explore a daydream version of suburban Ohio. They dress up, visiting offbeat characters, like a moody Gen-Xer and their lushy Aunt Vera. There are no great adventures—the sisters get their fortunes read, they play Bingo at a carnival. They look around and explore. So does the player.
The game, more interactive fiction than button-smasher, is narrated by the dulcet screeches of a then-unknown David Sedaris. Brendan Canty, the drummer of Fugazi, contributed the music. Somehow Ian Svenonius was involved. Jenn Frank, writing for Motherboard in 2012, may have described it best: "were Chop Suey a literal, physical picturebook, it might resemble Richard Scarry's Busytown as revised by Bratmobile."
Rhizome, the online arts organization affiliated with the New Museum, is currently in the final throes of a Kickstarter to preserve Duncan's CD-ROM games. If they reach their crowdfunding goal, they will use a technique called "Emulation in Service" to allow gamers to experience the Bratmobile Busytown of Duncan's games for free, regardless of operating system, and without having to install any additional software. The emulation will be authentic, down to the last detail—so true to the original experience of playing a Duncan CD-ROM that it will include a contemporaneous, fully-functional default Windows 98 system.
Beyond being a blast from the past, the authentic operating system is part of the integrity of the games' preservation.
"[M]any users of Chop Suey today may never have seen a Windows 98 environment, and may not implicitly understand that the small image size was determined by the technology available at that time," Michael Connor, the Artistic Director of Rhizome, told me. "These kinds of constraints, which are laborious to explain, are communicated implicitly when the work is in its natural environment. "
Chop Suey was named Entertainment Weekly's "CD-rom of the Year" in 1995, and Duncan herself was lauded in the media for her competence and vision as game designer. Profiles in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and People framed her as a kind of poster girl for Silicon Alley, both glamorous and tech-literate. Twenty years later, however, her games are impossible to find, let alone play. Such is the consequence of shifting technological innovation in gaming. Dozens of platforms and thousands of titles have come and gone since Duncan's titles were released; the collective urge to preserve old games is hardly as strong as the commercial demand to produce new ones. Until now, of course.
This isn't Rhizome's first foray into preserving tricky digital work like this. In fact, preserving digital work is their mission: In October, they presented a prototype for a new web archiving tool, Colloq, which records, preserves, and simulates online artworks that depend on interactivity—to demonstrate it, they archived a months-long Instagram performance by the artist Amalia Ulman. They've also preserved Cory Arcangel's Bomb Iraq, an artwork consisting of a hypercard stack in a mid-90s Macintosh TV environment.
Duncan's games were designed for girls aged 7-12, but they didn't pander or condescend. Instead, they were dreamlike and intelligent, emphasizing storytelling over scoring points and knocking out Bosses.
In the early 1990s, when the most popular CD-ROM game for girls was Barbie Fashion Designer—which outsold Quake in 1992—Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zerospoke to young girls' imaginations. The games were screwy, wonderful, and visionary. In 2014, they're something even more significant: a reminder that intelligent gaming by and for women is part of our collective digital history, as long as we remember to preserve it.
Next year is the 20th anniversary of the original release of Chop Suey. This is the right moment for a Theresa Duncan revival. On the most basic level, her games are as funny and complex now as they ever were. They are works of art, being restored by an arts organization, to be played by an audience that will doubtless appreciate them as such. The aesthetic and the sensibilities are timely; many artists today are embracing games as an art medium, and Duncan's highly personal tone seems eerily prescient of the confessional, hyper-sharing Internet of today. "I've seen more work this year that reminds me of the Duncan CD-Roms than ever before," Connor said.
And as the bad taste of Gamergate still lingers in many of our mouths, Duncan's games can serve as a much-needed palate cleanser. To say nothing of a history lesson.
"I consider the Duncan CD-ROMs as valuable as any body of fiction for young girls, including literature and cinema as well as digital culture," Connor explained. "Digital culture needs to be allowed to age. If we don't take action to keep it alive by re-performing digital works of the past, we may as well be burning books, through our inaction."