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The girl game archival project that’s rewriting geek history

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Resurrecting Theresa Duncan's groundbreaking interactive art

It was the mid-’90s, and to many people, video games were synonymous with derivatives of Doom and Quake. "Zip through the aisles at the local computer store and the mayhem mounts quickly," The New York Times wrote, assessing the computer gaming landscape. "Ravage, No Flesh Shall Be Spared, and Assassin ('Shoot first, think fast... or get smoked') are typical CD-ROM titles." But a charismatic designer named Theresa Duncan offered something different. In 1995, Duncan and artist Monica Gesue created Chop Suey, a whimsical point-and-click adventure game that provided an alternative to both gritty shooters and pink-drenched Barbie adventures. Over the next two years, Duncan would follow up with two more games, Smarty and Zero Zero.

Aimed at young girls, the games were clever enough to appeal to adults of all genders. Narrated by a young David Sedaris, their non-linear stories, folk-art stylings, and cultural references were cute without being condescending. "We like dime-store, homemade-looking things," Duncan told Entertainment Weekly, which named her and Gesue's Chop Suey its CD-ROM of the year in 1995, "things that look like they might be made by kids for the school play." The discs are more a series of magical realist vignettes than a traditional video game. In Smarty, for example, players experience the summer vacation of protagonist Mimi Smartypants. Every scene, whether it takes place in a cinema or a bubble bath, is full of hidden animations and opportunities for play. The tiny garage holds a jewelry-making kit, a paint-by-numbers set, a working pinball table, and a coconut that briefly transports the player to Hawaii.

But as even Entertainment Weekly noted back in 1995, the interactive CD-ROM industry hadn’t lived up to its hype. After Zero Zero, Duncan moved from game-making into film and blogging, and like many old games, Chop Suey and its follow-ups fell into obscurity and unavailability. In 2007, she became better known for a sudden, mysterious suicide, especially after her longtime partner Jeremy Blake — who helped illustrate the games — killed himself a week later. Since then, Chop Suey has been discussed on forums and in retrospectives, particularly a 2012 piece by critic Jenn Frank, but it and the rest of her work remained inaccessible to the vast majority of people.

Last year, though, art organization Rhizome launched a Kickstarter to put Duncan’s games online for free. The campaign is only the latest in a series of projects addressing the real, pressing need for digital preservation. Groups like the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive have made strides toward capturing large swathes of modern media, addressing the thorny problems of capturing something that’s dependent on increasingly obsolete technology. And a great deal of this work has gone beyond just storing things behind locked doors. Over the past few years, for example, the Internet Archive has released thousands of old arcade, Atari, and MS-DOS games, all of which can be played in a browser.

"If it's small, it looks old."The Theresa Duncan project is led by Rhizome archivist Dragan Espenschied. Starting today, all of Duncan’s games will be available online — in fact, you can play all of them at the top of this page. Unlike the Internet Archive, which essentially offers a sophisticated emulator for games that players download, Rhizome is streaming the work from its own cloud servers. The somewhat laggy process only works because Duncan’s games don’t require the twitch reflexes of an arcade title or shooter, but it makes it easier to preserve their luxurious interactive art, full of sound effects and hand-painted tableaux.

Streaming the game also lets Espenschied add little touches that would be awkward or impossible in a downloadable version. When players select a title, they’re treated to the sight of Mac OS 7 booting up, then a mouse navigating to launch one of the games — they’re being emulated inside the operating system. It’s not the same as using an actual ‘90s computer, but it helps remind players how the original audience would have seen it.

Theresa Duncan Zero Zero

And it can help contextualize the other differences. Espenscheid describes the little emulation window as a kind of theater, reminding people of the limits that helped shape the look and feel of the games — like their bright, flat-toned graphics. "They only had 256 colors, yeah? And they threw everything in Photoshop with 24-bit color, and then it was dithered down," he says. "So it’s easier then to understand that this was maybe not an artistic choice, but just a necessity, if you present it small. If it’s small, it looks old. If the fonts are not smooth, but if they’re blocky and pixely, it looks old. If the mouse cursor is just black and white. It looks old. ... It just enhances the perception of the piece."

Before Chop Suey, Rhizome used a similar technique to host artist Cory Arcangel’s Bomb Iraq. Originally exhibited in a gallery, Bomb Iraq recreates the contents of a 1990s Macintosh TV that Arcangel found at the Salvation Army, including a homemade HyperCard game of the same name. While the game was the original focus, the emulator lets users explore the entire computer (minus some identifying details), finding a window into the lives of its unknown users. As our records move from physical documents to computers, and local computers to social networks like Twitter and Instagram, dedicated archival work is what will let future generations experience the flow of our lives, and the things we played, read, or watched during them.

"It is not like this is the first time women were into games."

It’s entirely possible to play Theresa Duncan’s games as beautiful little experiments, without worrying at all about their social context. But the project is also meant to highlight something that’s been lost as history was rewritten and streamlined. Specifically, the Rhizome team was inspired by Gamergate, a political movement that accuses feminists of attempting to destroy video game culture with less violent or woman-focused work. When you can play a game from the Doom era that, as Frank puts it, is "Richard Scarry’s Busytown as revised by Bratmobile," it’s slightly harder to see Gone Home — an exploration game about ‘90s riot grrrls that is reviled by Gamergate — as a new and threatening idea.

More generally, Rhizome is chipping away at the overgeneralized view that technology is a "historically male" field, where women are just now struggling to get a foothold. "It is not like this is the first time that women were into games," says Espenscheid. "It’s not the first time that women are active on the internet. If you look, there have been all kinds of people making web pages when there were no graphical editors, when you had to type in HTML code, actually. When you say, ‘Oh god, nobody can do that, we need some white boys in hoodies to do this for us!’ — [every] kind of person has been doing that, in the ’90s for example. But this is very easily forgotten."

By putting Duncan’s games online, Espenschied and Rhizome want to create their own narrative, in which pastel picture books can sit comfortably alongside guns and gibs in gaming history. "We want to kind of progress the discussion by bringing a continuity into it," he says. "So that you don’t have to start from zero every time."

Update April 21, 2015: The original version of this article did not mention Chop Suey co-creator Monica Gesue. We regret the oversight.