RECENTLY RHIZOME threw a panel to celebrate the online restoration of the germinal feminist CD-ROMs of video game designer, artist, popular blogger, and—by the time she committed suicide in 2007—conspiracy theorist Theresa Duncan.
The panel was less than rigorous, but it did little to mar the truly fantastic, usable product created by Rhizome that we were enthusiastically celebrating: Any lady noodling on her computer at work can now access an outmoded operating system—via an “online emulation infrastructure”—to play Chop Suey (1995), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1997), Duncan’s idiosyncratic story-driven interactive CD-ROMs for girls aged seven to twelve. “People call them video games,” explained Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor. “I call them art. Other people call them interactive narratives or literature.” Three of the five speakers noted, as a point of contrast, that Barbie Fashion Designer was the most popular CD-ROM for kids in 1996.
What a laudable moment in digital video game preservation! May all media eventually “live beyond their [original] operating programs,” to carry further an idea posited by Rachel Simone Weil, the founder of FEMICOM museum. Of course, there are limitations to living in the past, but only a haggard programmer seemed to be sweating it. His name is Dragon! A kind and fastidious man, by which I mean he has a soft voice and a cropped haircut. (It’s spelled Dragan, I found out later, Dragan Espenschied, the digital conservator at Rhizome.) He explained that each frame of the game cannot “handle more than 256 colors at a time.” Zooming in on a projected image, we see hidden “little mosquitoes buzzing around…that shouldn’t be there.” (Pixels?) “The problem has been solved.” He paused. “The problem has not been solved, actually.” He shrugged, we laughed. “It has been a work-around,” he continued, sheepishly. The stills of the video game being projected in the background were beautiful and intricate in a patchwork, 1990s DIY way. Flies buzz, dogs bark; I like Chop Suey and Smarty because they take place in towns like the one I grew up in. There’s just one of everything: one fun place to eat lunch (the Ping Ping Palace), one carnival, one “quirky” resident...
In Duncan’s game world, provincial girls speak to glamorous and eccentric adults prone to wistful monologues and matter-of-fact proclamations about how they live. In Smarty, Aunt Olive and her best friend sit in apple red chairs in an unabashedly bubble-gum pink kitchen discussing “heartbreak” and “palm readings.” Speech bubbles dance across the screen like lyrics in a Karaoke machine. In Chop Suey, Aunt Vera explains to the two little protagonists that in New York places have “gleaming names like the Rainbow Room, Pearly Palace.” The narrator notes that Aunt Vera’s “voice got all sweet and sugary” when speaking of the city.
“A lot of children’s stuff is didactic,” Duncan said at a media panel at MIT in 1998, “but this [CD-ROM] is satirical.”
Yet Duncan’s early work takes seriously two dichotomies that preoccupied her entire career: the dead-end hometown versus New York City as the land of promise; respectable grammar (work) versus fickle glamour (fame). “In dreams all territory I’ve ever covered is mine, Manhattan and the dull countryside of my childhood whirled together in a dream city,” she mused in a blog post on July 3, 2006. “The noise of the dreamy, gleamy, cosmopolitan future far away from home all around like the best of anything I ever put myself into externalized.”
The technology of a “point-and-click” CD-ROM was simple, but it suited Duncan’s sensibilities. The major mode of “play” in her games is to go from person to person and place to place collecting anecdotal (how they thought the world worked) and aesthetic (what they wanted the world to look like) impressions. There is no clear sense of how to get out of the small town and become an adult, no endgame, only an endless loop of social calls and excursions into town. As Jenn Frank, a games critic, pointed out on the panel, there’s something “strange and unhappy that we never see [the protagonists’] parents,” only disenfranchised adults mourning their past lives. A player may only explore a home as meticulously as one does its inhabitant, intently collecting the stories they are willing to tell and perusing the carefully curated material possessions, as if one can live as others do just by willing it, if only you can get close enough. As if the trick is in the image—your persona, what you can make it do, and what you dress it up in. As if everything is an experience waiting to be curated.
That an adult like myself—not a gamer—would enthusiastically anticipate the opportunity to play these CD-ROMs speaks to the aura surrounding their enigmatic and ambitious creator. I’m not alone in treating Duncan’s life or what’s left of its original traces as a Google video game. Point and click, point and click, point and click. For this reason alone, it was difficult not to home in on Lia Gangitano, founder of downtown’s Participant Inc. and the only self-proclaimed friend of Theresa’s there—and not coincidentally the fiercest, coolest person on the panel (planet?), in draping black fabrics, extra large leather boots, and metal choker. She didn’t look like she was having a particularly good time—talked about “a game Theresa wanted to make called Apocalipstick, in which weapons were replaced with contemporary cosmetics.” Chic!
In retrospect, it seems Duncan warranted the posthumous media treatment naturally designed for, but rarely rewarded to, NYC’s niche celebrities: competing, lengthy obituary-profiles in New York and Rolling Stone. The story had all the elements: high tragedy, high art. Her lover of twelve years, the digital artist Jeremy Blake, drowned within a week of her suicide. He collaborated on Smarty and Zero Zero, as well as Duncan’s short film The History of Glamour (2000)—her successful venture into not only film but the art world, via that year’s Whitney Biennial. She had yet to have a noticeable setback and was an indefatigable PR dynamo—yet no mention was made on the panel of her failure to get her later work produced. One nearly forgets that seven years passed between The History of Glamour, her last completed project (she had two film options, and then a pilot; Hollywood just wasn’t panning out) and her death in 2007. But she didn’t forget.
Of course one craves, after the suicide or overdose of a quixotic, beautiful, unusual, and talented public figure, to step back from the whimsical mess of fawning and sordid hagiographic details and look at…a primary source. Duncan, and perhaps especially Blake, did not have the opportunity to cultivate their eccentricity and charisma the easy, old-fashioned way (inheritance, disinterested parents). They were promising artists who got their first brushes with money and fame because of their work.
But so, here is her work. As Weil noted, she “couldn’t think of another kids’ game that had [her] reading books.” And all the themes of a brilliant, complicated woman are there, intact, fully formed. To quote from the ending monologue in The History of Glamour: “I used to think that glamour was completely necessary. […] What do I need? […] An ability to recognize if I’m caught in the wrong story or the story someone else wants me to inhabit.” Duncan saw her fate very clearly. She knew she’d get caught in a little world of her own design; these were the only worlds she knew how to create.