'Chop Suey' Adventures


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Back in the ‘90s, when CD-ROMs were an integral part of the gaming world, artist Theresa Duncan created a series of games intended for young girls. The games–Chop Suey (1995), Smarty (1996), and Zero Zero (1998)–inspired players to use their imagination and sense of adventure.

Unlike the majority of video and computer games that exist today, Duncan’s inventions encouraged kids to activate their creativity. Sadly, due to the advancement of operating systems, these games are no longer in use. In an effort to revive them, the NYC-based nonprofit Rhizome initiated a Kickstarter campaign to make the three games available to play online for free.

Presently, the Kickstarter campaign, entitled Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs: Visionary Videogames for Girls, has reached nearly 50 percent of its $20,000 goal. Rhizome hopes to sustain Duncan’s works of digital art by recreating the gaming experience associated with the original CD-ROMs. Rhizome plans to make the games playable in contemporary web browsers, mirroring the Windows 98 operating system through the use of emulation software. The three games will appear online through the system “Emulation as Service,” which Rhizome is currently in the midst of developing with the University of Freiburg in Germany. The software will allow Duncan’s games to be available online for the first time in history.

Duncan’s digital adventures are vibrant, whimsical narratives that invite the player to enter another world entirely. They cultivate a unique perspective and an independent mind. With Rhizome’s digital art conservation project, these games will be accessible to a new generation of future artists, leaders, and researchers.

Duncan, who was born in 1966, was not just a game designer. She was also a filmmaker and blog writer who was very well known in New York City’s downtown art scene at the time of her death in 2007. She was generous enough to contribute her talents to the work of others, including the cover art for the Beck album Sea Change.

The work put into each of Duncan’s game titles was a collaborative process. Chop Suey is based on Duncan’s experience growing up in the Midwest, with notable influences from art, music, and children’s stories. Chop Suey was co-created with game designer and illustrator Monica Gesue. The game is set in Ohio and gives off a lyrical, storybook vibe with a soundtrack of alternative rock. Smarty, starring the protagonist Mimi Smartypants, revolves around education and independent thinking. Zero Zero is set in Paris, and like the other games, quickly gained a cult following.

The three Duncan adventures are tales of heroic feminism, but the dynamic of each do anything but hit the player over the head with this detail. The feminist aspects are subtle, but still revolutionary for the ‘90s era. Due to the fact that the games were released before the rise of the internet, it proves difficult to find much history about them on the web. The revitalization by Rhizome aims to bring the titles back into circulation, and remedy the present lack of information available on Duncan’s work.

Throughout modern video games, it’s alarmingly difficult to find strong female characters, or even representations that are anyone near accurate. In the gaming sphere, women are often portrayed as a prize for the male protagonist to chase after and eventually win. Many popular games have been criticized for transparent misogynistic portrayals of women, including World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto.

In the spring of 2015, Rhizome intends to cater an event and online exhibition dedicated to “celebrating Duncan’s work and contextualizing it within feminist gaming history.” Rhizome will be collaborating with members of the New Museum in NYC, where the nonprofit is currently in residence.

Rather than focusing a game around superpowers or violence, Duncan fostered a surreal atmosphere where players could explore the full range of their imaginations. Chop Suey was not much of a retail success when it first came out in stores, partially because CD-ROMs simply were not the type of game format designed to sell in mass quantities. People often lent games to friends and neighbors to play, rather than purchasing their own individual copies. Thanks to the efforts of Rhizome and the contributors to the Kickstarter, Chop Suey and its sister adventures will have another chance to enjoy more of the attention they deserve the second time around.