Theresa Duncan's Girl-Centric CD-ROMs Are Reissued for a New Generation

The games get their "21st century premiere" in Austin

<i>Smarty</i>
Smarty (courtesy of Femicom Museum)

It's easy to assume that digital artifacts get preserved, stored, and can be found with some Boolean prestidigitation and Google savvy. This is not always the case. Those floppy disks and CD-ROMs from personal computing's pubescent years can be lost to time as tech inevitably shifts into higher gears.

Transferring a game from a dated data format to today's relatively lightning-quick computers, smartphones, or tablets often requires an assured return on investment. In other words, there needs to be enough nostalgia or a large enough audience to make it worth a developer's while. That leaves niche games gathering dust, only to be seen by those with a penchant for vintage technology – niche games like Theresa Duncan's Nineties feminist adventure games, Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero.

That's where the New York-based Rhizome comes in. The digital art nonprofit successfully Kickstarted the preservation of Duncan's games at the end of 2014. The plan is to port the games so they can be played in modern browsers while retaining the Windows 98 aesthetic. This, in effect, introduces a whole new generation to Duncan's colorful and surreal worlds. Rhizome will also host a public event putting the games into the larger context of feminist gaming history.

To help in that regard, Rhizome looked to the FEMICOM Museum. Curated by local glitch artist and design historian Rachel Simone Weil (see "8-Bit Artisan" for more on her work), FEMICOM celebrates and catalogs the history of girl games from Barbie to Japanese titles and platforms. "I first became familiar with Theresa Duncan's games around 2012, when I was starting up FEMICOM Museum," Weil recalls. "Duncan's mother very kindly reached out to me and provided me with some copies of the games for FEMICOM's collection."

Duncan's games were released during a time of the increasingly outward dudeness of gaming. Marketers had decided that young boys were their demographic, and as the Nineties progressed it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Games like Chop Suey (which was narrated by a prefame David Sedaris and features music by Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty) stood in stark contrast to most games at the time. Duncan (who died tragically in 2007) took players inside the unbridled imaginations of preteen girls in a way that feels both deeply personal and universally engaging. "I see a great parallel in the way that Chop Suey and Pee-wee's Playhouse offer these seemingly flat and ordinary props or characters that – boom! – spring to life in unexpected and often surreal ways," Weil says. "You can't help but feel delighted by it."

Weil will help present Zero Zero at the next meetup of Austin's indie game nonprofit Juegos Rancheros, which is free and open to the public. This comes in advance of Rhizome's event in New York, making the Austin presentation a 21st century premiere of sorts. There players can experience the unique joys of Duncan's work for themselves. "One of the greatest powers of bygone video games and software lies in their ability to inspire the next generation of dreamers," Weil explains. "So, keeping old games in a drawer is not enough; they must be dusted off, booted up, played, enjoyed, discussed, and, importantly, remembered."


Theresa Duncan's Zero Zero will be shown at the Juegos Rancheros (juegosrancheros.com) meetup at the North Door (502 Brushy); Thu., March 5, 7pm.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Theresa Duncan, Chop Suey, Smarty, Zero Zero, Rhizome, Rachel Weil

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