Exploring interactive storytelling with Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROMs

How well do you remember your earliest encounters with digital interactive storytelling? Rhizome, a website that preserves and celebrates born-digital art, and the New Museum have put some of the earliest examples of this art form up online as part of the exhibition First Look: New Art Online. Among these are Theresa Duncan’s 1990s CD-ROMs—per Rhizome, “three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.”

Thanks to the use of an embedded emulator, these three games—1995’s Chop Suey, 1996’s Smarty, and 1997’s Zero Zero—are available to play online now. Studying them reveals [something].

The webpage discusses the origins of these CD-ROMs, which began as the products of a partnership between Theresa Duncan and Monica Lynn Gesue while the pair were working at Magnet Interactive here in Georgetown. Gesue had been inspired by Richard Scarry’s Busytown, a CD-ROM game that I also played as a kid and which I personally still think about on an almost-daily basis (specifically the ship-building game that you can watch in the video I just linked, still the peak of gaming for me) to use the CD-ROM medium to create a “moving storybook.” After Chop Suey, Duncan and Gesue’s collaboration ended, but Duncan went on to work with other developers to create Smarty and Zero Zero, which are in a very similar vein as their predecessor, artistically and story-wise.

The games themselves are best studied as pieces of art, rather than as video games by modern standards. Playing Chop Suey today, you can sense a lineage between it and the narrative-heavy, aesthetically rich, and strategy-light genre pejoratively referred to as the “walking simulator.” In a typical modern game, like Skyrim, you’re completing quests and progressing on a storyline that requires you to do magic and shoot arrows and fight bears and that sort of thing. In a “walking simulator,” you’re…walking. There’s a narrative arc, but you’re not making it, you’re discovering it. Rather than playing an active and decisive role in the story, you’re exploring the world of the game and letting the developer tell you a story. “Walking simulator” isn’t a term that gets used by people who like this type of experience; make of this what you will, but many gamer-types will charge that they aren’t really games.

Looking back at video game history with games like Theresa Duncan’s establishes an important continuity for these kinds of artistic storytelling experiences in video games. A more recent entry into this lineage, 2013’s Gone Home, in which players simply explore the protagonist’s family’s home and use the things they find to piece together an understanding of what has recently gone on with the family, was denigrated by some as a “walking simulator,” because really, you’re just walking through a house and opening drawers and such. But Gone Home also sparked a critical discussion of video games as art for its rich, complex, and layered narrative. Playing Chop Suey, I came to see it as something of a forebear to Gone Home and games like it—sure, you don’t get to build a ship like you do in Busy Town, but the game offers you a storybook and the opportunity to explore it however you like, to have a subjective and nuanced aesthetic and narrative experience. Imagine if you could crawl inside a painting. It’s more like that.

Beyond their legacy in modern video game development, there’s a lot to be said about Theresa Duncan’s games. All three feature female protagonists and were made mainly for young girls—generally not the most catered-to demographic in the games industry. They’re also magnificently inventive and more than a bit bizarre. Rhizome’s writeup of the games discusses this surrealism in the games’ visuals and audio cues quite extensively, but it’s kind of hard to really get it until you give the games a try for yourself. In my playthrough of Chop Suey, the following things happened to me.

I innocently clicked on a bush and was greeted by this beatnik firefly, who recited a bug-centric parody of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl.” There is not an option to get out of this situation once you are in it. You are just listening to the bug poem now. His audience is invisible but receptive.
I innocently clicked on a photo and was greeted by a dreamlike, cereal-centric, recursive smorgasbord of figurative language.
I innocently clicked on a house (sensing a pattern?) and was greeted by this completely non-interactive tableau of a seedy-looking witch stirring a stew of frankly unbothered child in a cauldron.

The games are just like this. You get to explore, and what you find is generally quite otherworldly and at times confusing. Of course, that’s entirely the fun of it, and that’s also part of what makes it hold up so well. We’ve found a million ways to improve on Mystery House—we have better graphics, the opportunity to tell more robust stories and the space to do it in, inventive mechanics for crafting better mystery games, and at the very least, we have capabilities for writing text adventures that recognize a greater wealth of commands and objects. If you want a better horror game or if you want a better mystery, there are now myriad options that you will find significantly less frustrating; people playing Mystery House now are more likely doing it for the novelty of it or for its historic value. But games like Chop Suey, Smarty, and Zero Zero hold up well because they can be enjoyed precisely as they once were meant to be enjoyed: as fantastical storybooks open to the player’s exploration.

Playing Theresa Duncan’s CD-ROM games today isn’t just a thought-provoking look into the history of video games or a look at the lineage of video games as art and the “walking simulator” genre. It’s also a means to a fun, aesthetically rich, and surreal interactive storytelling experience! Do give them a go. It’s wonderful that they’ve been preserved for play using the emulators on Rhizome’s site—keeping that little bit of video game history accessible is crucial for keeping it alive.

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