The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs: Putting interactive classics online with Emulation as a Service


An initiative to bring three landmark 1990s “games for girls” to the web.

Theresa Duncan, Zero Zero, Theresa Duncan, Jeremy Blake, Nicholson NY, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

In the 1990s, Theresa Duncan and collaborators made three videogames that exemplified interactive storytelling at its very best.

Chop Suey (Magnet Interactive, 1995, cocreated with Monica Gesue) is a delirious daydream, Smarty (Nicholson Associates, 1996), a small-town summer idyll, and Zero Zero (Nicholson NY, 1997), a romp through the bohemian Paris of 1900. All three of the games depict a child’s lived experience with richness and complexity.

Chop Suey: Garage, From the collection of: Rhizome

The need for digital preservation

Two decades later, Duncan’s works (like most CD-ROMs) could no longer be played on a modern computer, and they had fallen into obscurity—but they remained as luminous and compelling as ever.

In 2015, Rhizome–a New York-based organization focusing on digital art–undertook a full restoration of the games, using a new system called Emulation as a Service (EaaS).

Now, you can play them online, in any modern browser.

Zero Zero: Home Screen, From the collection of: Rhizome

Digital art and culture are often lost when software stops working or data is corrupted. Rhizome addresses these issues through its digital preservation program, which develops tools that allow for ongoing access to works like the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs.

Preparing the CD-ROM for exhibition in Emulation as a Service, Rhizome, 2017-05-24, From the collection of: Rhizome

Emulation as a preservation strategy

The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs can only be played on operating systems that are no longer possible to install on modern computers, rendering them inaccessible. To make them accessible again, Rhizome used emulation as a preservation strategy. An emulator is software that imitates a computing environment, allowing users to run outdated applications on a modern computer—for example, to play Gameboy games on a laptop.

The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs as seen in Rhizome's ArtBase, Rhizome, Monica Gesue (Chop Suey), Jeremy Blake (Smarty, Zero Zero), Nicholson NY (Smarty, Zero Zero), Theresa Duncan, 1995, From the collection of: Rhizome

In collaboration with the University of Freiburg in Germany, Rhizome developed EaaS, a sophisticated emulation system that allows individuals to run works of software-based art wherever they are, in their web browser.

Theresa Duncan, Zero Zero, Story Mode, Theresa Duncan, Nicholson NY, Jeremy Blake, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

Released over a period of just three years, the three CD-ROMs can be considered as a trilogy in which children navigate a complex adult world. Together, they also represent an intensive exploration of the videogame’s potential for aesthetic and narrative pleasure rather than fast-moving gameplay.

Theresa Duncan, Smarty, Town View, Theresa Duncan, Jeremy Blake, Nicholson NY, 1996, From the collection of: Rhizome

The games are structured as explorations of the worlds of their protagonists—working class Midwestern towns in Chop Suey and Smarty, and fin-de-siècle Paris in Zero Zero.

Players navigate the games by clicking on detailed cityscapes, viewed from above like maps. Clicking on the map opens a series of vignettes, interactions, and games. The vignettes portray an adult world that is marked by divorce, joblessness, and casual stereotypes, but the narrators never lose their sense of childlike wonder.

Theresa Duncan, Zero Zero, Patisserie, Theresa Duncan, Jeremy Blake, Nicholson NY, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

Even though they were developed for 640×480 pixel monitors, tiny by today’s standards, the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs remain compelling for their sensory richness, their madcap aesthetics, and their exquisite craft.

Theresa Duncan, Chop Suey, Cupid's Treats, Theresa Duncan, Monica Gesue, 1995, From the collection of: Rhizome

Duncan’s narration brimmed full of visual imagery and fragrance. Each image and song was developed with care, drawing on the talents of a range of collaborators.

The resulting CD-ROMs are sprawling anthologies of songs and artworks and moments, which bring vivid, detailed worlds to life. And thanks to the power of EaaS, these worlds have found new life on the web.

Scene from Theresa Duncan, Smarty, 640 x 480 pixel screenshot, Theresa Duncan, Jeremy Blake, Nicholson NY, 1996, From the collection of: Rhizome
Credits: Story

Curated by Rhizome’s Artistic Director Michael Connor, The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs is an online exhibition copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online, launched in April 2015.

The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are made available through the Emulation as Service framework. The effort was led by Rhizome’s Preservation Director Dragan Espenschied in partnership with Klaus Rechert at the University of Freiburg. Additional support was provided by Lyndsey Jane Moulds, software curator, and Kaela Noel, editorial manager. Zachary Kaplan is executive director of Rhizome.

This presentation was made possible, in part, by the 463 backers of Rhizome’s Kickstarter campaign to restore the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs, with assistance from Leadership Level donor Mark Matienzo and generous support from Mailchimp.

Special thanks to Mary Duncan, Magnet Interactive/AKQA, and Tom Nicholson.

Rhizome is an affiliate organization of the New Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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