Theresa Duncan Has Signed Off
When I logged on this morning, I had a message waiting for me from my colleague Beth Chang, who used to review kids' CD-ROMs for the Post back when you couldn't expect them to work on your computer every time:
so, i was trying to figure out where i knew that name, theresa duncan, in the style section, and then i got to the part about the kids' games. her zero, zero, which i reviewed for you, was amazing. what a shame!
I pulled up David Segal's piece and found out the news. Theresa Duncan, whom we had once hailed as a pioneer who would turn the humble CD-ROM into a legitimate art form, had taken her life July 10, followed a week later by her companion Jeremy Blake.
Segal's story makes it plain that Duncan and Blake had gone a little mad at the end, lost in their own paranoia--their own creativity had turned on them in a particularly toxic way. I can't quite square that with the talented individual who was one of the stars at a Georgetown software firm called Magnet Interactive...it's just rotten news all around.
Joel Achenbach goes into this on his blog today, and says it better than I could.
Why are we making such a big deal about this passing? Read on after the jump for the reviews we ran of Duncan's work, as well as a profile we did of her and her employer, Magnet.
ZERO ZERO, Nicholson NY
What: Interactive story for girls curious to explore more than hairstyles. Details: This "literary adventure" is a lushly textured story about Pinkee LeBrun, a young firewood vendor in Paris who fearlessly navigates the night streets and eagerly awaits the arrival of the year 1900. The program, by Theresa Duncan of Chop Suey and Smartypants fame, begins with an enchanting description of Pinkee's birth, with vivid visuals accompanied by evocative narration. But the futurism motif falters when Pinkee seeks predictions from the mostly silly adults she encounters during her deliveries to a variety of Parisian establishments, all of which are open to exploration and play. The soundtrack is wonderfully varied (a rollicking version of "La Marseillaise" at the cheese shop; a fetching song about the color pink at the Folies), and there are fanciful clickables, whimsical games (dueling corks shoot from drink bottles at the Le Drinkee shop) and sly jokes. Girls open to new and unusual experiences will appreciate this CD; some parents, however, might be disturbed by the slightly naughty or scary overtones that accompany all fairy tales. Perhaps the most important, enduring and endearing element, though, is the image of the curious and competent Pinkee, popping in and out of chimneys, facing the strange, appreciating the wonderful and knowing she can handle whatever the future may bring. Bottom line: Vive la France. -- Elizabeth Chang
Mac, Win 95, $35, ages 7-12; 888/476-2789
Smartypants, Tom Nicholson Associates
Theresa Duncan's first CD-ROM, an edgy daydream called Chop Suey, remains one of the finest stories-on-CD ever produced. Smartypants is Duncan's lastest effort, and though it's available only via the producer's toll-free number, it's well worth it -- especially for girls, the computer users most ignored and abused by commercial software houses. The disc follows the amblings of Mimi Smartypants, a spunky kid who's only slightly too bright for her own good; luckily, she summers in Detroit with her wacky Aunt Olive, who teaches her, among other things, that "poetry is what spices up smarts." The adventure involves following Mimi into various urban locales -- a school (Our Lady of Impossible Sorrow), the Pancake Hut (where you can play "Pancake Mountain" on the jukebox), Rose and Olive's garage-cum-jewelry studio (where you can string beads, paint pictures or play wicked-witch pinball) and so on. Each funky mini-environment is entered via a read-along narrative, and one of the disc's obvious strengths is its neo-mystical diction -- leaves are "autumn confetti"; the studio features "glittering blue stones the size of ice cubes." This spunky, vivid writing shows up too rarely in front of kids, and is therefore all the more likely to penetrate directly into their brains when it comes along. There are "games" and "clickables" of all sorts, but the real value here is the way the charming story, characters and tone insinuate themselves as you explore. This disc makes some tolerable attempts to accommodate The Marketplace -- Mimi is a more presentable character (and perhaps more -- ick -- "licensable") than her Chop Suey predecessors, and Smartypants is a deeper product too. But the playful subversion that lies at the heart of all great kiddy lit -- from Dr. Seuss to Margaret Wise Brown, from Maurice Sendak to Shel Silverstein -- is wonderfully intact. Bottom Line: A perfect gift for bright girls, and a great story for the rest of us. The big question: Why is just one New York artist making discs like this -- with fresh stories, original characters and immersive play -- while the others produce predictable, licensed trash? CRAIG STOLTZ
For ages 7-up; Mac/Win CD, $35; 888/772-6877; demo at http://www.tnicholson.com
Chop Suey, Magnet Interactive
This is a breakthrough title that instantly reveals what's missing from nearly every other CD-ROM "storybook": A real, original story. Chop Suey has at its core a vivid tale written just for this project: Pre-teen girls Lily and June Bugg chow down at the Ping Ping Palace, lie dreaming on the river bank and then "visit" the wonderfully shabby Cortland, Ohio. What follows is an intriguing, self-directed, dreamy navigation with plenty of sweet, kitschy click-and-point surprises (singing pickles! X-Ray specs!), fascinating detours into scattered people's personal lives (the closet of Aunt Vera, an aging ex-Rockette; the bedroom of Dooner, an amateur punk musician), carnival games (Bingo, dunk the "annoying clown") and neat music (the paean to "Mudpup"). The prose has a savagely beautiful Lynda-Barry-meets-Tom- Waits feeling, and the neo-primitive punk art is effective, if not always as inspired. The morose, slightly irritated David Sedaris sets the tone perfectly with his narration. Still, this ain't perfect: Chop Suey is elliptical in a way that may frustrate some kids; some of the imagery and wistful sentiment will be lost on all but the user's parents. It can be an annoyance to navigate. And for a disc that provides a couple hours of fun -- and maybe a dozen visits -- it's expensive. Bottom line: As a title with an original, creative work at its core, it hits an industry high mark. And it's one of the best CD-ROMs for girls we've seen. CRAIG STOLTZ
For ages 8 to 15 to adult; Mac, Windows CD-ROMs, $40
ON THE BANKS OF THE C&O CANAL, AN ECLECTIC GROUP EXPLORES THE DIGITAL FRINGE
By Joe Brown
San Francisco's "Multimedia Gulch" it ain't. But the offices of Magnet Interactive Studios, located alongside the C&O Canal in Georgetown, could represent our area's best shot at a beachhead in the digital-entertainment revolution. From these stylish offices a group of over 200 staffers is quietly developing some leading-edge CD-ROM products: Clive Barker's Virtual Hell; The Wall: A Living Memorial, a virtual visit to the Vietnam memorial; the Discovery Channel's Wings Over Europe ROMumentary; and Comedians, which expands Arthur Grace's book about famous comics.
But even at Magnet there isn't anything else like Chop Suey. Like the best children's books, the antic and anarchic product dissolves the boundaries between kid and grown-up tastes. The disc trails Lily and June Bugg, two winsome Ohio sisters -- one black, one white -- on a series of magical adventures, which begin when the girls eat too much chop suey at the Ping-Ping Palace and too much red licorice for dessert. Before they fall asleep on a flower-dotted hill, they make up names for the blossoms and watch as clouds morph into a teapot, a sneaker, their very extravagant Aunt Vera, who was once a Radio City Music Hall Rockette...
In a corner of the labyrinthine Magnet Studios, co-creators Theresa Duncan and Monica Gesue set up their customary afternoon tea among the digital doodlepads and gleaming monitors. "We looked at a lot of kids' products," says Duncan, 26, the wordworker of the duo. "There wasn't anything that had the sort of strong story or character development or the kind of luminous, beautiful art you find in truly good children's books. And most of the interactivity is very predictable."
"And we wanted to do something that would encourage girls to look at software," continues Gesue, 31, who dreamed up Chop Suey's lyrical look. Like twins, the two often finish each others sentences. "Most of the CD-ROM market has been boy-oriented -- all that blow-'em-up, blood-and-guts, linear stuff. But hey, men make all the software."
As Duncan and Gesue tour the program, their "somewhat autobiographical" animated counterparts explore a carnival, a candy store and a spooky house; they try on X-ray specs, snap photos and poke their heads into a teenager's room to read his diary. At the circus, players are likely to step in dog poop. "Kids love poop," Gesue proclaims.
When released this summer, Suey will likely seduce grown-ups and even, maybe, cynical teens. The project's eclectically hip influences include the classic comic Little Nemo in Slumberland, the movie Auntie Mame, artist Red Grooms, kid lit master Chris Van Allsberg and cartoonists Lynda Barry and Roz Chast. And the duo called in the coolest collaborators in ROMdom: Many of the brilliant, humorously detailed naive-style paintings are by Ian Sevonius, ex-lead singer of the local punk band Nation of Ulysses. The music and sound, careening from be-bop to tinny AM to chirping summer shimmer, is by Brendan Canty, drummer for D.C.'s internationally revered punk band Fugazi. The pixie-voiced narrator is David Sedaris, NPR commentator and author of the side-splitting short story collection Barrel Fever. "We wanted it to look handmade," says Gesue.
Of course, you need a lot of hardware to make things look homemade these days. But the array is rather unintimidating: Duncan's 32-megabyte PowerBook 270 DuoDock; a $10 Holga 120 Stoy camera; an Apple external CD-ROM drive, 13-inch color monitor and Microsoft Word. Gesue summoned the images on a Quadra 840 AV with 50 megs of RAM, using Painter with a Wacom 16-by-16-inch digital drawing tablet. Sounds emerge from Sony SRS-48 speakers.
There are, of course, personal touches: Perched atop Gesue's 20-inch Radius monitor is a delicate pink seashell.
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