Theresa Lee Duncan
October 26, 1966
|Died||July 10, 2007 (aged 40)|
Theresa Duncan (October 26, 1966 – July 10, 2007) was an American video game designer, blogger, filmmaker and critic. By the late 1990s, she was recognized as "one of the most critically acclaimed designers of [CD-ROM video games] for young girls."
Theresa Lee Duncan was born in Lapeer, Michigan to Donnie and Mary Duncan. She lived with partner Jeremy Blake in New York during the 90's while working for an interactive agency, and in Los Angeles until 2007, after which time Duncan and Blake moved to back to Manhattan.
Duncan was found dead in the East Village, Manhattan apartment she shared with Blake on July 10, 2007. The official cause of death was suicide as a result of the combined ingestion of Tylenol PM—a combination of acetaminophen and diphenhydramine—and alcohol. Blake is believed to have killed himself a week later, having been seen by an anonymous 911 caller walking into the Atlantic Ocean near Rockaway Beach. According to friends of the couple, Duncan and Blake believed that they were being followed and harassed by Scientologists up to the point of their deaths. After her death, two posts appeared on her web log (presumably written prior to her death). The last one appeared on New Year's Eve, 2007.
Duncan's death in popular culture
The circumstances of Duncan's death led to much media attention, including major articles in Vanity Fair and New York. On November 30, 2008, the New York Post's Page Six reported that Bret Easton Ellis was writing a screenplay about Duncan and Blake. Director Gus Van Sant had signed on as a consultant for the movie, which is being produced by Braxton Pope and Kevin Frakes.
The Law & Order episode "Bogeyman" in season 18 is loosely based on the deaths of Duncan and Blake. In the episode, the body of the character paralleling Theresa Duncan has forensic evidence that calls into question her suicide, while the Jeremy Blake parallel character survives his suicide attempt. A legal case against him is disrupted by the cult group, resulting in a near mistrial followed by a plea accepted after the ADA implies both he and the judge are connected to the cult.
In the second half of the 1990s, Duncan created three influential CD-ROM computer games for young girls: Chop Suey, Smarty and Zero Zero. These games were designed as alternatives to her traditionally male-oriented field where the few "girls' games" created embodied a "model of boy-catching self-fulfillment." Duncan spoke out against market-tested girls' games characterized by an "earnest blandness" and a "perfunctory feminism [like] slapping the pink bow on 'Pacman.'"
All three games created by Duncan are story-based and revolve around search and discovery. 1995's Chop Suey is an interactive storybook, where two young girls explore the town of Cortland, Ohio. Smarty (1996) tells the story of the titular young girl's visit to her Aunt Olive for the summer—there she hosts a spelling radio show, explores small-town life, and visit a mysterious dime store. Zero Zero, released in 1997, follows Pinkee, a young girl in Fin de siècle Paris, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, exploring the catacombs, and experiencing the city.
Chop Suey was co-created with Monica Gesue and narrated by then-unknown author David Sedaris. Gesue strived to design a "colorful, warm, and bright" game that contrasted with the way "a lot of computer graphics at the time were really icky." For Smarty and Zero Zero, Duncan collaborated with her partner Jeremy Blake. Smarty maintained Chop Suey's "warm, handmade, and folk-inspired" look, but was also "less messy, and more idyllic, with more carefully rendered perspective... and loose and painterly [backgrounds]." Blake created more than 3,000 drawings for the game. Zero Zero was "a period piece, and Blake used thick, crooked lines that sometimes seemed to suggest a woodcut drawing."
Duncan spoke frequently of a proposed game for older girls called "Apocalipstick." She described it as something that "moves like Doom," and "involves survivors of a cataclysmic destructive event who find the few films that remain, which happen to be solely swanky thirties Thin Man-style flicks...[and attempt to recreate] life based on the Stork Club and Fortuny and the weapons of glamour."
In 2000, Duncan created The History of Glamour, a digitally-animated hour-long video. Writing for Salon, Matthew Debord described the work as "a merciless satire of New York’s incestuous ’90s cultural moment: fashion, art, celebrity and various downtown style tribes converge and are shredded for our delectation." In the same article, Duncan noted that the work is influenced by the play Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron. The History of Glamour was included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial.
Duncan also published frequently. She wrote articles for publications like Artforum, Slate, Feed Magazine, and Bald Ego, and published her own blog called The Wit of the Staircase. At her blog, Duncan listed her interests as "film, philology, Vietnam War memorabilia, rare and discontinued perfume, book collecting, philately, card and coin tricks, futurism, Napoleon Bonaparte, the history of electricity."
Reception and legacy
Duncan's CD-ROMs are widely celebrated. Chop Suey has the broadest reputation. Upon its release, it was named "1995 CD-ROM of the Year" by Entertainment Weekly, and lauded in many other publications. In recent years, it has been celebrated as a significant work of the CD-ROM boom. Kara Swisher wrote in 2007, "While the CD-ROM business proved to be a bridge technology and 'Chop Suey' did not endure the onslaught of the Web, after seeing it, I have never forgotten it." In 2012 in Motherboard, video games critic Jenn Frank called Chop Suey "timeless," and celebrated its bravery in representing "the criminally underrepresented: that is, the wild imagination of some girl aged 7 to 12."
- Ramirez, Anthony (1997-05-25). "Mimi Smartypants Takes On the Assassins". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Sales, Nancy Jo. "The Golden Suicides". The Hive. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Amsden, David. "Why Did Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake Commit Suicide?" New York Magazine, August 20, 2007.
- Sales, Nancy Jo (January 2008). "The Golden Suicides". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 2007-12-26.
- "Dead Woman Blogging". Retrieved 2008-09-16.
- Krentcil, Faran; Will, Kelly (2008-11-30). "Tragic love story to hit the big screen". nypost.com. Archived from the original on 2009-05-07. Retrieved 2009-04-23.
- Dupuy, Tina. "Law and Order Depicts Theresa Duncan's Death". FishbowlLA. Retrieved 2 July 2013.
- "Baron Von Luxxury on His Friends' Double-Suicide, Five Years Later". LA Weekly.
- "Making Sense of a Double Suicide Through Tumblr". Buzzfeed.
- Rothstein, Edward (1997-02-17). "Girl software: a fantasy world stressing advice and the anxiety of romance". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins (1998). From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Massachusetts: MIT Press. pp. 24, 179, 191. ISBN 0-262-03258-9.
- "The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are now playable online". Rhizome. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Herz, J. C. (1998-10-22). "GAME THEORY; From a French Past, a Look at the Future". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- "LAist Interview: Theresa Duncan". LAist. Archived from the original on 2017-04-01. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- DeBord, Matthew. "From girl games to glamour". Salon. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Phillips, Kaitlin. "Kaitlin Phillips at a panel celebrating the restoration of Theresa Duncan's CD-ROMs". artforum.com. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Burr, Ty. "1995 The Best & Worst/Multimedia", Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved on May 27, 2009.
- "Theresa Duncan and 'Chop Suey'". AllThingsD. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- "In a Field of '90s Barbieland Wreckage, Chop Suey Got Gaming for Girls Totally Right - Motherboard". Motherboard. Retrieved 2017-03-12.
- Robertson, Adi. "The girl game archival project that's rewriting geek history". The Verge. Retrieved 26 April 2015.
- Mimi Smartypants Takes On the Assassins The New York Times, May 25, 1997
- From Girl Games to Glamour Salon, Sept. 24, 1998
- Online exhibition about Duncan's CD-ROMs, Rhizome, April 2015
- The Wit of the Staircase, Duncan's blog
- No Pain, No Gain Slate, July 8, 2004 by Theresa Duncan
- Interview LAist, February 6, 2006
- Theresa Duncan Has Signed Off The Washington Post, August 1, 2007
- The Theresa Duncan Tragedy LA Weekly, August 1, 2007
- How Well Did Beck Know Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake? New York Magazine, December 11, 2007