“Girl Games” is a popular catchphrase within the interactive industry these days, and what it really means is identifying a new audience and marketing the hell out of it. So we’re seeing computer games with softer pacing and colors, open-ended experiences instead of immediate goals, and an emphasis on relationships and self-perception. Hardly bad qualities, but why are so many game makers pouring their market research onto a disc without bothering to stir in creativity?
Mattel Media’s latest Barbie CD-ROMs are cases in point. Adventures With Barbie: Ocean Discovery (for PC) is an underwhelming click-and-hunt title that, for all its cant about saving reefs, is about finding buried treasure (Barbie is an “accomplished marine biologist” who says things like “Cool! A beautiful gold charm! I’ll put it on my bracelet!”).
Even more spectacularly useless is Talk With Me Barbie (for PC): a doll-and-disc combo whose speech you can customize by choosing names and info on your computer screen, then downloading the data via Barbie’s own little terminal. Reading the manual’s hilarious “Precaution List” (“Do not move doll’s head from side to side or up and down…”), you have to wonder if anyone behind this toy actually has children.
From the Silicon Valley-based Purple Moon comes Rockett’s New School (for PC and Mac). If you can get past the Lip Smacker tie-ins and the annoyingly reductive box copy (“Deep friendships. Love of nature…it’s what girls are all about”), the game itself is thoughtfully addictive stuff. The player follows the new kid in school as she makes friends, deals with dilemmas, and snoops through other kids’ lockers (yeah, that part gave me pause, too). You help Rockett decide how to respond to a given situation, and to the game’s credit, there often isn’t one “right” answer. To its discredit, the highest-profile black character is a stereotyped “girlfrien” — and does the Asian kid have to be a grade-grinding chess whiz?
Ah, and then there’s Zero Zero (Nicholson NY, for PC and Mac) from Theresa Duncan, whose primary use for a demo report on the teenage-female market, I imagine, would be as a shim for her dining-room table. Duncan’s previous work — 1996’s Smartypants and 1995’s Chop Suey (our Best CD-ROM of that year) — has a fluky subversive wonder that makes all these other ”girl games” look shallow and dim.
That said, Zero Zero is a little out there, even for Duncan. Subtitled “A Fairytale for the Future,” it follows little chimney sweep Pinkee LeBrun around Paris on the night of Dec. 31, 1899, as she wonders what the coming century will bring. There’s plenty to click on — philosophic pastries, silent movies in the cinema — and the narration (by actress Mary Louise Wilson) and music (by members of Fugazi) carry a lovely, weary appeal. But Madame Two-Toes’ Wax Museum, with its early Velvet Underground-style soundtrack, is off-puttingly strange, and references to the late cultural critic Walter Benjamin will sail right over most parents’ heads, let alone their children’s. Still, there’s a ready-made audience among older girls (and boys) who are looking for ways to define themselves against the mainstream. Given that the main-stream here wears Barbie’s happy, empty grin, Duncan’s work makes a richly inspired Other. Ocean Discovery: C Talk With Me Barbie: C- Rockett’s New School: B+ Zero Zero: B