Originally created 11/02/97

`Zero Zero' is good, but it's no `Chop Suey'

About a year ago, I told you about a new CD-ROM, "Smartypants," by the imaginative and talented Theresa Duncan. It was not as good as her first work - "Chop Suey," a whimsical piece destined to be a CD-ROM classic - but it was far better than other CD-ROMs targeted at the girls' market.

Now Duncan has a new CD-ROM and the situation remains essentially the same. Her "Zero Zero," about a little girl in Paris at the turn of the century (the 19th turning to the 20th), is neither as imaginative nor as evocative as "Chop Suey." Still, it's a charming work and sure to be loved by parents searching for an alternative to the aggressiveness of hard-core games and the vacuousness of Barbie titles.

The best part of "Zero Zero" is its opening narrative, which is not interactive. It tells a story that is sweet but also subtly ambitious for the genre.

Through narration, beautifully read by Mary Louise Wilson, we learn of the birth of Pinkee, a baby who arrives with long black hair and a feisty personality. The visuals for this section are a series of wonderful graphics and bits of animation. (In addition to writing "Zero Zero," Duncan also is credited with illustrating the work. The overall art direction was by her collaborator, Jeremy Blake.)

The best of these illustrations is of Pinkee's seven sisters, anxiously awaiting word of her late-night birth. Some of them hold candles that flicker subtly, giving the image a haunting glow.

There's lovely use of typography - as Wilson reads the story, some of the key words appear on the screen and become a part of the graphics.

The most interesting part of this narrative is the connection made between storytelling and fire. As Pinkee grows, there are scenes of her grandmother reading stories to her by the warmth of the fireplace. Other scenes make the same connection, although always subtly.

That theme is carried on when we see Pinkee, having become a little girl, working as a firewood vendor, delivering wood to shops and other establishments in her neighborhood.

Unfortunately, this opening lasts only a few minutes.

The CD-ROM then switches to an animated, interactive section that will be familiar in form to Duncan's fans. From overhead, we get a view of a neighborhood in turn-of-the-century Paris. Using the computer mouse, you can click on these establishments to visit them. (The interactive sections of Chop Suey and Smartypants were similar, but they took place in contemporary small towns.)

Choose the cheese shop and Pinkee arrives there, just in time to take in the scene as cheeses - carved to look like major figures of the French Revolution - go to the guillotine. Choose the Follies and you meet Bon Bon, a singer who befriends Pinkee.

The setting for this section is New Year's Eve, 1899. (The title of the CD-ROM refers to the two zeros in the date of the upcoming new year.) Almost everywhere Pinkee goes, she asks the adults she meets what they believe the new century will bring.

This is the weakest facet of "Zero Zero" and a missed opportunity. The predictions she hears about the future are mostly throwaway lines, whereas they could have been provocative and full of emotion.

One of the best moments comes when Pinkee visits the local cinema, where she watches three short clips. These early comedy silents by the Lumiere brothers (uncredited in the CD-ROM), are chock-full of imaginative ideas, especially in their art direction.

It was perhaps a bit of a mistake to include them in this CD-ROM - they make the look of "Zero Zero," nice as it is, seem rather pedestrian. It reminded me of an album by the rock group U2 on which B.B. King makes a brief appearance, making the band itself sound trivial.

The misgivings I have about "Zero Zero" are minor, however, in comparison to its virtues. Like Duncan's other CD-ROMs, this is terrific entertainment for kids.

"Zero Zero" may not be full of action, but it's also not cloying or condescending. And it looks great. This is one product that parents won't mind exploring along with their children.

"Zero Zero" will be available in some stores at the end of October for about $35. You also can order it directly by calling the toll-free number, (888) 476-2789.

"Smartypants" is available at the same number, but "Chop Suey," unfortunately, is out of production.


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