Once upon a time, "interactive books" on CD-ROMs seemed the height of digital storytelling.
They were mostly meant for kids--pre-readers especially liked them. On the screen would be the pages of the book, complete with clickable illustrations--you could click on a dog and the dog would bark, click on a flower and it would bloom, and so forth.
Probably the most popular of these "books" remains "Just Grandma and Me," which is part of Broderbund's "Living Books" series that also includes the first Dr. Suess CD-ROM.
If you're older than a preschooler, however, these interactive products get old fast. For an adult, actually, repeated use of them can become torturous. I mean, how many times can you really get a sense of delight out of that little barking doggie?
But now there is a new point-and-click story for an older set, preteens and up to adults. It's "Chop Suey," a wonderfully imaginative, interactive tale about two little girls in the fictional town of Cortland, Ohio. It was developed by Magnet Interactive and distributed by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
The story about the two sisters--Lily and June Bugg--begins on the outskirts of Cortland, with the two girls lying on a grassy hill staring at the sky. They imagine that the clouds resemble a teapot, a sneaker or the face of their Aunt Vera.
(This is exactly, of course, the kind of thing we small-town kids used to do to pass the time.)
The delightful illustrations in the opening sequence and the rest of "Chop Suey" are fanciful without being childish. With their deep colors and offbeat shapes that sometimes suggest 1950s motifs, they're humorous, inviting and sometimes a bit menacing, which is fitting for a small town.
This is not Norman Rockwell. It's more like "Twin Peaks," but gentler in tone.
The narration is read by David Sedaris, whom you might have heard on National Public Radio preforming his hilarious and demented tales about being a department store Christmas elf or about cleaning apartments in New York.
After this opening section, you get a bird's-eye view of Cortland, and the interactive part begins. You can click on Aunt Vera's house on the outskirts, catching her having a bit of romance with Vern, who runs the gas station in town. As they dance in the backyard to music coming from a transistor radio (you can click it on and off, of course), you can check out the food they've set out for a picnic (the animated pickles and cupcakes sing, for example, with a click).
You are not bound by "pages," but can wander through the town, making discoveries every time you visit. Most anywhere you click, something amusing or clever happens.
Click on a car in the used car lot, for example, and it catches on fire (this is not much of an exaggeration, considering the sort of places where I used to buy used cars). Elsewhere, a beatnik bug hiding in a tree reads you poetry; a Brechtian, world-weary moon faces yet another night of watching over the Earth; the tattooed proprietor of the sweets shop sells you candy.
There is not a mall or even a chain store in sight.
The "Chop Suey" box proclaims it was "developed by women to encourage girls' creativity and enrich their computer skills." It's indeed about time someone made a CD-ROM for girls that is both of high quality and not demeaning. But I think boys will enjoy it, too, and I'm sure adults will.
"Chop Suey" was written and produced by Theresa Duncan and art-directed by Monica Gesue. The music--far more interesting than the CD-ROM norm--is by Brendan Canty.
It's available in both Mac and PC formats, and sells for $29.95.
* Cyburbia's e-mail address is David.Colker@latimes.com.