You Can’t See Any Such Thing (Matt Sheridan Smith)


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You Can’t See Any Such Thing is a curious parser work that riffs off standard parser behavior; the opening explains that it is the descendant of a previous game that the author used as part of a gallery show.

The interface is enhanced with fancy typography and elements such as photographs you can mouse over to expand: an unusual degree of elaboration, given that this is Inform under the surface. Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 12.10.04 PM(Certain library responses are familiar, and if you delve into the source, there’s a telling Release/play.html URL for the playable content. If, however, you type VERSION to verify this, your command vanishes silently into ether, unacknowledged. Asking about the machine producing this text is apparently forbidden, which is consistent with its themes and aesthetic intent [even if also a bit of a license violation].)

[Edited to add: Juhana Leinonen remarks that it is using a Vorple interface.]

The piece focuses on the way that the parser experience lets you control different sensory approaches to a scene. It’s as overt as possible about the interactive elements — interactive nouns are in bold; verbs are specified and particular verbs go with particular rooms.

The writing is literary, and the interaction is about exploring rather than about solving a puzzle or causing certain actions to occur in the plot. Though we are allowed to LOOK, SMELL, TOUCH, and so on, we are still readers rather than actors, and our reading function is reinforced by the narrator’s manner of clarifying things, and by responses to parser errors.

When I played, I was immediately drawn northward, to the Widow’s perspective, and was immediately satisfied with lavish descriptions of perfume notes and a Proustian trip into her girlhood recollections.

In another room, the room for examining, each examination carries the player over to another location, in deepening vistas reminiscent of Lime Ergot.

When something goes wrong — wrong in the sense of a parser error, and the user trying to take an action not accounted for — the game provides an alternate passage of story instead, in a different text format.

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Contrast Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory, which also supplies its own forward-moving narration whenever the player is unable to do so, but doesn’t highlight when this has occurred. As a matter of fact, some of the time critical information about the plot of the story can apparently only be reached via these parser errors, which makes them simultaneously extra-narrative and central to the experience, like the experience of death scenes in Spy Intrigue. One’s normal game-playing instinct to try to avoid these situations is thus counterproductive. Several times, eager to extract the factual narrative that gave context to the more sensory scenes, I started typing nonsense on purpose. AWEFE, AWEFELKEJF, TELL ME MORE STORY NOW. A game in which you actually had to type TELL ME MORE STORY over and over would probably be terrible, but in this context it felt mildly subversive and consequently satisfying. Also, I didn’t have to do it any more times than I chose.

Despite or perhaps because of its focus on parser errors, the text does not try to follow the usual parser-game-authorship conventions about how to hint valid commands to the player. Sometimes it seems almost to be requiring a command that it is then not going to honor:

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There is also no ending. You can spend as long as you like, explore freely, and decide for yourself when you are done — something it has in common with a lot of old IF Art Show pieces. It thus tells the story of several characters, in fragments, through both present sensations and facts dropped into the parser error sections. Ultimately the experience I fashioned out of all that was less a story with a conventional plot arc (whether single plot or one-per-character) and more a sense of texture.

You Can’t See Any Such Thing is, among other things, an essay on the interplay of external and internal realities, documentation and subjectivity. In the subjective and sensory world, the world presented as the top layer of the parser experience, we can jump great distances in place and time, as our mind wanders. But, when it comes to the facts presented in the parser-error portion, we have no control over the timing or the subject matter; at the same time those elements are often presented with an authority that our sensory exploration lacks.

I should also mention, especially since the topic has often come up here in regard to interpretations of Her Story: in one segment, it treats a character who is part of a multiple system, with, as far as I could tell, a much less tropey and stigmatizing portrayal than one usually gets in fictional handlings of MPD. I am not sufficiently familiar with the issues here to say much more about how accurate it is.


For other recent parser games doing unusual experiments, see this overview.

7 thoughts on “You Can’t See Any Such Thing (Matt Sheridan Smith)”

  1. Has the IF Art Show completely died since 2007? Seems there was some real literary inspiration but it didn’t quite deliver. Do you have recommendations of the best? This is something new to me.

    1. It hasn’t run in recent years, though there are occasionally conversations about restarting it (most recently just a couple of months ago, though I don’t think it came to anything: ). The original organizer no longer appears much in the community, though.

      Aside from my own work, I really liked Kathleen Fischer’s The Cove and Jacqueline Lott’s The Fire Tower, both of which explore interactive landscapes. will also show you IF Art Show entries in all years, sorted by IFDB ratings.

      1. Thank you for the links and recommendations. I was just about to read The Cove, it sounds interesting. We are working on a new parser-type platform which is “meant” for something similar: still life, portraits, and simple exploration. It’s very easy to write on as it lacks all the complexity (and possibilities) of Inform. Greetings from Finland. As there’s not much tradition for interactive fiction in Finnish, it’s hard to establish and start something new over here. Thank you for introducing all the interesting works in your blog!

  2. I’m playing through right now, going through Ottavio Bottecchia’s section. After learning a little bit, I popped open a new window and started doing a little bit of research, though that’s probably not the intended way to experience the piece. I was intrigued to find that all the parser-error messages (for him at least, haven’t explored fully yet) are taken verbatim from various sources, mainly, though not exclusively, WIkipedia.

    While this does bother me, since I can’t see much at all in the way of citation, I like the idea. More than just a “voice entirely distinct” from what’s technically the main piece, it’s all things that you might have found through your own research. It really gave me a sense of history coming alive more than I’ve seen with other pieces based in fact, blurring the line between what we can know to be true and what we can imagine from those facts.

    I feel like there’s probably a lot more to be said about this– for instance, it also plays into the forgetfulness we have about where we learn particular facts, it just becomes a mash of information, not all of it true– but I’d have to read a lot more first.

  3. What a shame, another web-only game that could have easily have been downloadable as a zipped package.

    I was able to extract the .zblorb, at least. Ah well. I’ll just have to miss out on the very nice Vorple effects.

    People chide me for being like this, but if it weren’t for me “A Colder Light” would be in Limbo. I think maybe another source came up later, but AFAIK I was the only source for it for a while. Wonder what’ll happen to “You Can’t See Any Such Thing”.

    1. You’re the one who saved “A Colder Light”?? I can’t thank you enough–I’d been looking for it several months back unsuccessfully, the web link was dead, and then I found that there was a new download a week or so ago when I thought to check again.

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