After touching the circle, you enter a page that tells you where you are and when you’re there (Tavistock Terrace, London, England, July 2008), and contains a short bit of narrative. Below: the text of the story, which opens with a mildly elegiac tone and talks of a relationship:
In between these scenes of narrative: more Google Earth images with circles telling you where to touch. This is the way the book expresses its format: you touch a circle, usually of a building exterior (an entrance or exit) and enter the story.
The story itself is straightforward, so I won’t ruin it for you. I’ll just add that it involves sadness and fantasy tropes (secret keys and magical acts of transportation), and self-legitimizing references to Oulipian novels and Borges. And the narrative is shaped almost entirely by its Google Earth frame. I felt like I was being sold into a weak attempt at an “immersive world,” one that would otherwise have been tied to a blockbuster franchise. “This is something they’re going to sell to Pottermore,” I thought.
Far more interesting is Matt Sheridan Smith’s “You Can’t See Any Such Thing,” an interactive fiction that debuted at Triple Canopy this week. Free (the Larsen book costs $4.25) and self-aware, this fiction is likewise an extended art project that aims to explore the composition and format and phenomenology of interactive fiction. Refreshingly, its opening statement rehashes the backstory of IF before undercutting it, which means it’s worth quoting at length:
Interactive fiction is the literary descendent of text-adventure games, which offer players no visual interface at all: just textual descriptions and a command line for inputs. The “game” at hand is actually produced by a three-way symbiotic writing between player, author, and interpreter (i.e., the software environment in which the game is played). The player becomes a cowriter, but all possible moves are already in the script. The player may have blithely interacted with an object in the text, have “smelled” something and read on as it “answered” with a response. But should she attempt anything unorthodox, the player will receive the dreaded error message: You can’t see any such thing. The game is “intelligent” only insofar as it has been, on the level of code, described to itself. You can’t go that way. In these moments, the player encounters the limit of the game’s coded world, a discovery that also triggers the end of the player’s suspension of disbelief. Paradoxically, only in moments at which the player tries to move beyond the game’s internal knowledge does the game manifest subjectivity: That’s not a verb I recognize.
Given that “You Can’t See Any Such Thing” isn’t married to a visual format, it is thematically freer and contains more characters, and though the relentless “user” of interactive fiction has not been done away with, the game thankfully compartmentalizes it into senses (“smell,” “examine,” “touch,” and “listen”) organized into commands (“smell x,” for example). In this respect it willfully conjures the stale memory of the original two-word command structure of Crowther’s Adventure. But this reference, it has to be said, is less oppressive that Larsen’s allusions to Borges.
Look, I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s enough to say that “You Can’t See Any Such Thing” is an historical avant-garde-damaged ghost story, one that is as likely to quote Lil Wayne as it is to enjoinder the reader with bits of original surrealist prose poetry. And, I would argue, it does more to create a sense of space than the Larsen book, even though it lacks Google branding and clever visual design.
When I completed the game (or text), I copied my adventure into a Google Doc. It came out at 81 pages. If you’d like a longer “adventure,” I recommend the short stories of Emmanuel Bove, which often portray characters who are pushed into madness because they lack willpower. Want to read it? Yes or No: ___