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About the Story
Although this is an interactive interface, your choices do NOT matter. They really do not. Before you quit, I want you to understand why. I am a believer of absurdity, that our actions in the end have no meaninging in the interacting force between humans and universe. Choices lead you to different paths, but in the end, it's to a place where we share the common ground. But hey, life is about enjoying the journey, right? I hope you enjoy the choices being made along the way.
99th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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In the game's blurb, the author announces (after begging the player not to quit the game early, which is always a good sign) that, " I am a believer of absurdity, that our actions in the end have no meaninging (sic) in the interacting force between humans and universe." Yet, this author's other entry in the competition was a moralistic game which strongly advocated that our choices make a lot of difference.
Playing through The Place does little to shed a light on the purpose of this story, though the message appears to be to look within for happiness instead of material pleasures. The player listens to a narrator talking about the life of a woman who is somewhat defined by the player's own tastes, as the story is constantly interrupted so that you can answer questions about your own dreams which are then projected onto the female protagonist. I suppose the message here is to ask the player to put their own dreams in perspective, though if that's the case then I'm not sure why the protagonist is given a specific gender.
Regardless, the story is just not written well. In addition to a lack of proofreading, the prose tries way too hard and trips over itself. The most egregious passage may be the following: "She feels the breeze of spring air brushing through the tip of her nose. Her lungs (sic) capacity expands, absorbing that volume of fresh air. Then, slowly decompressing to release the cardon (sic) dioxide, she gets the negative thoughts out of her mind." I am not certain how air can brush through the tip of a nose, and juxtaposing this with a biology textbook kills any mood this passage was going for.
I mean, I guess I kind of understand why. They wanted to make a point about not having any real agency in life by writing a piece of IF where the choices don't matter. However, in this piece of IF, there are hardly any choices to make any way so I'm not sure what the point was. Instead of having any branching choices (even fake ones) the only really choices in the game were fill-in-the-blank interruptions with questions like "What is your favorite color?" But even those answers were just used to fill in text on future sentences, not in any way to try to show you how your choices were subverted or impotent. Top it all off with many spelling and grammatical errors, and a story that goes nowhere, and this one just is not worth your time.
The Place is existentialist Mad-Libs, and says so before you ever get into the game – the blurb endorses the credo that existence is absurdity, and makes clear that all the game’s choices lead to the same outcome and their primary impact is on how you think about the journey. This isn’t an uncommon model for choice-based works, and it can definitely work when done well, with care given to how different choices might allow the player to experience different themes or aspects of a mostly-static story.
The Place changes up the standard approach here by making the choices literal Mad Libs – at several choices, you’re prompted to put in a word or phrase, usually something rather concrete or literal, and that fills in a blank in the story that’s being told. At one point there’s a small layer of obfuscation, as you’re prompted to type in a series of numbers, which are then translated into the names of a few cities, but for the most part these are pretty direct: if you’re asked what the main character’s favorite song is, the text you type will be inserted into a sentence mentioning what she’s listening to on the radio, for example. Occasionally there are small callbacks to a choice you made a few passages before, and there are some additional choices where you can decide to skip over a few of the text vignettes – though in a game this short, I’m not sure those are a good idea, frankly.
Anyway, the fill-in-the-blank mechanic is a risky one, I think: the author is putting themselves at the mercy of a player who’ll type in stupid or silly stuff because they don’t yet know, or aren’t clicking with, the mood of the game. The Place also misses some opportunities to use its default answers to guide the player or at least provide a baseline experience for someone who’s just clicking through: the default name for the protagonist is “name”, and if you just click accept on the default question for her favorite pastime, you get passages like “she gets bored easily so she finds her ways to keep herself busy. Only eg: eating ice cream simply doesn’t do it.”
The story here is fairly sketched-in, but does I think hang together – the narrator is reminiscing about a friend of his who’s struggling with some weighty themes, and who fantasizes about travel as an escape from her miserable environment before, it’s implied in the ending, having a moment of satori and realizing that internal transformation rather than external escape is the only path forward. There’s a clear connection between this thematic arc and gameplay that’s just about typing in signifiers for music, travel destinations, and career aspirations that are empty both in narrative and mechanical terms.
I didn’t ultimately find The Place engaging, though, despite the fact that the structure and them hold together. First, just because a game holds together in these terms doesn’t necessarily mean it will be satisfying. Second, the writing isn’t strong enough to carry what’s primarily a work of static fiction. On a technical level, it has numerous typos, grammatical errors, and awkward phrases – though I should say that while I always feel trepidation about speculating that an author’s first language isn’t English, I got that sense here, which helps explain if not excuse these issues (authors: hit folks up on these forums if you need people to read over your text and help tighten it up!)
But leaving those problems aside, the story is often fairly vague – we don’t get a great sense of the main character’s personality beyond a couple of very broad strokes, and the story is described more in vague feelings and overall impressions of what’s happening, rather than being embodied in concrete scenes with specific details or emotions to latch on to. The narrator states that the protagonist is an abusive environment, for example, and while I’m definitely not saying we need to see episodes of abuse graphically depicted, as it is this is just one or two sentences that are never followed up on or illustrated in any immediate way, severely undercutting its impact. And this is true too for the catharsis at the end, which feels more described than evoked. I can see what The Place is going for, and it has pieces in place to get there, but I didn’t find the details of how it’s put together strong enough to feel the intended impact.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
Due to this Twine's size, my whole review below must be considered a spoiler.
"Carla thinks about all the things she loved, Brutalising the Dead by Sadistik Execution, not being on fire, Paris, and herself healing in the future."
The above line was produced by The Place at one point to describe the actions of its heroine, whom I'd named Carla. The parts in bold were typed in by me earlier in answer to questions posed by the game (e.g. What is your favourite song at the moment?) This output, the joint result of all our creativity, made me laugh a lot. Since the game's (weird!) blurb had endorsed meaninglessness, I then thought, "Oh do cheer up, nihilist, you have helped to make me laugh." Place is another case of a Twine IFComp blurb being way off course and in danger of swamping the content of the small IF itself.
The story is about a young woman (whom you name) who's bored, depressed and troubled due to her home life. She's struggling to find meaning, not finding it in places like Paris (or whatever city you typed in) and ultimately having a look inside herself, plus perhaps in some other location you typed in. It's an optimistic ending.
The small scale of the whole makes it difficult for this piece to succeed. The Place describes an arc of troubledness most people would recognise, and the story struggles to rise above common experience by adding some specificity it obtains from the player by asking them for input. As I've demonstrated, the input scheme can backfire. But even if I'd typed more harmonious things, that wouldn't have changed the feeling for me. The prose is more fuzzy than precise and the story is well-worn and too general, though by asking me the questions, it did at least add an extra frisson of the commonality across human passions. One thing I couldn't work out was why the game kept asking me about some lottery draw order. It was the one question I didn't understand, and I was asked it at least three times. Perhaps some language/culture misunderstanding?
I think there's something to the overall idea of using input this way in a short story of this kind, but it would take more careful thought and application to craft the effect.
The Place is a choice-based game by Ima, published in 2020. The game features (Spoiler - click to show)a poetic, flighty description of a young woman known by the narrator, although you wouldn’t know it from the bizarre game blurb that directly addresses the player, talking about fate, choices and meaninglessness.
The story is short and relatively linear. The gameplay consists of clicking text links while trying to make sense of what’s going on; slightly annoying pop-up messages are also used to make the player choose between options and name some things inside the game. Having the player give custom names to things might be a good way to make them feel more invested in a story in some cases, but here the pop-ups often felt like an interruption. Also, since the blurb flat out states that your choices are meaningless, and there’s a quite a number of these pop-ups, I felt like there wasn’t much incentive to play along and name things the way the game would want you to.
Presentation-wise the game is fairly ordinary, although small things like timed text, changing text and background images are used in moderation to add some variety. Everything seems to work as intended, although the writing could have used some more polish as it has some rough spots and typos here and there.
I’m not sure what the game made me feel, if anything at all. I didn’t become immersed in it very well due to the unfocused expectations set by the blurb as well as the frequent pop-ups. It might be worth a try if you want to set aside 15 minutes for something original but confusing.