The Place, by Ima
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 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 I think the structure holds together. First, just because a marriage of gameplay and theme holds together 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 around 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 stating a fact that are never followed up on or illustrated in any immediate way, severely undercutting its impact. And this is true for the catharsis at the end, which feels more described than evoked. In the end 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.