The National Interactive Fiction Competition defines digital, interactive novels as “videogames whose player interactions center on text. They communicate to their players primarily by displaying text, and players respond in turn by pushing text back at them, one way or another.” This includes games like Lifeline and Emily is Away, which we reviewed last month.

The top five winners from the competition in 2015 involved teen detectives, time travel, sword fights, nightmares about birds, and a cyberpunk superhero. We played through 2015’s winners to get a feel for what makes a digital, interactive work of fiction feel engaging.

Brainguzzlers from Beyond

Wow, the Competition was not kidding when its rules stated all the games in play had to be text-based. At least Lifeline has its signature creepy music, and an interface that feels like the player is actually texting with an astronaut. The primary appeal of Emily is Away is its immersive, accurate design. Brainguzzlers from Beyond, which took first last year, is 100% based in text: it’s just black font on a cream-colored screen, displaying descriptions of each environment and offering several options for gameplay.

To its credit, the game does have a charming sense of humor. It begins with an announcement that the gameplay will be presented in “glorious bi-chromatic TEXT-O-RAMA”, and in order to design your 1950s-era female character, you simply have to choose her hair color and what she worries about most often.

After a brain-guzzling alien eats your boyfriend, you make your escape from Make-out Mountain — running past what the game calls “other, less controversial mountains” — and attempt to get townspeople to help you. There’s a subplot involving beat poets, and the player discovers Andy Warhol’s teen sketchbook on the road while running. Overall, the game’s appeal lies in its sardonic affection for the time period. It recalls films like The Blob with a wry sense of humor. As a novice player, I found several instances of doubt frustrating — it’s not always clear what your options are, for acting or speaking — and I was left tracing my own steps and wondering how to move the game’s plot forward.

Map: A Deconstructural Fiction

If interactive, digital fiction needs to succeed as both a strategy game, and as an interesting work of fiction, Map is much, much better at the latter. The language here is more skillful than the descriptions in Brainguzzlers; Map almost feels like it was written by a melancholy MFA graduate, a writer who worships Raymond Carver.

Even Map’s plot feels decidedly like a story one might read in a literary magazine: an empty-nester woman discovers new doors appearing around her dingy house, and her husband is no help in determining what they are. As the woman explores her magical-realism new rooms, she discovers that she can travel backward and forward in time, making decisions that empower or hurt her, and altering how her life turned out.

It’s a gripping story from the very beginning, and the plot feels more lush and earnest than Brainguzzlers. The problem with Map, however, is that it’s not a very logical game. For instance, entering and leaving a room MUST involve opening a door, looking at the room, not turning around or leaving the room but walking in the opposite direction (south, north, east, west), closing the door, and entering the hallway again. It’s extremely frustrating to determine, through process of elimination, what complicated set of commands the game wants in order to complete simple tasks.

Map’s objective, as several online reviewers noted, is ultimately in vain, as there is no truly happy outcome for the game’s protagonist. She risks giving up one source of happiness in order to pursue another. This set-up, like the one in Emily is Away is both sobering and surprising.

Midnight. Swordfight.

First of all, this game offers something the other winners did not: a simple guide at the very beginning of the game, for those unfamiliar with the interactive fiction format. Midnight. Swordfight. simply asks if the player has used games like it before, and if the player answers “no”, a handy guide to actions and choices pops up. Unfortunately, this game also deletes prior actions, unlike Brainguzzlers and Map, so there’s no scrolling back to see what on earth you decided to do several actions ago.

The ability to pause the game’s action and check out one’s options is incredibly valuable. Midnight. calls it a “playscript”, and when examined, it reveals several actions that a player would never have been able to guess. For example: the game begins with a sword-fight duel which is impossible to win, whether the player chooses to attack, talk, or run away. The playscript reveals “wake up” as a viable option, and choosing this transports the protagonist into an earlier scenario.

Midnight. is characterized by commitment to its environment — the descriptions of the masquerade ball at which the action is set are written with commendable skill — and though the game’s conceit involves time travel and manipulating reality, the more heady and abstract aspects of the gameplay don’t feel overwhelming. It is, however, surprisingly NSFW, unlike the other games on this list. When exploring a room in the castle, the player comes across two characters frozen in time, having sex, and the description given is graphic.

The appeal of Midnight. Swordfight. is its superior writing, although its gameplay is much easier than most as well. Even when the plot is confusing, the texture of the game’s writing is such that the player feels taken care of. That is, even if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, it’s enjoyable just to watch the game go by.

Somehow a rift must have opened, because obese cherubs are pouring through the air onto the banquet-table; or at least, they would be pouring if they were in motion. There are several hundred, faces grimacing and feathered wings shedding blue pinions, and in their conglomerate they have impacted the table at one end, sending the other end skyward like a see-saw. Some even appear to be crawling upward along the table as rats would a mast aboard a sinking ship.

Why Midnight. Swordfight didn’t take first place at the Competition is a mystery. It’s fun, it’s dark, it’s well-written and easier to play than the other games in its genre.

Birdland

Birdland is simply tremendous. It eliminates the awkwardness of guessing blindly at viable actions by listing each actionable item at the bottom of every screen, which leaves more game-time for enjoying the plot and reflecting on interactions.

The game is also filled with subplots, and each of them are emotionally engaging and funny. Players enter the game as Bridget, a shy camper nearing the end of summer. During the day, Bridget plays through activities, interacting with adult counselors and fellow campers who are each memorable. She has an adolescent and innocent chemistry with another camper, Bell, and the two girls explore the camp during their off-time while avoiding admitting their crush on each other.

At night, Birdland really takes off, as Bridget acts her way through truly funny dreams, in which bird creatures make note of her actions and watch her complete adventures.

At the risk of spoiling Birdland’s plot, I’ll say that this game is the only one on the list of winners with a complex enough plot that merits spoiling. It’s truly enjoyable from start to finish, and not having to guess at every single action speeds up the gameplay significantly. Although Birdland focuses a little more on an engaging narrative than game design, it does notably include fades from one screen into the next, and many of the characters are illustrated. When Bridget’s dream becomes a nightmare, the game’s use of color and sudden jolts from one screen into another are very effective, and very startling.

Cape

From the first few moments of playing through Cape, it’s obvious that the game’s sleek design should have ranked it higher on the Competition’s list of winners. Actions, text, and environmental illustrations glide across the screen in Cape, making gameplay feel less like programming (looking at you, Brainguzzlers) and more like experiencing a new genre of entertainment. Cape is not quite a graphic novel, but it’s not quite a text-based adventure either.

This game also uses a very real set of social justice topics to inform its conflicts: the protagonist is being evicted from a neighborhood that’s been forcibly gentrified. There are several instances, as the game warns players at its start, of rape and disturbing content throughout play. Cape seeks to comment on real social conundrums rather than entertain its audience, which makes it a standout game among the others.

Cape also allows users to save their progress and return to the game in subsequent sittings, which is not an option afforded to players in any other game on this list. This is a testament to Cape’s complexity, which is sometimes values over a sense of fun. Although clicking through a text-based game can feel silly — Midnight. even calls itself a “folly” — Cape takes this process very, very seriously. It’s a game meant for those who want to ponder and reflect, rather than explore and experiment.