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Transcends the Genre, March 27, 2012
Play it if: you've always wanted to think of interactive fiction as a true literary genre, for this is a terrifying and emotional tale worthy of its Lovecraftian origins.
Don't play it if: you have an allergy to great storytelling and demand complex puzzles instead, for this game undoubtedly focuses on narrative rather than intellectual challenge - not that this is a bad thing.
Wow. I'd heard this was good, but...wow.
Anchorhead simply blew me away, and I'll tell you why:
Because it scared me.
I've read a lot of horror fiction and played a lot of horror-themed video games, but this is the first game to truly frighten me. Gentry's writing is nothing short of astounding in this game, showing top-notch effort and a deft hand in bringing all the necessary elements of a good horror story to life: an atmospheric setting, a dark secret from the past, the confrontation of the unknown...with a dash of some Lovecraft trademarks thrown in for good measure. And finally, of course, the fact that you actually care about what's happening.
Oh yes. I cared a lot more about what was going on in Anchorhead than I did in, say, Adam Cadre's Photopia (which seems to be considered a standard tear-jerker among readers). The stroke of genius employed here is that Gentry creates a chain of cause and effect linking the mundane to the supernatural. In the beginning, the story builds the player's investment in the heroine through vivid descriptions of the unfriendly weather and the unwelcoming environment - we don't want to get into a sewer pipe, or get wet in the rain, or drink that awful cold coffee. We want to meet up with Mike, we want to make a phone call, et cetera. These basic needs form the basis of the more complex and fantastic impulses to investigate and explore, and ultimately the story's climax feels like a moment of genuine crisis, because having walked so thoroughly in the heroine's shoes, you care as much as she does about thwarting the evil that threatens Anchorhead.
It's really kind of beautiful: for the first time in my experience with IF, I found myself wanting to win out of simply wanting Michael and myself to survive our ordeal.
The game is full of excellently-written horror scenes that use IF's cinematic potentials well. (Spoiler - click to show)Particularly well-written scenes include the slaughterhouse sequence - including the possible deaths - the asylum chase, Doctor Rebis's testimony, and various possibly insanity-inducing events like reading the black tome or observing the comet. The descriptive writing is also very good, being not only thoroughly-implemented but also evocatively described.
Also of note are the numerous reading materials the player encounters in the course of the game: diaries, journals, newsletters, courthouse archives and clippings that aren't always vital to complete the game, but which cumulatively form a picture of Anchorhead's horrific past. These give the game a real sense of wonder and discovery as the player uncovers mysteries layer by layer - the kind of curiosity very few games can truly evoke.
Let's discuss some technical details. The game is generally well-coded considering some of the more finicky mechanics Gentry chose to include. Minor flaws include some amusing syntax errors when taking inventory, trying to let go of a certain rope when in the dark, and occasional difficulties with adding keys to the keyring. But these are easily ignored in the face of the game's overwhelming quality. While not the most challenging of games, Anchorhead's puzzles are almost totally free of "guess-the-verb" games (Spoiler - click to show)(the one major exception being releasing Jeffrey - somehow the command "free boy" didn't feel intuitive to me). There's enough challenge here that a decent player need never resort to a walkthrough, but may still want to spend a few days to a week poring over the possibilities.
In a way, it was almost a relief to see a game this large and complex managing to tell its story and pose some good obstacles without having to create too much in the way of extra vocabulary. In spite of the almost sprawling nature of the setting, the economy of important objects and required actions helps maintain the player's sense of perspective, and you're never really in danger of getting lost in the town. (Being able to write a realistic yet intuitively navigable system of streets is no mean feat!)
In sum, Michael S. Gentry writes that Anchorhead "doesn't even live up to my own standards about how a REALLY good game should be designed." If so, his standards must be astronomically high, for in spite of the odd glitch, this is one of the greatest works of IF ever written - one which I would be proud to show a beginner as an example of how IF can aspire to tell stories as moving and creative as those of literature and film. As with Watchmen, Star Wars, and Final Fantasy VI in their time, this is a work which leaps beyond the misconceptions and old assumptions about its original genre and could be truly considered a self-contained work of art.