Anchorhead

by Michael Gentry profile

Horror
1998

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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Long-standing champion in the IF Horror genre, January 7, 2023

(Note: Would-be players are well-served by other reviews; this one is for would-be authors.)

There aren't really that many works of horror IF. Well-known works are fewer. Award-winning works pretty much come down to a handful, with Anchorhead being the first and only for at least a decade.

What makes it so hard to write horror IF? My usual argument is that it comes down to the problem of controlling pacing, which is critical to building the player's mood, and which is extraordinarily difficult to manage with the toolkit of interactive fiction. Control it too much, and the player is likely to feel "railroaded" and thus cheated of the promise of interaction. Control it too little, and the player will inevitably dawdle and poke about in the world you've built, which has the effect of constantly draining away the tension that you're trying so hard to keep on the rise. The player may enjoy bits and pieces of the experience but will not come away with the whole you envisioned.

Mr. Gentry seems to have very consciously grasped the challenge here and created a number of subtle innovations that go a long way towards overcoming both it and other obstacles to translating the methods of horror into IF. It is well worth examining these innovations in detail to try to understand what they solve, how they work and how they might be improved.

Anchorhead is patterned after the works of H. P. Lovecraft, which typically feature a protagonist who, beginning in a relatively humdrum setting, discovers previously-unsuspected horrors and subsequently struggles (often unsuccessfully) to retain his sanity as he grapples with the redefinition of his reality. In following this formula, it is first necessary to establish a starting point of normality, and Mr. Gentry clearly went to great lengths to do so. The "normal" presented in this work differs significantly from what is typically found in interactive fiction -- it's closer to actual reality in several ways.

First, as Emily Short notes, Gentry's prose offers players a multidimensional sensory experience that is far above-average in its quality, and which is delivered with amazing grace and economy. Not just sight, but sound, smell, touch are all intertwined throughout the room and object descriptions. The work that went into all of this writing was enormous, but with it Gentry achieves an important goal: As a player, you feel much more immersed in the environment than you would in most games.

Second, there are nuances of interaction that faithfully mimic the mechanics of reality in ways surprising to long-time players. Most notable here is the implementation of a model of the PC's hands -- the game keeps track of how she's holding her inventory and interacting with objects, causing failure of some actions when neither hand is free. While this level of realism has the potential to be a major annoyance, Gentry's coding skills ensure that, for the most part, you won't have to worry about it, as the PC will automatically shift things around on your behalf. The mimesis is somewhat broken here by the presence of a "holdall" object with unrealistically large carrying capacity, but since inventory limits are anathema to most players, this is an acceptable tradeoff. From time to time, the lack of free hands or pockets asserts itself in a realistic manner, once again reinforcing an underlying normality that brings you another step "into" the game world.

Third, again surprising, is the implementation of the weather. The game's storms are almost as annoying in Anchorhead as they would be in real life, prone to interfering with your inventory in ways which, though not hyper-realistic, manage to catch the essentials of the situation(Spoiler - click to show). That hurricane lamp you just walked outside with? It's out. That box of papers you had? Well, you still have the box. A well-implemented umbrella, working in conjunction with your hands, deals with most of the hassle, but Gentry has cleverly managed to make it just real enough that you have to worry about it as a player, elevating it above mere background description and again forcing you deeper into the PC's situation.

Fourth is the implementation of NPCs. I agree with Peter Pears that this is an exceptional example of the potential of the ask/tell system in the hands of a good writer, which makes talking to people feel like real interaction. The topic depth here is again evidence of hard work done with great skill; NPCs respond to topics that many players might not think to ask, if they haven't been paying attention to all of the minor details presented elsewhere in the game. This has a positive feedback effect for you as the player in that you are rewarded for making these connections in a way that does not affect the game's playability but once again draws you further "in". (Incidentally, this is a great variation of the "show, don't tell" technique for confirming the player's understanding of the situation, as such connections are rarely noted by the PC.)

Last but not least, the handling of the PC strikes an excellent balance, leaving enough AFGNCAAP-like interaction to allow anyone to project themselves into the lead role while retaining a narrative voice that colors the whole experience in a meaningful way. From time to time, the PC's mentality injects itself unobtrusively into the game, always in a way that reinforces immersion and enhances the player/PC connection(Spoiler - click to show). I am especially fond of the PC's unwillingness to go to sleep with the doors unlocked the first night in the house. Though it means having to get back up, put your clothes on, go downstairs and deal with it, it also makes sense that the PC would be too agitated about the situation to go to sleep without doing so, and I love how it's presented as though you simply forgot to do this -- even though wandering around leaving doors open is perfectly normal behavior in most IF. Again, this is a very restrained and subtle reinforcement of the game world as "real" that is amazingly precise in that it doesn't quite annoy you as a player.

These efforts to enhance reality don't really affect the gameplay very much, but they do affect your experience as a reader. After investing a lot of work to align the player's perceptions and mindset into an expectation of realism, Gentry is able to start introducing the surrealism that is the backbone of Lovecraftian horror. Gentry's success in this effort springs from the insight that underlies the Lovecraft quote which opens the game: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Mr. Gentry's first key perception was understanding that the right place to develop tension is in the mind of the player, not the mind of the PC. Despite the trials of the experience portrayed, the PC has almost no observable emotional reaction -- if there is an emotional reaction, it comes from you, and it's achieved because the player/PC identity alignment has been so carefully managed. As the situation becomes more desperate, the PC becomes willing to do things that either explicitly or implicitly would have been balked at normally(Spoiler - click to show). Examples: stealing her husband's faculty card, spying on her husband, "hacking" his computer, stealing the mechanic's key, crawling through sewer pipes. Since many of these actions are necessary to advance the plot, in effect, the way the PC's reactions are modified to suit the mood that has been targeted almost acts as an emotional puzzle structure that ensures you feel the way Gentry wanted you to at each point(Spoiler - click to show). I say "almost" because not all of these actions are necessary to "win" (though they are to achieve maximum points).

Gentry's second vital intuition was in understanding that the way to keep the tension from dissipating is, unintuitively, to build it very slowly. Since no number of exclamation points is sufficient to induce a surprise reaction in the player, Gentry instead uses the technique of scattering numerous small clues to the central mystery throughout the game world. As Peter Pears phrased it you build your understanding "piece by piece" from these brilliantly interlocking clues in a way that makes your uncomfortable comprehension seem to well up from the dark recesses of your own subconscious instead of being handed down from above(Spoiler - click to show). I particularly like how this technique interacts with some of the "red herring" ideas introduced during the library research portion. As a player, you're not sure which to expect to materialize in-game. Notably, there are multiple clues for key information, making these realizations easier to achieve for the player and reinforcing the realism style. Even more notable is Gentry's craft in writing some of them. The "visual" clues (Spoiler - click to show)(i.e. the paintings in the gallery) are so well-written that I can recall them to my memory as though I had seen an actual image.

Overlaid onto the plot is a well-formed "scene" structure that divides the game world both chronologically and geographically. While the division of time into day and evening cycles is a bit too crude to be completely believable(Spoiler - click to show)(see Brian Uri's Augmented Fourth for a similar but more granular and thus more effective treatment), large portions of the game world are only accessible during certain times, giving a very dynamic feel to the story compared to games that depend solely on spatial barriers to enforce the plot structure.

In addition, there are a few timed or "action" sequences sprinkled throughout the game to add variety to the pacing. With respect to these, I found very effective Gentry's technique of giving the player the opportunity to explore certain spaces in advance of action sequences that would take place in them. The first time you are in an area, your exploration (unrestricted by time) advances your understanding of the plot. The second time there, the application of timing restrictions seems perfectly fair, as you've had a chance to develop the knowledge needed to "survive" them and your attention is not diverted by the need to explore the environment(Spoiler - click to show). My personal favorite example is the slaughterhouse scene, in which the two modes occur back-to-back in the same area. It is a vividly cinematic sequence, though it is marred by the rather ludicrous (if effective) presence of the crayon drawing and inconsistent use of the verb "hide".

As a last note of praise, I admired the way that the author found a couple of interesting ways to discomfort long-time players via subtle manipulation of expectations(Spoiler - click to show). Example: The fly in the real estate agent's office is a persistent presence in the prose, but can't be interacted with as an object. It's irritating and disquieting since generally for IF prominence in the text equates to prominence in the object structure. Example: The inability to explore the house due to darkness on the first night. A touch of pseudo-realism that doesn't quite fit in the typical IF experience -- having gained entry to the house you, as a player, expect to get to check it out. I think it is small details such as this that left me not quite knowing what to expect from the rest of the story while still feeling grounded within it. This slight disorientation is the mark of encountering something new (which is very, very rare for long-time players), and that, more than anything else, is what makes this work stand out in my mind.

All of the above is not to say that Anchorhead is perfect. I actually felt that the introduction (pre-arrival at the house) was quite poorly done. I had tried this game before and put it aside after 50 moves a couple of times, but this time I gritted my teeth and powered through it -- and I'm very glad I did. In addition, there are quite a few small bugs and places where the polish wears off towards the end of the game(Spoiler - click to show). For the nitpickers interested in a tour of these inconsistencies in the otherwise very high implementation quality:

* There seems to be an unintentional "last lousy point" issue due to a sensitivity to the order-of-events between researching birth and death dates and reading about the Verlach family in the library book. If you read the dates first, you make a connection and gain a point when you read the book, but not the other way around.

* Messages about flute resonance can sometimes call both columns the "right-hand column" in the mound.

* The madman in the asylum mimicking your voice doesn't seem to work correctly. I got garbled text that I am fairly sure should have been repeating back what I had typed.

* The way the magic word "ialdabaoloth" is handled is problematic; quotes don't work and the failure of commands like "say ialdabaoloth" and "door, ialdabaoloth" make it an unintentional guess-the-syntax puzzle.

* Examining the lighthouse after it is destroyed shows it still "there" from multiple vantage points.

* Trying to push William off the bridge gives a default politeness-based refusal that definitely does not fit with the situation.

* The bum's corpse still seems to be treated as animate after his death; you get default NPC responses for many interactions.

* Michael's corpose seems to be absent as an object.

* The luggage default message stays the same no matter how crazy the situation gets. So does taking a bath.

* Automatic key logic doesn't take into account keys not on the keychain -- very noticeable in the madman chase scene.

* There are a few disambiguation issues in conversation topics, e.g. "the book" or "the professor".

Beyond these, there are some places where design choices seem antiquated today even though they are closer to the norm for 1998:

* gratuitous mazes, though small and at least one can be bypassed

* darkness in the hallway during the madman scene; this turned into an annoyance for me and screwed up the pacing of the scene because I didn't have a light source, though this doesn't seem like an intentional "puzzle"

* the torn square of canvas being semi-hidden though it would clearly have been visible to the PC is strange and requires a careful search in a sequence otherwise oriented around a fast escape

* the climactic puzzle with the mirrors has many problematic details (Spoiler - click to show)(Why can you only mess up a replacement? Why doesn't Michael/Verlach notice the label on the replacement mirror? Why can't you "touch mirror" with an oily finger to get the same sabotage effect?) and definitely took a walkthrough for me

. Most likely, this is due to the scale of the work being so large that a) Gentry's skills in writing and coding improved over the course of its development and b) playtesting to perfection would take more hours than were available from volunteers. Space constraints may also have been a factor -- this work was developed pre-Glulx and must have stretched the limits of the z8 format.

Perhaps the greatest criticism I can muster is that Anchorhead very nearly succumbs to the pacing problem that kills so many attempts at IF horror. This is most obvious during Day Three, where I wanted STORY, not puzzles, and my patience for them was wearing thin enough to start consulting the walkthrough.

My natural rating for this work would have been 4 stars, or "exceptional" by my scale. I'm compelled to give it 5, however, because, in my experience, it is the king of the genre, far surpassing its Infocom-produced cousin, The Lurking Horror.


Like a good horror novella, but more!, May 6, 2022
by V_P

Do you like suspense? Do you like horror? Do you like supernatural mysteries? Are you able to handle some explicit violent scenes, as well as some (non-explicit) references to sexual abuse in the story background? If you answered "yes" to the above, then look no further; this is the game for you.

You'll be treated to excellent writing, a painstakingly detailed world, an atmosphere so immersive that it gets under your skin, characters that you truly care about, and an intricate plot so captivating that you'll forget what real life is.

The map is huge, and every location has details you can interact with. The length of the game is also satisfying. The puzzles are generally good and make sense, though in my opinion there were a couple of exceptions (but I don't want to spoil anything). Some of them have alternative solutions, which also helps. There are unwinnable situations in the game, but if you have any experience in Interactive Fiction then you just need to be careful and you'll avoid those completely.

A must for every self-respecting Interactive Fiction fan.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A classic weird horror text adventure, February 12, 2022
by Cody Gaisser (Florence, Alabama, United States of America, North America, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Known Universe, ???)

Anchorhead is a gothic horror (weird fiction) text adventure inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The story focuses on a couple who inherit a house in a spooky little Massachusetts fishing community and slowly uncover the town's dark secrets. It's considered a classic of interactive fiction, and with good reason. The setting is atmospheric, the scenarios are memorable, the writing is effective, and the puzzles are mostly of high quality.

The story takes place over the course of 3 days, with each day escalating the difficulty. Day 1 is a breeze, mostly exploring and learning about the town and the house. Day 2 is complicated, with a lot of things to do and puzzles to solve, but with little to no threat of botching anything permanently. Day 3 is much more tense, mistakes have consequences, and it is very possible to get something wrong. More about that...

Anchorhead may be a masterpiece, but it isn't perfect. It possesses some of the flaws stereotypical of adventure games: verb-guessing, reading the author's mind, some poorly signposted objectives, timed puzzles where you can trap yourself in a fail-state, and even the possibility of losing or misplacing a key item that is needed to complete the game (so SAVE your game often, especially once Day 3 begins). Thankfully, tips and walkthroughs are readily accessible on the internet.

Most of the game isn't that taxing, however, and I'd argue that Anchorhead is worth the potential trouble in order to experience the incredible narrative (which is one of the best in any interactive fiction I've played). This is a must-play title for fans of Lovecraft, horror, and interactive fiction more broadly. Just be sure to play it with your "90s adventure game" goggles on.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A stunning feat, February 8, 2022
by cgasquid (west of house)

(this is a review of the original game, not the remastered Steam version)

now, i'm not the type who tends to get through games without resorting to at least a FEW hints and walkthroughs. there are different kinds of puzzles that a person can get stuck on. sometimes a verb must be guessed. sometimes there were non-obvious inventory items that were missed. sometimes a game is unfair. and sometimes puzzles are completely logical and even intuitive. there's really nothing like the feeling of being stuck on a puzzle for a couple of hours or overnight and then suddenly having the light dawn: you try it, and it works.

Anchorhead gave me that last feeling many, many times.

i believe i only had to resort to hints a couple of times -- once early on when i was having trouble tripping a specific flag to advance the day, and the later sequence (Spoiler - click to show)in the mill that many had problems with.

more to the point, the horrifying story kept me riveted. there are games where one kind of trundles along, hits a puzzle where any progress seems impossible, and gives up (frequently because the author put their e-mail address under HINTS instead of giving a link to actual hints or a walkthrough on their webpage). but there are games where you hit a brick wall puzzle -- in this case, (Spoiler - click to show)sabotaging the summoning at the lighthouse -- but you're so committed to the character and so immersed in the world that giving up is simply not an option.

i solved that puzzle myself. and it was the greatest feeling.

that said, there are some things that bear warning about and could potentially trigger people's PTSD. the plot relies heavily on (Spoiler - click to show)the villain's history of incestuous rape and, while figuring that out yourself is a wonderful puzzle that gives you that slow, creeping sense of dread as you realize what's been going on, people who've gone through the real-world equivalent may not react well.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Iconic, December 15, 2021

Anchorhead is probably my most favorite IF game ever, and Iíve been playing text games since the days of Zork. Itís got great writing, a compelling story and more or less realistic interactions (vs abstract), and thereís no sense of feeling annoyed, pressured for time, feeling lost or overwhelmed, etc. itís the closest thing to a perfect IF game in my opinion.


5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Why improve on perfection?, December 7, 2020
by DoctorFury (Ohio)
Related reviews: Anchorhead, horror

So I played the original Anchorhead the year it came out, and then just finished the 2018 Steam release on my Mac ten minutes ago. It's a GREAT game in the Lovecraft mythos. So much so that I never forgot it, and was pleasantly surprised to discover the reboot. Plotwise, this is a strong game, with excellent pacing and deep details to discover. The main character is somewhat anonymous, compared to the thorough exploration of her husband's entire family, but this game is more about the player's effort than any characterologic development. The game is very, very well written and the parser has been thoroughly programmed, with only extremely rare "guess the correct verb" moments (Spoiler - click to show)Don't "hit" the web with the broom.

What stuck with me in 1998 was how hard this game was. I mean, I may have been just 20 but I was a smart cookie with extensive IF experience, and I could not finish Anchorhead Original without significant help. Anchorhead 2018 is . . . easier. Not by much, and certainly not in such a way that players of the original will feel cheated, but there's a gloss on the game that made the denouement and ending feel a little perfunctory. Several objects and locations serve no purpose except to move the game towards the finish line. (Spoiler - click to show)What is the point of the flute, except as a handy tool for banishing the final enemy? Hell, why have an altar at all with thousands of corpses underground when the apparent threat is in the water? Tell me more about that Zodiac. And so on.

That said, I loved playing this again in my 40s and I'm so, so glad IF refuses to die. If you have a Lovecraft fan as a friend, introduce them to this game!


7 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
One of the best text adventures of all time, even better in Steam version., July 6, 2019
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

Review for Steam Edition:

Anchorhead is a masterpiece of interactive fiction. In this well-illustrated Lovecraftian game, you have to piece together the history of your husband's family as you move to a new town with a dark history.

This edition fixes a lot of the worst puzzles from the first edition, especially the very difficult mill section. It adds some new puzzles, too, some of which I found quite difficult (such as the dinghy), and others less so (the new opening sequence).

The illustrations are very well done, and go a long way to making this worth the purchase price. I love this game, and I'm glad to see it in such good form. I also appreciated the change in the orderly's magazine, which made me laugh. Some of the older texts in the game contain echoes of Lovecraft's racism, and they seem to be written new for the game, not old texts quoted, so I thought I'd mention that.

Earlier Review:

Anchorhead can completely draw you into its world. The writing and atmosphere are classic Lovecraftian horror, beginning as merely dismal and developing slowly into madness. Early scenes take on far different meanings on a second playthrough.

That said, this is a very hard game. I'm not sure how anyone could solve the (Spoiler - click to show)telescope lens puzzle on their own.

However, the depth of the game and the quality of the writing is such that it is still enjoyable even if you have to resort to hints from time to time. Many of the best moments are also the easiest puzzles.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
20th Anniversary Edition well worth the price, April 28, 2019
by deathbytroggles (Minneapolis, MN)

My introduction to H.P. Lovecraft, and frankly, well-written horror, Anchorhead remains one of my favorite games ever made twenty years later. While the free version stands on its own, the 20th anniversary edition is well worth the ten dollar price tag if you liked the original or are a fan of thriller/horror games.

You play the role of apprehensive wife who has uprooted her life after her husband inherited a spooky house in a spooky New England town. Naturally, as you explore the house and the town, you begin to unravel horrors better left uncovered; except your husbandís life is at stake and so the motivation to press on remains ever present. Gentry does a superb job of encouraging the player to go at their own pace as key events have to be triggered by solving key puzzles. This allows his masterful atmospheric writing to draw the player into his world (not surprisingly as it won Best Setting at the XYZZY awards). I have played this a few times now, and each time I have felt on the edge of my seat despite knowing whatís coming. Even reading through old newspaper clippings or library books intensifies the mood here. The writing is that good.

In fact, there is a sequence about halfway through the game (Spoiler - click to show) (well/mob/church) when things start to get real that was sort of a coming of age moment for me in interactive fiction. It remains one of my favorite areas of any video game, graphic or otherwise.

My only real criticism of Anchorhead is the puzzles. In the 20th Anniversary Edition, Gentry cleaned up several puzzles that were done hastily. The wine cellar puzzle is infinitely more interesting now, and your acquisition of keys seems to be more organic. But there are still too many puzzles that seem to present only for puzzles' sake (Spoiler - click to show)(including one near the end with a broom), and some that practically require you to die in order to learn what you need to do (Spoiler - click to show)(the lighthouse puzzle comes to mind). The game is also cruel at times, allowing you to progress in an unwinnable state because you didnít find an out-of-the-way object you didnít even know you were supposed to look for (Spoiler - click to show)(a needle in a haystack, as it were). Thankfully, the nature of a horror game means youíll be saving often, and even the worst walking dead situation doesnít require to restore back too far. Still, when atmosphere is king, these types of issues can pull the player out of the game. I admit I used a walkthrough near the end of the game, not because the puzzles were too hard, but rather because I was too engrossed in the story to want to solve them.

It would be hard to introduce someone to the world of interactive fiction without recommending Anchorhead. While itís not easy, the gameís parser and design are so user-friendly (thank you trench coat and key-ring!) that it rarely becomes frustrating to play. As of this writing Anchorhead is considered the 2nd highest rated text adventure of all-time, and most of those ratings came before the new edition which enhances the playing experience while also adding some appropriately horrifying graphics.


4 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Unfair, January 7, 2019

I'm not at all sure that Anchorhead has any "fair" puzzles in Emily Short's sense. https://xyzzyawards.org/?p=386

I played Anchorhead about four-ish years ago, but I gave up on it and used the "Guided Tour" walkthrough linked from IFDB. I never felt like I could trust that I was actually solving a puzzle. For many of the puzzles I "solved" by following the Guided Tour, I never understood the solutions at all.

Even for Anchorhead's relatively accessible puzzles, the vast majority of them only make sense in "adventure-game logic" (e.g. the very first puzzle of the game, (Spoiler - click to show)breaking into the real-estate office), but those puzzles are surrounded by red-herring "you can't solve this yet for no known reason" puzzles, so it's unfair to expect the player to apply adventure-game logic to just that puzzle and not any of the other red-herring puzzles.

Good puzzle solutions need to make sense in hindsight. Why does it make sense to break into the (Spoiler - click to show)real-estate office, and not the (Spoiler - click to show)asylum, or the slaughterhouse, or the church, or whatever? Why can I break in on Day 3 but not on Day 2? It just never makes sense.

I'd give Anchorhead one star, but its prose and story are pretty good. So, do as I did: follow mjhayes' Guided Tour. Don't worry one second over the puzzles. Just enjoy the ride. (Note that the Guided Tour hasn't been updated for the 2018 re-release; you'll have to use the 1998 original release, instead.)


5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Can't describe how brilliant this is! , September 22, 2018
by Froggy (UK)
Related reviews: Played 2018, Favourites

Oh my gosh, Anchorhead is absolutely fantastic. I played the original 1998 version and I loved every second of it. Played it for a day straight and just couldn't put it down; I tried to go to bed at one point and just ended up getting up two hours later to finish it. The writing weaves an incredibly beautiful and atmospheric description of each and every area, character, item - honestly I don't think this game is lacking in any aspect whatsoever. You can examine pretty much everything and everyone, and find tantalising clues and information everywhere you go. The history and backlore is rich and detailed - I found myself starting a set of notes just so that I could keep track of things and make links and connections, which made it even more exciting! The story builds layer upon layer of tension, beginning with just a slight unease and ramping up the mystery and thrill with each and every piece of information that you uncover. It's challenging, engaging, exciting, terrifying, heartwarming, and utterly brilliant.

Just make sure to save fairly regularly; you never know what you're going to find.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.


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