I've now finished Michael Gentry's 1998 masterpiece of interactive horror fiction: Anchorhead. I played release 5, which will likely be the final release since his Inform 7 port seems to have stalled. I scored 98 out of 100 points, accomplished every major goal, a few non major goals, visited over 100 rooms (a large game in the field where 30-40 is usually enough for most, though not the largest by any stretch), and interacted with numerous people and objects. It took me on the order of 15 hours (four of which was wandering around due to one piece of confusion on my behalf, for which I had to look at a clue in another person's discussion of an earlier release of the game before I could solve) with as much as an hour dedicated to just make sure I looked at everything and playing around looking through books, paintings and the like. Flavor text, in other words.

I died probably about thirty times, nearly all of which occurred in the last two hours of game play.

My experience was, as may be inferred from my opening line, a positive one. Not only does this game succeed on the interactive fiction game play front, but it excels in the storyline better than a good percentile of its competition. This is a field that has come a long way since the undeniably classic Adventure (or Caves of Adventure or other variations on the name) with its storyline "You are in a forest...oh, go explore a cave!"

Anchorhead has a strong story with a well paced and thought out background with a lot of little subtle clues hinting toward the whole. It has appropriate red herrings, the sort of things that you would focus on as false clues, that crumble as time goes on. It has completely extraneous information that adds to the flair. The tension definitely builds, the difficulty gets steeper. The first game day is spent wondering and wandering around, lost. The second game day you start finding out strong clues of things. By time you get to the third game day, you start realizing you can die, you can fail. The last night of in game time is filled with all sorts of missed chances and timed events and there is almost not a single point where you feel honestly comfortable. You know you are at the end, and it makes you nervous because it just seems to be getting harder. Though the storyline has few surprises at this time, you find yourself rooting for the character and her husband, wanting them to make it.

And appropriate uses of Lovecraftian horror. Lovecraft's works are a subtle blend of what you can see and what you can't, and of distrust and paranoia mixed with faith in men of knowledge and action. Most pastiches tend to go for a humorous element or something akin to kaiju. Anchorhead keeps most of the elements in perfect balance. Towards the end, it loses Lovecraft and picks up a bit more, say Stephen King, but in the ebb and flow of the game, that is perfectly ok. It works for it.

One of the surprising bits, for me, was the fact that I wouldn't mind reading this novel, if it existed, or seeing this movie. I actually kind of feel bad there no such follow-up. [As a said to a friend, though, it is funny thinking of reading a gossip column talking about "New professor's wife confuses town by walking around in random directions and looking under and behind everything before poking them with an umbrella".]

Most puzzles are in the game setting, involving finding out ways to turn gears, unlocking screensavers to access computers, sneaking past people, and so on. Some of the puzzles seem to net unequal reward, but that is ok. The answer to the majority of the puzzles are obvious when you think in the setting. Information, true to the genre, is the main fighting tool.

There are a few "missed chances" in the game, but less than some. There are some items I know of that can be completely overlooked earlier in the game that will spell doom in the last hours of game play with no real indication you have missed them. One is just sitting there in a room. The other requires one of the more subtle, and overall better, puzzles in the game. But it is still one that might be easily overlooked.

Very few syntax snags (in other word, no place where typing "shake book" will cause a piece of information to show up where "open book" or "search book" would not). There is one reference to a "professor" who is not the character's husband that I could never get past because trying to specify professor only asked "Michael or the professor"? It ended up not being important, I think, but still an issue. A couple of cases were examining something triggers some other event, a pet peeve of mine ("You look at the red hear someone walking nearby..." being a made up example to show how odd they can be).

There are a few outright glitches. One of which is the "ask" command will often assume the librarian if worded incorrectly, no matter your in game location, leading to a response in an open field along the lines of "The Librarian purses her lips". One has something to do with the keys on the keyring showing a failure the first time you glance at them). Keys not on the keyring are often not checked when you say to unlock a door, though sometimes they are. I had a few other syntax bugs get flagged by the interpreter, but nothing that stopped the game play. At least one place where something I thought was being specified (and failing to work) was me referring to another object that I did not realize was different. Not quite a bug, but still a quirk.

The "best" glitch occurs while someone is choking you towards the end. I said "Push the attacker" and it told me it wouldn't be polite.

I have no idea what two points I am missing. When I looked up a walkthrough, it was either a fake or based on an earlier version involving some different things altogether. I looked up another walkthrough and was the same game but every point it had listed I thought I had. Possibly I am overlooking something really obvious or two of points were not awarded. No bother, it is not critical.

Will possibly play through the game again, but want to wait a bit to see if the Inform 7 port comes out (which should fix the bugs and even more background information).

Not 100% polished but its going to be a long-time favorite of mine for interactive fiction, Lovecraftian fan-fiction, and horror gaming. Very recommended. Maybe not as a first IF game, but worth a play after you have a couple of others under your belt. Since it tends to start out kind of slow and not build up until maybe 4-5 hours into it, it might actually make a good introduction to longer games.

It makes you forget you are playing a simple text-based game. You get into the story and you get creeped out. And that is the best compliment I can give it.

For those of you wanting to play, I have the Release 5 version that I played (anchor.z8) hosted on my site. I've been using Gargoyle as my emulator for all sorts of versions of IF, so I recommend it. It's not perfect, but really good as far as minimizing emulation glitches.

Hints, Mild Spoilers and Helpful Suggestions (for what they are worth)

Day one is a relaxing day. It somewhat mispresents the game as a whole. Take advantage of it. A few things are closed and some paths aren't open. You might get frustrated by a puzzle that feels like it should be solvable but everything will unfold with time. Just explore, get your basic map laid out, and get into the mood.

Just about everything can fit in your trenchcoat pockets, and all at once. This promotes picking up everything and holding on to it. Not only does this save you the trouble of having to keep track of where you left items (thank God for no thief, right?) but it also becomes humorous when you picture a professor's wife carrying around what has to be about fifty to a hundred pounds of stuff in her pockets.

Day two involves a lot of research but only requires a half-dozen basic actions to complete. The research is largely optional, though some low level research is required. You CAN skip it, because most of it is not really needed, just helpful, and some of the twists you learn through research will just be sort of handed to you at the end of the game; but I found it to be the best part of the game.

Put all keys on the keyring. This simplifies some issues, but more importantly there seems to be a bug that it sometimes only checks keys on a keyring when trying to unlock a door.

I don't think anything can kill on the first day, except maybe tenacity to pull something that you really shouldn't, and only one thing can kill on the second (that I found). By time you get about a third the way through the third day, and increasing up to the end of the game, death becomes frequent and sometimes kind of sudden. With this in mind, you can probably suffice with not saving at all on the first day and only saving once or twice on the second. By the third though, I found it helpful to keep some back ups (and to keep a back up back in the second day, just in case).

Dreams are important in this game. Though mostly flavor, they do involve clues. Due to the sprawling nature of the game, it is not as easy as some to go back and simply replay to look for clues. I figured I would point this out to you now, then.

There are two primary red herrings that I know of and a couple of secondary ones. There are a few events (as mentioned above) that feel like they should be doable when you first encounter them, but simply are not. This game actually plays out fairly smoothly. If you find yourself frustrated, you might be trying to hard or focusing on something of lesser importance.

The first and second day involve only a couple of "narrow window" puzzles. According to a bonus feature after you beat the game, a lot of these puzzles actually can be solved in different ways at a later point. Not all.

Violence is rarely an option. It does work sometimes, though, just keep it in check. Heh.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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