Anchorhead: Embroiled in Lovecraft

Anchorhead: Embroiled in Lovecraft screenshot
Jordan Magnuson's picture

I’ve known about interactive fiction for a long time, but for some reason I just never played any IF games. I think I started one or two over the years, but puzzling controls and less than stellar writing quickly made me abort. At the time it seemed to me that IF was simply a remnant of the past: something that we had moved beyond with graphical adventures (I blush to admit that even in my childhood I would hold such a ridiculous notion as graphics > text). Well, more recently IF has kept popping up at places like Play This Thing and TIGSource, but I haven’t had time to look into them. Then I started reading Emily Short’s blog (highly recommended), and I decided that I would by golly play some interactive fiction. Where to start? Well, I found Short’s interactive storytelling must-play list, and decided to dive right in to the first IF title she mentions. And I am happy I did—despite my aversion to horror as a genre.

Anchorhead is a Lovecraftian horror story loosely based on the Cthulhu Mythos. It is a story that starts out as light and easy as a summer’s day, and ends embroiled in layers of fantastical horror, with the universe turning inside-out and upside-down. It is very well-written, highly enjoyable, and quite intricate; its puzzles never seem very contrived, and when you finally come away from the game it leaves you feeling like you’ve spent a lifetime in another place—like one of those impossibly long dreams you sometimes have in the span of a few hours, but more lucid, more memorable.

Proviso

[Keep in mind that everything you read here is coming from someone who has no experience with this genre. Consequently some of my observations may be off-based, as I have nothing to compare this work directly to. But at the same time, my lack of experience may be of benefit to those who are equally ill-rehearsed in IF. Also, I think there is something wonderful about playing a genre for the first time; while it is possible to approach such a task with prejudice or undeserved wariness, it is also possible to see the thing freshly as you will never see it again. This stipulation out of the way, let me continue…]

The Writing

In Anchorhead you play an unnamed female protagonist moving into a new town—Anchorhead—with her husband after he has inherited an east coast mansion from long lost relatives. The air is fresh and salty, and you feel good as you make your way to the real estate agent’s office to pick up the keys while Michael (your husband) attends to some business at the local university where he has just been employed. What you notice right away with Anchorhead is the quality of the writing. A problem that you often run across with computer games is that many of them are story driven, but their stories are written by people who cannot (or should not) really call themselves writers. For a heavily story driven game this equation often spells disaster, or at least a very boring experience.

And this is one of the strengths, I believe, of interactive fiction in general: it is created by writers, or at least people who want to be writers. Michael Gentry is in the first category. His sentences are well constructed, his descriptions eerily volumic, and his control of mood—often through the use of setting—is superb. His mastery of pacing becomes equally evident as the story progresses over the course of three days: the gradient from perfectly normal to grotesquely and fantastically horrific, is as smooth and even as a 32-bit sky at dusk on a Samsung LCD.

The Puzzles

What about the gameplay though? What about the puzzles? The problem with traditional adventure games is that they often devolve into teeth-jarring, hair-pulling man vs. machine battles of the will. As in, “you WILL open the door with this fish or else.” And when that final attempt fails you break down in tears and never return. What you remember of the experience is the pain and agony, and the stupid stupid puzzles. Was there a story? Who knows.

Anchorhead, in a deft feat of magic or skill, somehow avoids this scenario. Much of the time the puzzles are tightly enough embedded in the story that they don’t strike you as puzzles at all. Sometimes you almost forget you are playing a game, and not simply living in Anchorhead (until you look into your coat pocket and see 26 objects which must total the mass and volume of a baby elephant), which is about as high a praise as I can give a game. That being said, there were occasionally times in the game where I did not know what to do, or where to go, and it turned out that I needed to return to place x to find something that had mysteriously appeared there since my last visit: arguably realistic, but frustrating and unsatisfactory.

The Interface

What about the interface, from a beginner’s view? Well, one thing I was impressed with was the intuitiveness, and ease of use of the text parser: it understands many commands, and many synonyms, and accepts many useful abbreviations, like “x” for “examine.” Navigating via compass directions though I found to be quite awkward and unintuitive. The text parser would not always understand what I meant when I said “exit” a building, and so I’d have to take the time to “look around” to see that the door was to the south, so that I could “go south”; now if the road is going east to west… you get used to this kind of thing, but it never feels quite right, and sometimes it downright interrupts the experience.

And then there is traveling distances… to put it eloquently, this is where IF (or at least this example) stinks. In real life, you may be a bit turned around when you first come to a new town, or house, but you end up knowing where things are, and you don’t have to think about all the steps involved in getting from your bed to the town square. In Anchorhead you cannot simply wake up and say “go to town square,” which would seem perfectly reasonable to anyone unfamiliar with the grammar of computer games. No, in Anchorhead you have to go one step at a time. As in, “get out of bed, put on clothes, go into hallway, go down stairs, open door, go out door, close door, walk on path…” except that it’s not that easy, because what you actually have to say is “get out of bed, put on clothes, go west, go down, open door, close door, go north, go north, go north-west, go west, go south-west.” You can substitute abbreviations so that the typing is minimal (“n, ne, nw, n, w”), but that’s not the biggest problem here. The problem is that I don’t want to have to think about which direction I have to go every step of the way to the town hall, which is fifteen steps away, and I’ve been there five times!

In my opinion this issue of traveling distances is critically crippling to the IF experience, and provides the single biggest learning curve that the genre presents to newcomers. It is somewhat helpful that you can download a map in “GUE format” for Anchorhead, but the map is really a broken crutch as the format is not intuitive and it gives away all of the game’s secret rooms. What we really need here is a map that is drawn as the player moves from place to place, so that you have a map of where you’ve been. Also, the ability to “jump” to any location that you’ve already been (assuming it’s accessible from where you currently are) by typing, for example, “go to university library” would improve the experience of playing immeasurably. This issue is one that has plagued graphic adventures as well, but in a graphic adventure, navigating back to a place—as tedious as it may be—is still more intuitive and natural, because it involves visual recognition and clicking, rather than reading text and remembering compass directions. Also, a “jump” system for traveling distances has been present in many graphic adventure games for some time, and from a programmatic standpoint such a feature would seem simple to implement in IF—but then, I must be missing something [edit: see Emily Short’s comment below: apparently some IF games do implement such a feature; I’m still baffled as to why it isn’t standard].

Because Anchorhead is so big and so complex it may not be the best IF title to start with. It is on Nick Montfort’s Suggestions for IF newcomers list, though, so trust your gut I guess. Overall, as an experienced gamer with little to no IF experience I found the game somewhat awkward to navigate at first, but I got used to it within half an hour; the frustration of not being able to traverse distances with ease stayed with me throughout my play. As for overall difficulty, I was never too frustrated, but I did use the map, and a walkthrough at numerous points—before I started to get really frustrated, which is what I would suggest.

Conclusion

Overall, the experience of playing Anchorhead was incredibly rich and memorable—not for the difficulty navigating, or for the puzzles, but for the immersive experience it provided. It compared very well with any interactive experience I have ever had, and came in well ahead of the graphical adventures I have played (with the possible exception of Myst). My distaste for horror in general may have curbed my appetite slightly, but only slightly: this game manages to rise above horror, and the experience of playing it is beautiful as often as it is frightening. I would highly recommend the game, though if you have no previous IF experience beware: read the help, use the map, use a walkthrough when needed, and stick with it if you feel overwhelmed early on. It’s worth it.

Jordan Magnuson' avatar

Jordan Magnuson is the founder and editor in chief of NecessaryGames.com. He is currently traveling around the world on a shoestring and making small games about the experience. You can find out more at GameTrekking.com.

Resources

Note that you can run this game on any platform that has a Z-Machine or Glulx interpreter available for it. These include Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Nintendo DS, Pocket PC, and more. For instructions on downloading and installing an appropriate interpreter, see this page.

The walkthrough and map for Anchorhead are available at its IFDB page. If you’ve never played interactive fiction before, I’d suggest you read Emily Short’s beginner’s guide (PDF) before diving in. Also, check out the beginner resources available at Brass Lantern. If you finish this game and are interested in the idea of making your own interactive fiction, check out the powerful and easy to learn Inform 7, the successor to the engine used to make Anchorhead.

Further Reading

Know of any relevant "further reading" links not listed here? Please let me know.
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Older Comments (eventually these will be imported to Disqus)

Thanks for writing this up — I was really interested to see the newcomer opinion on this game.

Should you be moved to play some more IF but you’re held back by this problem:

In IF you cannot simply wake up and say “go to town square,”

…then you might like to know that that’s not universal. The ability to go to a room by name is a feature that existed in some early text adventures (even in Adventure it was possible to go to the next room over just by typing that room’s name). GO TO ROOM has lately been reappearing more and more as authors try to make IF accessible to less hard-core players. Sometimes that feature manifests itself as complete pathfinding that takes the player from A to B in a single move, sometimes as a mechanism that advances him one room per move but always in the correct direction. Among the games that allow this are Blue Lacuna, King of Shreds and Patches, and Make It Good (all major releases in 2009); last year’s Nightfall; and my own Floatpoint and Bronze. There are others as well that I’m not remembering at the moment.

I’m enjoying exploring the rest of the site as well.

I don’t play IFs regularly but have some at least superficial familiarity with the genre, its history and its conventions, so it was very interesting to read these newcomer’s impressions. The criticism of “step-based” travelling really caught me by surprise, as I guess that’s just one of those gameplay mechanics which the vast majority of players (even someone with such a limited IF experience as I have) simply takes for granted.

As IF mastermind Emily Short helpfully points out in the comment above, some games do include faster and arguably less artificial means of transporation, but my own worry would be that it could sometimes be hard to combine such fast travel options with gameplay which not only includes backtracking of some sort (as most IFs do) but also revolves around changes (some of them quite small and subtle) in the environments you’ve already explored. In some IFs, progressing to the next area after having completed the previous area’s One Big Puzzle is all there is to it, but often there’s considerably more to do in a single “screen” than that, and if you include an option to skip these rooms the player might easily miss something important which has changed since he or she last visited these places (which is also why fast travel is not always advisable in graphical adventure games which has such options, such as the Zip Mode in “Myst” and “Riven”). I haven’t played Anchorhead so maybe the “new items magically appearing” variant of this which you disliked about that game might not be the smartest way to implement this general design choice. But it’s not difficult to imagine many scenarios in which it would be legitimate to introduce new elements, puzzles and details to old rooms A and B - which you might miss entirely if you’re constantly zipping between room Z and X where you already know there are puzzles you haven’t solved yet. Sure, even with a fast travel option available there’s nothing actually stopping the player from moving about the game world in the old-fashioned, step-based way - but at the same time I’d be willing to bet that human nature is such that if you introduce a new convenience, most players (myself included) would find it psychologically difficult not to use it all the time…

Perhaps one way to get around this problem (and I don’t know if any game has tried that) would be to always list the rooms you’re travelling through while using the fast-travel option and at the same time include some kind of symbol (like an asterisk [*]) to indicate if things have changed in one of those rooms since you were last there. Now, I have no idea how difficult and/or tedious this might be to implement with IF programming - and it’s also possible that it might make certain games too easy - but the basic point here is simply that fast travelling may introduce certain problems which individual IF developers will have to solve in one way or the other if and when they include such options in their own games.

@Emily: thanks for the information regarding IF games with the “go to room” option; I’ve updated my review to account for this new knowledge. Also, as I was editing I found some agreegus tipos—I am putting all future reviews through a stricter proofreading process, so I hope to minimize my embarrassment from now on. And thanks for reading the review, and the encouragement. I’ve been following your blog almost religiously since I discovered it—your writing on interactive storytelling is indispensable.

@Highwayman: thanks for taking the time to read the review, and posting  your thoughtful comments. I hear you about taking the step-by-step backtracking for granted; I’ve played a fair amount of games, and I’ve done a fair amount of it. In truth, the fact that I can’t “zip” between locations in Anchorhead doesn’t surprise me so much, but it still frustrates me. Also, my inexperience with IF exacerbates the issue: the compass directions are already unnatural for me, so having to read and figure out which direction I want to go takes what seems like a lot of energy, and often distracts me from my goal at hand. In graphic adventures backtracking can often be tedious, but it is much more intuitive, as it relies on visual recognition (like in real life) and clicking, rather than reading text and then determining which compass direction you want to go.

And then there’s “zipping.” The point you make about potentially missing clues is a very good one. However, it seems to me that such an issue would be fairly easy to overcome in a way like you describe, and any sacrifices made would be worth the difference. While playing Anchorhead I traveled back and forth between different rooms a lot, and a lot of the time nothing had changed—and I had no reason to expect that it would have. When I’ve got some clue, or am on some trail, I want to follow that trail, not get bogged down in a giant morass of compass directions. If something has changed in one of the locations that I am passing through, why can’t that change be highlighted for me? At least if it’s something big, can’t we say that my character noticed it while passing through, even if I was focused on getting to another destination? 

And generally speaking I’m really not a fan of locations changing in game-determining ways without any kind of warning, or reason that isn’t clear to me. I want to have a reason for doing what I am doing in a game, for going where I am going; some adventure games end up feeling like hide and seek, where you go back and forth from place to place to place, clicking on things and just hoping to discover something new that will move the story forward—I don’t think such games are particularly strong. As I mention in the review, Anchorhead managed to avoid that kind of scenario very well, for the most part: I was usually actively engaged with the story, doing what came naturally to me given my in-game knowledge.

Possibly “zipping” could be internally implemented using something like this:
1. Find the (shortest) path to the destination point, show something if it’s impossible to reach the target location.
2. Simulate actual movement through the locations selected during pathfinding. It could be as simple as showing “You start moving to …”.
3. If there was nothing worthy the user’s attention in those locations, simply show that the user arrived at the destination location. If some of the “virtually traversed” locations contains something the user would notice if she visited that location “explicitly”, the game could stop at that location, tell what location is this and why the game stopped. Something as silly as “you feel as something has changed here since your last visit”.

Actually, I’ve seen something like this in the “Space Rangers” game [1] in which you normally navigate your spacecraft in “real time” (in other words, you control it as you would do in an action game), but if the game sees some “important” object is approaching (like an asteroid or an NPC’s spacecraft), you’re dropped into the turn-based mode, in which you can examine the situation at hand and take whatever countermeasures your want. That is, a trip from A to B in this game can complete without interruption (“zipping”) or can be interrupted any time to draw the user’s attention.

1. http://elementalgames.com/eng/r_all.php

That’s exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about Konstantin. Also, thanks for pointing out the Space Rangers game… I hadn’t been aware of it.

If you’re having a hard time getting around in IF, your best bet is to get yourself a mapper.  To me mapping is the single funnest part of discovering IF.  All it takes is a little practice and the right tools.  Here is a link to those tools on IF-Archive.

http://www.ifarchive.org/indexes/if-archiveXmapping-tools.html

Also, this site has the best articles on gaming I’ve come across.  Thanks.

 

          -Endsville

Ah… these tools look like they’d help considerably. Am I right in thinking that you can use these tools to create a map for yourself as you explore an IF world? I used the GUE map provided with Anchorhead, but I think I was going about the process the wrong way, as that was a pre-constructed map including all the hidden rooms…

Also, thanks for the kind words Endsville—encouragement never hurts :)

[...] externally imposed, is often a very good thing for a game to have (see my recent reviews of Ico or Anchorhead). The issue is that linear stories are not unique to video games, and in and of themselves do [...]

I too am new to IF and recently finished Anchorhead. I had played a few shorter games before it (Emily’s Galatea and Metamorphosis, and Lost Pig). Your review described my feelings of the game pretty well. I thought the writing was very effective and immersive and the game was just fabulous overall. I got into the game specifically for the Lovecraft aspects and I was certainly satisfied there. I’ve recommended this game to friends, but not as an intro to IF. Although it’s a super example of what IF can do, it was pretty daunting for me and I got really stuck often.

I tried a few times to type, "go to mansion," and other places, but it didn’t become much of a problem for me. I drew a map and kept notes on a notepad (the value of which I learned from the Myst games) and the compass directions and movement became second nature. Sometimes I would quickly move from place to place and ignore the descriptions, and sometimes I would pay attention.

My frustrations could be chalked up to IF inexperience, specifically not knowing that "look in" will provide different (and necessary) results from "x" or "look at." In those cases I thought it would be nice to have a little hint that you can look inside. For the most part the puzzles were intuitive and inobtrusive. It’s a testament to the writing that the player can share the character’s goals, and work out what can be done with the resources available to advance. Often, in all types of games, the only reason you go through a locked door is because it’s there.

Anyway, I’m new to your blog (found it through Emily’s) and what I’ve read so far has been fascinating. Looking forward to reading more!

Thanks for taking the time to post your thoughts Lucas—I really appreciate it. Making notes on paper seems like such an obvious thing to do… and yet, after living in a computer for so many years, one starts to forget that things like "paper and pencil" ever existed. Darned machines.

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