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.
[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…]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- An interesting academic paper (PDF) on “search based drama management,” focused on Anchorhead.
- Interview with Anchorhead’s author, Michael Gentry, about remastering the game.
- Review of Anchorhead by interactive fiction master Emily Short.
- Member reviews of Anchorhead at the interactive fiction database.