The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
By: Michael S. Gentry
To explain why I got to Anchorhead so late in my IF-playing career: I am not particularly a fan of this genre. I don't tend to read horror, and if I did read horror, Lovecraftian horror would be about the last thing I would turn to; I'd much rather stick with serial killers or vampires or ghosts. The lack of interest in the genre is probably one reason I didn't get into it sooner; the other being a sort of perversity principle that insists that anything that is recommended to me by too many different people must not really be as great as they all say.
As IF goes, though, this is a deeply beautiful piece. (Not what you were expecting me to say, hunh?) There's lots of disgusting, unpleasant imagery, but first -- and en route to that imagery -- is a masterful build-up of setting and mood unparalleled by almost any other game I have ever played. The scenery descriptions take into account very particular and yet very evocative features: the dull light through the pebbled glass in the courthouse building, suggesting offices inhabited by apathetic people doing dull jobs on a rainy day (if there was anyone in there at all); the changing weather, variable yet always gloomy; the disturbing drifts of ash; the wind-blown leaves, the slapping of waves against the shore. Every sense is called into play. There are odors, sounds, textures, variations in temperature and air quality, and the overall effect is an environment that becomes almost oppressively real. I was so unnerved the first night by the house that I was drawn to the husband character for comfort, and found myself strangely angry when he went off to bed, deserting me to my own devices in a cold and unwelcoming place. It is not for nothing that this game claimed its Best Setting XYZZY.
Also wonderful -- natural and immersive -- is the structure of the gameplay. I found that for the first half or more of the game, I didn't need any hints, nor (with the exception of the gratuitous but mercifully small maze) were there any puzzles that felt as though they had been thrown in for the sake of adding a puzzle. Most of the actions one has to take are information-gathering steps, and they proceed intuitively from what has gone before, require exploration of a kind that fits the plot and the character of the PC, and dole out the relevant information at a nice pace. One piece of the chain naturally suggested to me where I should go to look for the next piece of information, so I rarely felt lost; and though the picture I was assembling was a grim and unnerving one, the process of playing the game was comfortable and marked with very few jarring moments. I felt, in other words, that I was being required to use my mind, and rewarded for doing so, but that mental exercises I was performing were the same ones my PC ought to be performing, and the same ones I would perform if I actually were in this situation in real life. (Quod deus avertat.) If this seems obvious, I submit that it is often a desirable goal, but far less often achieved in IF than it might be, there being entirely too many puzzles that consist of fighting with the parser, trying to find out things that your PC should know already, puzzling over the geography of a region that would be instantly comprehensible if you were actually present in it instead of reading about it, and so on.
In Anchorhead, by contrast, the player is forced to wander around the town enough to acquaint herself with its layout; introduced to several points at which research may be done (either by reading books, going through files, or talking to NPCs); and then given a few key pieces of information. Follow the strand, and it suggests a new thing to investigate. In genre, this may be horror, but in gameplay, at least until the midpoint of the game, it is a mystery, and a very well engineered one at that. The mystery is, at least potentially, one of the most natural structures for an IF narrative to take, but there are many ways for it to fall down: the investigation can require too many arbitrary moments of being at the right place at the right time (a la Deadline); it can take place over too large and confusing a map (which was my problem with Dangerous Curves, and probably the reason I didn't finish it); it can be too heavy-handed, or lock the clues away behind too bizarre a set of set-up events. Anchorhead manages a very successful middle course almost all of the time. Once or twice I felt that something was unfairly obscured (mostly because I had to repeat an action that had seemed too unsuccessful to follow up on). But that was the worst of it.
During the later stages of the game, the urgency of events picks up, and this leisurely exploration gives way to a more difficult and dangerous set of actions. At that point, I found that I did have to turn to a walkthrough for guidance, because there were a number of points where it was easy to die, some guess-the-verb moments, and a handful of situations where I did not realize going in that I was likely to be unable to come back and retrieve necessary possessions from where I'd left them. Even with reference to the walkthroughs, I had to do a lot of replaying after the midpoint or so of the game. Fortunately, the elegant design of the early part of the game meant that by this point I had a great deal invested in my character and in some of the NPCs, and that I had been forced to get a pretty good overview of the layout of the whole town. Without the former I might not have had the patience for timed puzzles; without the latter, I might not have been able to carry them off. As it was, I had a few, but not intolerably many, missteps, and I was mostly impatient because of my eagerness to find out what happened next in this increasingly dire situation.
Another reason for my considerable investment in the game is the careful and effective handling of the NPCs, especially the PC's husband, Michael. He has relatively few moves' worth of interaction with the NPC, but Gentry gets the most out of all of them. At first introduction, Michael is presented as quite endearing: attractive in a quietly bookish way, slightly embarrassed about some mistakes he's made, affectionate to the protagonist. His remarks and demeanor go a long way towards establishing a relationship between himself and the PC. The subsequent evolution of his behavior, in the light of the plot events, is also well-handled, with effectively chosen details. Gentry spends a fair amount of effort on keeping the PC and Michael apart, and this forceable division, perhaps paradoxically, has the effect of intensifying things between them. We aren't around Michael long enough to spot many of the telltale signs of cardboard NPC implementation; he's given so little time in our presence that almost every turn seems eventful. It's rare that I've felt a similar degree of concern for an IF NPC.
In my opinion, the strongest sources of tension -- and thus engagement -- with an NPC are a) fear that the NPC is about to hurt you, and b) the hope of some romantic or sexual outcome. With an NPC who is your husband and only ally in a strange place, and yet acting increasingly odd, both these tensions emerge. I found myself trying during the first evening and following morning to elicit some kind of affectionate or protective behavior from Michael, since I was identifying enough with my PC to be unnerved by my surroundings and eager for a little reassurance. Sadly, he didn't have much to offer -- but I still identified quite strongly with the relationship. When, much later in the game, I was driven by desperation to attack him physically, I found the outcome very disturbing and sad. All the groundwork for this is carefully laid by a few well-chosen descriptions and behaviors in the early stages of the game, but what a large difference it makes.
I had a few quibbles. I think I would have preferred a trifle less emphasis on timed puzzles in the later part of the game -- though I can quite see how the timing added to the feeling of urgency in those stages where the plot was at its most perilous; even the repeated deaths I suffered added something to the experience. Whereas some horror movies kill off dozens of unimportant side characters in order to emphasize the peril the main character is in, Anchorhead provides dozens of alternate deaths for the main character to experience and then avoid on the next playthrough. Still, the timing was tricky enough that I used the walkthrough a good deal in this section. Likewise, there were times when I felt a little bewildered by the size of the map (mainly at the beginning), or when I came up with a phrasing for something that should have been covered, and wasn't. On the whole, though, these drawbacks were few and far between. This is a powerful game with much to commend it, well worth study for aspiring IF designers.