When it rains, it pours.
A video game review of Anchorhead (1998)
I am about to review Anchorhead, a free text-based adventure game from 1998 created by Michael S. Gentry. I have chosen this game for two reasons in particular. Firstly, text-based adventure games (also known as interactive fiction) were already long gone as early as 1989 so playing and experiencing a ‘late bloomer’ in this genre could hopefully lead to discoveringsome interesting ‘new’ developments in the genre for that time. Secondly, in today’s frantic race for realism and the best graphics, I wanted to see how and if games of this calibre could still grab a player and immerse them, even if it was in a world in which you yourself could only imagine your surroundings and where little to no outside help of what to do is given to the player. Now, after having played Anchorhead and finished it, I am going to review it from my own experiences and interpretations of the gaming world. There were many moments in the game where I was pleasantly surprised (or rather horrified) of the impact the game had and I want to share these experiences in my review. My goal is to take the reader into the rainy town of Anchorhead and give at least a taste of how it is to experience Anchorhead. I will, however, also comment on actual game design and story cues where necessary.
Welcome to Anchorhead
“I was far from home, and the spell of the Eastern sea was upon me” with these words by H.P. Lovecraft we are send to the outskirts of a real estate office, after having read an introduction explaining that our husband inherited a big mansion on the outskirts of a small fishing community called Anchorhead in Maine. With only a feint hint of our current goal, we are being thrown into the town and are able to navigate by reading the text complimentary to the current area, figuring out where we can go and typing commands in the textbox like; north, southwest, east etc. The game is reluctant to hold your hand even here. On more than one occasion I found myself trapped. Forinstance on a wharf, plagued by salty sea water and heavy winds, nothing indicating directions. The player is expected to scroll up to see which direction took him to the current area, and reversing it to go back, a nifty game design choice that, albeit simple exploration, already makes the players puzzle instinct prepare itself for later trouble. When exploring the grey eerie town there were a few things that caught my eye. For a text-only game, the world feels very much alive, for example; when exploring your mansion you’ll find your husband, Michael, wandering around the house at random intervals. It is never clear where he is exactly and this collaborates well with a person hectically unpacking all his things after a big move. Every person has an agenda in Anchorhead, which makes the game feel far less stale than an actual book, in which everything is predetermined, no matter how many times you read it. Even the smallest things as the sudden drizzle of rain or the passing of a train happens randomly, making the world feel very vibrant, something new and uncommon in text-based games. Furthermore, the diverse locations like an abandoned paper mill or delapitated lighthouse are really ‘brought to life’ by the excellent narration provided.
Something wicked this way comes
Yet all is not well in Anchorhead. As you’ll soon find out, your real estate agent is missing and you see it as your personal duty to find out what happened. This is where the game really starts to shine. As the player only has a text prompt, he/she is expected to investigate everything on their own, which will lead to tricky detective-style thinking and text entering. Though whenever the player succeeds in their investigations and uncovers more details to the plot; it will lead to a great sense of accomplishment. A good example of this is when I had to inspect my wedding-ring for a date, which was of importance later. We uncover disturbing occult secrets concerning our husband’s family branch, the Verlacs, while he himself is growing more and more temperamental and violent. Talking to the few trustworthy people around the town, it appears that our husband’s old relative has constructed a vast plot of ancient destruction and it’s up to us to stop it. From this moment on, the game’s pace becomes more hectic. Rather than casually exploring the town by navigating, every command you enter will feel like a ‘turn’. Everything you do and every step you take can lead towards disaster, this is especially true for the last chapter of the game. Which must be finished in a set number of commands before the Verlac scheme is completed and the player loses. This can be especially harrowing considering the twisted navigation and the sometimes downright sadistically hard puzzles in the game. Surprisingly, for a game with no graphics or sound effects, these latter parts are absolutely nerve wrecking, especially when you are being chased. Looking at my personal saves I quickly deserted the “At kitchen” “Mansion” formula and found myself writing down things like; “There is something in the sea”, “The thing is behind me” and “Terrified”. The game really got to me by this point and once again, passing these harrowing sections after countless tries really gives a great sense of player accomplishment.
In the aftermath
In conclusion, Anchorhead is a one of a kind experience. It reads like a book but plays like a true adventure/mystery game mixed with Lovecraftian horror. A great accomplishment in itself is that as a text-based game it immerses the player tremendously. The game never holdsyour hand, is relentless in its difficulty yet will make you feeleuphoric when triumphing, something that our current generation of games can lack, despite their graphical wonders.