Author: Michael Gentry
Development System: Inform
Cruelty Rating: Cruel
Length of Play: 5-10 hours
Awards: Best Setting — 1998 XYZZY Awards
My introduction to H.P. Lovecraft, and frankly, well-written horror, Anchorhead remains one of my favorite games ever made twenty years later. While the free version stands on its own, the 20th anniversary edition is well worth the ten dollar price tag on Steam if you liked the original or are a fan of thriller/horror games.
You play the role of apprehensive wife who has uprooted her life after her husband inherited a spooky house in a spooky New England town. Naturally, as you explore the house and the town, you begin to unravel horrors better left uncovered; except your husband’s life is at stake and so the motivation to press on remains ever present. Gentry does a superb job of encouraging the player to go at their own pace as key events have to be triggered by solving key puzzles. This allows his masterful atmospheric writing to draw the player into his world. I have played this a few times now, and each time I have felt on the edge of my seat despite knowing what’s coming. Even reading through old newspaper clippings or library books intensifies the mood here. The writing is that good.
In fact, there is a sequence about halfway through the game when things start to get real (starting with the well) that was sort of a coming of age moment for me in interactive fiction. It remains one of my favorite areas of any video game, graphic or otherwise.
My only real criticism of Anchorhead is the puzzles. In the 20th Anniversary Edition, Gentry cleaned up several puzzles that were done hastily. The wine cellar puzzle is infinitely more interesting now, and your acquisition of keys seems to be more organic. But there are still too many puzzles that seem to present only for puzzles’ sake, and some that practically require you to die in order to learn what you need to do. The game is also cruel at times, allowing you to progress in an unwinnable state because you didn’t find an out-of-the-way object you didn’t even know you were supposed to look for. Thankfully, the nature of a horror game means you’ll be saving often, and even the worst walking dead situation doesn’t require to restore back too far. Still, when atmosphere is king, these types of issues can pull the player out of the game. I admit I used a walkthrough near the end of the game, not because the puzzles were too hard, but rather because I was too engrossed in the story to want to solve them.
It would be hard to introduce someone to the world of interactive fiction without recommending Anchorhead. While it’s not easy, the game’s parser and design are so user-friendly (thank you trench coat and key-ring!) that it rarely becomes frustrating to play. As of this writing Anchorhead is considered the 2nd highest rated text adventure of all-time, and most of those ratings came before the new edition which enhances the playing experience while also adding some appropriately horrifying graphics.