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Anchorhead - Contains Spoilers

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Postby revgiblet » Sat Jan 12, 2008 9:26 am

Anchorhead by Michael S Gentry

Apparently Lovecraft has his own genre now. In the video game world he's inspired everything from First Person Shooters to IF. It's only a matter of time before we get "The Sims: Call of Cthulhu" where your goal is to stop your Sim being dragged into a horrific nightmare universe by a creature with tentacles where its eyes should be. Ho hum, enough of this - this is supposed to be a review of Michael S Gentry's Anchorhead.

Anchorhead is a self-confessed attempt at 'Lovecraftian' IF and it's probably one of the finest attempts at capturing the atmosphere of the genre. I must confess that my knowledge of Lovecraft is limited to having read only one of his short stories and playing the aforementioned FPS's and IF, but Anchorhead seems to just ooze that Gothic cosmic horror that Lovecraft spent far too much of his time writing about. The player takes the role of the wife of Michael, a man who has recently inherited an old family mansion and got himself a new teaching job at the university in the town of Anchorhead. What starts as a simple quest to try and get your hands on the keys to your new home slowly gives way to revelation after revelation informing you that something is seriously rotten in the town of Anchorhead and your husband is becoming dangerously involved. So far, so IF. What makes Anchorhead different is that it's been classed as a classic since its release ten years ago. In fact, it was reading review after praise-gushing review that inspired me to play it rather than some other random game from the last ten years.

Having played the game I am forced to conclude that Anchorhead is a victim of its own hype. The reviews led me to expect the (almost) perfect IF game, and in this respect Anchorhead failed to meet my expectations. It is very good, but not perfect. In fact, Anchorhead contains some gameplay elements that lead me to scratch my head in wonderment that they weren't mentioned by a single other review that I read. All I can conclude is that standards were a little different ten years ago. You'll find plenty of frustration in Anchorhead if you have an aversion to mazes, guess-the-verb puzzles, deliberately misleading descriptions, instant deaths, lack of guidance and being required to recall two words that you were given in a half-page-screen dump seventy moves ago. Let me share some of my more vexing experiences.

At times the game requires you to use a very specific verb when equal commands will not do. One case in point was trying to get rid of the spiderweb with the broom. Another far more frustrating happening were the two occasions when you had to 'search' an item. Examining it wasn't enough. Neither was looking in, behind, above or below or opening it. You had to 'search' it. In one of those cases interacting with the item in hand outright led you to believe that it was merely an item of scenery. Imagine my horror when I got stuck and resorted to the walkthrough to find that the object that the game had told me to ignore had to be 'searched' before I could progress. Lovecraftian horror indeed.

Oh yes, I resorted to the walkthrough. I'm just a casual IF-player and Anchorhead is a challenge. Heck, it's actually harder than a diamond-encrusted Jet Li. And that's before you take into account the instant deaths and ability to put the game into an unwinnable state. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, merely a design decision that you'll appreciate or not.

In fact, I couldn't complete the game even using the walkthrough. Anchorhead is an event-driven game. You move to the next part of the story by triggering certain events through your actions. What makes Anchorhead different from most IF games is that the events don't always relate to each other. None of your "Can't ask the man about house prices until you've visited the estate agent" relationships here. In Anchorhead it's more of a "Can't ask the man about house prices until you've painted your bicycle" relationship. It's not always clear what you are supposed to be doing next, and what exact event will trigger the next story revelation. This was my downfall. According to the walkthrough my next action was supposed to be finding a handbag in my luggage. Nothing I did would reveal the missing handbag. Messing around with the luggage had previously revealed nothing so I had to assume that my recent actions had now triggered the appearance of the handbag, but despite having followed the instructions of the walkthrough I just could not find the handbag. Not even 'searching' did the trick this time. Having said all this, I appreciated the times when the game did make a conscious effort at maintaining internal consistency. There are plenty of locked doors in this game, all needing specific keys. In most cases the keys are found in very logical places. In the context of the story it even makes perfect sense for a drunken tramp to have the key to a room in your attic.

Anchorhead makes a confused attempt at inventory realism. You can only carry two items (one in each hand) unless you are wearing your raincoat. With your Tardis-esque garment on you can carry books, brooms and lamps around the town at no inconvenience to you or the inhabitants of the town. And you get an inventory limit too. It's little things like this that get your game savaged in the IF world these days.

Furthermore, I found the whole end-of-day routine wearying too. I got fed-up of having to get undressed, have a bath, get into bed, get out of bed, get dressed again, go downstairs and lock the front door, go back upstairs, get undressed and get into bed again. Maybe I'm comfortable enough with myself to walk around my own house naked? Maybe, what with my husband's descent into madness and everything, I've got enough on my mind without worrying about whether or not I've locked the back door?

Anyway, I've savaged this game a fair amount and, despite being able to continue, I'll stop there. My attitude merely reflects the fact that I was led to believe that the game was something that it wasn't. The fact remains that this is still excellent IF. It's almost magical in places, to the extent that despite me not being able to finish the game even using the walkthrough I seriously considered playing through it again to try and get it to work. It wasn't because I needed to see how the story panned out - I had the walkthrough right in front of me with all the succulent plot-secrets spilling out onto my lap right there. No, it was something else. Anchorhead had me.

I can say that, without a doubt, Anchorhead is one of the finest examples of 'how to write IF' that I have ever played. The writing is excellent and the wonderful amount of background detail and history that Michael put into the game makes it a tour-de-force in this respect. I would recommend that any prospective IF author download and play this game just to get an idea of how a world should be created. Although there are annoyances in there, they all reflect the decisions made by the author rather than the game just being badly programmed.

I recommended you play this - but don't make my mistake and expect something other than a very good game that was written during a simpler time. You'll be disappointed if you do. Play it without my hang-ups and you'll have a great time.
"He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies."

Tertullian

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Postby ralphmerridew » Sat Jan 12, 2008 6:31 pm

There's been more than one release of Anchorhead, and I remember problems where somebody ran into trouble by using an early version's walkthrough with a later version.
Bloodhounds can make you laugh and cuss in the same breath. They are endearing, faithful, and can sling drool ten feet in any direction. -- Virginia Lanier
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Postby revgiblet » Sat Jan 12, 2008 8:48 pm

That'll probably be it then.
"He who lives only to benefit himself confers on the world a benefit when he dies."

Tertullian

In Progress:- Watch This Space...
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