There's a certain skill to writing horror fiction: the author has to know how to build suspense in such a way that the story is interesting throughout. The challenge is doubled for IF, since the author cannot control the pacing in the same way as a static fiction writer can -- and the puzzles need to be forgiving enough that the player doesn't bog down in a particularly difficult one and lose the rhythm of the story. Michael Gentry's Anchorhead is very good horror IF; the author has a nice feel for the challenges posed by the genre, and the game is consistently both scary and playable, no small feat.
Among the challenges is, of course, making the game feel fresh. Lovecraftian horror is a fairly well-explored IF genre -- between Infocom's Lurking Horror, Brendan Wyber's Theatre, Dennis Matheson's Awakening, and Anchorhead, Lovecraft seems to have quite a few imitators. (Most or all of whom, incidentally, write better than he did.) The trodden nature of this particular ground means that the seasoned IF veteran needs more than unnameable horrors and unspeakable rituals to stay interested in a game that borrows from Lovecraft. But Anchorhead is up to the job: the story is more than good enough to overcome the familiarity of the horror devices. Part of the reason is that the story revolves around the relationship between the PC and her husband, which comes alive as much as any relationship between two IF characters in memory -- and much of the progress of the story is marked by changes in that relationship.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The story is that your husband has inherited a family home in the New England town of Anchorhead, and picked up a full professorship at the local university, so you and he are moving in. You don't know much about his family -- in fact, when the story begins, you don't even know the family name (of this branch, at least) -- and much of the first half of the game is spent wandering around gleaning details. It's to the game's credit that you do have to glean the details -- as in, progress is cut off until you've actually found certain bits of information and made use of them in certain obvious ways. Knowledge from prior games, in other words, isn't enough. This makes particular sense given the genre: a Lovecraft fan might well skip straight to the conclusion and cut out the information-gathering, which would throw off the pacing of the story's buildup (and make later events rather confusing for someone who hadn't bothered to collect the evidence). And for those of us who don't know intuitively where the story is heading, the various details heighten the creepiness factor considerably. To be sure, there are improbabilities and coincidences, but such things are inherent in the Lovecraftian universe -- and given the assumptions of the genre, nothing in Anchorhead strains disbelief unnecessarily.
The game is divided into three days, but time passes only when certain puzzles are solved; you are only on the clock at a few select times (and, even then, the timing isn't all that tight). The pacing is therefore fairly leisurely for the bulk of the game, which takes away the scare factor inherent in time limits. In light of that, the author has to ensure that the story does, in fact, move along when the threat of imminent death isn't forcing it to move along -- and he succeeds, mostly; few of the puzzles should detain the player long enough that she forgets what had been going on in the story before she started on the puzzle. From the author's notes, this appears to be a conscious choice, and it's a wise one; repeating the same scene dozens of times doesn't serve any sort of story well, but it's particularly damaging for horror, since there's little shock value in a gruesome death when you're reading it for the twentieth time. As it is, there are only a few scenes where the player is likely to have to replay several times, and the more recent releases have streamlined those as well -- particularly one involving a certain asylum. (Anchorhead is much better in this respect than Lurking Horror, which had some very difficult puzzles and several ostensibly scary sequences that most players probably end up playing through multiple times.)
Anchorhead is a _very_ large game -- not so much in the amount of area covered, but in the length and complexity of the story, the amount of items you encounter and use in one way or another, and the potential different paths through the game. Very few of the game's items are artificially cut off from each other to save the bother of coding their interaction, moreover, meaning that the combinatorial explosion factor must have been considerable. In light of that, the technical aspect of Anchorhead is impressive indeed (there's a reason why this was the first Inform data file to exceed half a meg in its compiled form). There were some bugs from the first few releases, but they've largely been cleaned up. One of the nicest things about Anchorhead, moreover, is its player-friendly nature: you have a rucksack-like trenchcoat that can carry just about everything in the game, but the game does all the item-juggling for you when you try to pick up something you don't have room for in your hands. Better still, the umpteen locked doors and keys to those doors that you encounter along the way are handled automatically, through a keyring: type UNLOCK DOOR before one of the locked doors, and the game will automatically flip through the keyring and try all the keys. Without this innovation, trying to keep track of which key opens which door would be a puzzle in itself; with it, the player is free to pass through the doors without giving them a second thought. A game as complex as Anchorhead is clearly the product of considerable attention to detail.
The best thing about Anchorhead, however, is the writing, which is itself the product of some very careful choices. Horror writing can easily lose its force over the course of a story; the author has to strain to come up with fresh grotesqueries that shock or terrify in new and different ways. There's no formula for avoiding repetition in such writing, but somehow Anchorhead manages -- to the end, I never had a sense of deja vu when reading about my latest gory death. The author also exercises enough restraint to avoid slipping into self-parody, another pitfall of horror writing -- every sight and smell is not, in fact, pronounced the most horrible sight you've ever witnessed or the foulest stench you've ever smelled. Vital on this point is that the author avoids injecting the PC's emotions into the story almost completely; when you're not told that you're terrified out of your wits at every moment (and can infer such things when you care to), the story avoids excessive repetition. Nor, in fact, are you told, with a few exceptions, how you react to your various experiences -- no "you scream in terror" or "you gasp in horror" or equivalents. The emotional reactions are left to the player.
Those are some of the things Anchorhead doesn't do that win it points in my book, but the things it does do are just as good. This game won the 1998 XYZZY for Best Setting, and the award is well-deserved: the atmosphere is skillful, particularly in the early scenes: the author conveys a feeling of general gloom and decay without crossing the line into horror prematurely, and without laying on the foreboding and unease stuff too thickly. This is one of the better passages:
"Pallid gray light trickles in through the drawn blinds. The office is deserted, papers still scattered across the top of the desk. The front door lies west, and the file room lies east."
"Sitting on the corner of the paper-strewn desk are a telephone and an answering machine."
"Someone seems to have left a cup of coffee sitting out, half-finished and cold."
With just a few details -- the "pallid gray light", the unfinished cup of coffee -- the author sets a subtly disturbing scene; not everything gets a description filled with ominous portents (there is nothing to suggest that the desk was abandoned in haste or any such thing, which might tempt a lesser writer). It is inevitable, given the nature of the materials, that things get a bit over the top now and again, but that's the exception rather than the rule here.
Are there flaws in Anchorhead? Yes, but they don't detract much from the story -- and recent releases have cleaned them up. There's a sequence toward the end of the third day with no time limit (after a chase of sorts had already happened) in which the player doesn't really have much direction in figuring out what to do next, and it's possible to wander around aimlessly for quite a while, trying to figure how where to go, and lose the feel of the story. Some points are awarded for nonessential things, which might leave the player wondering what she's missed when she completes the game with less than a perfect score. The one puzzle that struck me as potentially frustrating involved an NPC who would give the PC an object, given the proper prompting -- but it's not necessarily obvious how to prompt him, and it's easy to get on the wrong track.
Still, these problems are insignificant given the scope of the game, and most things about Anchorhead work more than well enough to keep the player involved throughout. It's an impressively coded, impeccably written work, one of the best in recent memory.
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