Posted 27 October 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
Anchorhead by Michael S. Gentry
Review by Gregory W. Kulczycki
17 September 1999
I woke up this morning to the faint smell of something burning.
There was a steady drizzle outside, and the wind was causing my cheap, slatted blinds to knock, at irregular intervals, against the window pane. The temperature had dropped overnight into the low 40's, and after such a hot, dry summer, today was the first day that it really felt like autumn. Not the lush, colorful autumn that you see in New England postcards, but the grey, dismal, foreboding autumn that comes on the wake of something harsh, or terrible. In my half-wakened state I first wondered if the building were burning. Should I >take disk drive and >exit house, saving my most valuable information? Perhaps I could >wake and find nothing wrong. No, this was real. Something was burning, but what? Trees, plastic, tires, or perhaps... flesh?
As it turned out, it was simply my heater kicking on for the first time in months because of the drop in temperature, and all I had to do was >turn down thermostat. By the time I was fully awake, I wondered whether it had been wise to stay up so late the previous night playing Anchorhead, the interactive horror story by Michael S. Gentry. The game was the most intelligent, polished and captivating piece of interactive fiction I have played to date.
Playing Anchorhead was like reading a good book - I was pulled into a world that I kept wanting to learn more about. The sense of place was incredible. Excellent writing made the descriptions a joy to read, and intelligent design gave them plausibility and depth. The changing weather is wonderful - the fact that you can look at the sky, and taste the rain, and get a sense of the atmosphere from the descriptions that follow.
And that umbrella! - that clever little object gets my award for best accessory. You automatically close it when you go inside and open it when you come out (only when it's raining, of course). If it's open, it can blow away in a strong wind, and if you close it for too long while it's raining, you will soon be soak and wet, a fact that you will be informed of when it happens and reminded of when you examine yourself. The umbrella in Anchorhead is a perfect example how an intelligent object should be implemented. It is also an excellent example of how an object that is not needed to solve puzzles can be so important to the setting of the game.
The puzzles were fair and the clues were given out in reasonable ways. I played the latest version of Anchorhead, so I suspect that this may be partially due to the fact that Michael is very responsive to feedback. Often by examining or searching something in the vicinity of a puzzle, you can get hints for how to solve it. For example, looking under a certain bed reveals scratches. Instead of having to guess what the scratches mean, you simply examine the scratches and are informed that the bed has been pulled out and pushed back many times. Clues like these encourage the player to examine objects in detail, which in turn builds a richer environment for the player. Sometimes you are just handed the answer. After looking up many records in the courthouse, the game eventually informed me that I discovered a pattern, and proceeded to tell me what that pattern was. Hard core puzzle solvers will think this too easy - I like it.
The last chapter was the only one I found a bit difficult. The puzzles were not that much harder, but it became so easy to die that restoring saved games was beginning to distract me from the natural flow of the story. The best authors in the field of interactive fiction are often innovators - stretching the medium in new directions. With Anchorhead, Michael Gentry decided to take the best of what was already there and work on polishing and perfecting it. This attention to detail is refreshing. Examine any noun in room descriptions and you will always get a sensible reply. Attempt to solve a puzzle in a sensible way and you will likely solve it or get a hint about the correct way to do so. Anchorhead is proof that good solid writing and good solid design make for a great interactive journey.
This article copyright © 2000, Gregory W. Kulczycki