by Michael Gentry
Ranking a game above Photopia was no easy choice, I assure you, and I made this decision with a lot of thought and consideration. As I played my way through Michael Gentry's epic Anchorhead, I began to feel more and more like I was playing something with a legitimate claim to the top spot. The acid test, I decided, would be the ending; if I felt the conclusion was ultimately satisfying, I would rank it #1.
Not only is the conclusion satisfying, it is horrifying and disturbing...and absolutely brilliant. It made every single minute I spent on this amazing journey worth it.
Anchorhead is a horror game, making no apology for paying homage to the best of H.P. Lovecraft's work. Gentry brilliantly casts the main character as a female, and takes full advantage of the new emotional dimension offered by this choice. The story takes place in a small university town, and horrifically unfolds to a masterful epic involving a gruesomely murderous monster, and a purely evil force gathering strength before your eyes, with you as the only one able to save the world. It sounds over the top; somehow it never feels that way at any point.
Gentry simply did everything right with this game. He is a brilliant writer, a masterful plotter, and an exceptional programmer (bad coding has ruined many a text adventure). The scope of this game is mind-boggling; I have been dabbling in Inform programming recently and I am awestruck at the sheer magnitude of the code in this game. Unsurprisingly, Gentry states he spent more than six hours a day on the game until it was finished. There is probably more text in this game than the other four games in this top five combined.
The game is flat-out scary, an amazing feat for any game, but even moreso considering we're talking about a black and white text adventure! It is best played in a dark room, when you are able to devote your full attention to what is on the screen, and allow your imagination to run wild with the images confronting you. Anchorhead is also very much a game for mature audiences; it is full of strong language, gore, references to incest, and just generally disturbing events. Those who are mature enough to handle it will undoubtedly appreciate the breadth of the storytelling taking place.
I guess the most flattering thing I can say about Anchorhead is this: I played between eighty and a hundred games in preparation for this article. Anchorhead is the only one that I felt like I should have paid for. It does not feel like an amateur community game; it feels like something commercial. I spent more time playing this game than I did on Full Throttle and Last Express combined, and not because the puzzles were unsolvable. It is just simply that expansive, and challenging without ever becoming frustrating.
The game certainly would have been unsuccessful as a competition game (all comp games must be solvable in under two hours; Anchorhead requires at least twice that). I believe it would have swept the XYZZY's in any other year; unfortunately, up against Photopia and Spider and Web, as well as Gentry's own remarkably offbeat Little Blue Men, Anchorhead could only manage a win for Best Setting and five other nominations.
Still, in my book this game is the ultimate work of interactive fiction, overflowing with intrigue and compelling story elements, scary and engrossing, exceptionally written and impressively coded with a remarkable eye for detail. Michael Gentry has not released an IF game since 1998; one can only hope that he will make a return to the community sooner rather than later and remind us again of the glory days of epic text adventures that Anchorhead so vividly recalls.
Not a doubt or conflict in my mind; this masterpiece is the pinnacle of all the IF community has offered in the last eight years. Play it through to the end, and I promise you'll agree.
Next: Five honorable mentions.Continued on the next page...