13 August 2023


I’ve just finished playing through the 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition of Michael Gentry’s classic text adventure Anchorhead, the first version of which was published in 1998.

It’s very immersive and atmospheric—in fact it returned to me the sort of lucidly immersive reading experience I thought I might never be able to access again. The writing is evocative, the pacing is superb, and despite a few fusty implementation quirks, the experience of wandering through this dismal, drizzly New England town and uncovering its secrets is deeply satisfying and studded with dark delights, a handful of which I’d like to share.

Spoilers ahead.

⸬ The whole slow build-up across the first two days is beautifully done. You can walk around the town at your leisure, gaining familiarity with its layout and gathering clues (and red herrings) before real danger asserts itself.

⸬ Another lovely thing about this languid preamble is how it establishes an emotional connection with the PC. Your stay in Anchorhead starts on a note of peevish, dully anxious melancholy. Great, the real estate agent isn’t even here. Ew, this beach is littered with trash. The locals don’t seem too friendly… And then you’re clearing cobwebs in the basement of a creepy mansion, crawling through sewer drains, and worse—like a succession of bigger pills your character has to resign herself to swallowing.

⸬ The un-interactable fly buzzing around in the real estate office.

⸬ Taking Michael’s faculty card from his wallet while he’s showering, but putting the wallet back in his pants pocket.

⸬ The twisting lane that deposits you at a random location.

⸬ Reading! Newspapers, diaries, bulletins, scholarly tracts, arcane grimoires, hastily scrawled warnings. Why not?

⸬ Death by spiderbite: if you reach for the key in the basement storage room before clearing the spiderweb (either with the broom or burning it with a match), the spider “bites you!” (really good use of an exclamation point there). A few turns later, you feel woozy. A few turns after that, you collapse and die. The description of losing your faculties and your last thought being that the phone is out genuinely creeped me out. At least as entertaining as ragdolling.

⸬ Raiding the family crypt for a dog skull to present to a raving wino.

⸬ A nagging thought keeps you awake if you try to sleep without locking the front door.

⸬ Cryptic clues in dreams (though without a way to recall or record dreams, this was also a bit frustrating).

⸬ Non-Euclidean peephole peeping.

⸬ Jumping off the bridge to escape the cultists after they pull down the hood of your ceremonial robe.

⸬ Telling a distraught mother the grisly fate of her son (to get oar hanging on wall lol).

⸬ Itchy nose + straightjacket + darkness + light-casting lightning + gibbering drooling madman.

⸬ Hiding under a pile of children’s bones at the bottom of a well. Great example of the morbid mode of thinking Anchorhead rewards. What do I have to do? Hmm, hmm. Oh… Oh I know what I have to do. Ew.

⸬ Another fun example: looking into the hole in the sky with the telescope—learning the true name of the evil deity heading to Earth by gazing directly into its “awful countenance.”

⸬ Ghost train, baby. Waiting until I heard the whistle, then returning to the tracks and finding the crystal with a hairline fracture. So sweet. Sure, the legend of the ghost train can be read about somewhere or other, but there’s also the occasional report of the plaintive, seemingly sourceless train whistle that for the whole game I’d figured was just part of the atmosphere.

A lovely, diligently planned web of clues that pulls the player forward with morbid curiosity and the desire to save their dweebish husband: the sort of sturdy and burnished apotheosis of classical adventure gaming—poised almost exactly between narrative legato and puzzlefest staccato—I wasn’t sure actually existed, but I’m glad it does. Despite the notes of fish oil, necrosis and ozone, it’s surprisingly fresh.