Novel Ties: let a rictus be your umbrella for Anchorhead

Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games. This week, Caroline follows up Reuben’s dive into HP Lovercraft’s influence on video games with a look at Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead.

The late ‘90s can feel like they happened on another planet. Revisiting the first season of The West Wing or Gilmore Girls is a bad time capsule to a seeming white-people utopia whose occupants can’t even fathom the way life will begin to turn for them in 2001. Michael Gentry’s famous H.P. Lovecraft-inspired interactive fiction Anchorhead came out in 1998, a year when even Carrie Bradshaw was still wearing ‘90s brown lipstick.

His choice of settings doesn’t seem motivated by anything other than simple interest in Lovecraft’s universe as a rich setting for a game filled with horror and dread. Lowkey dreadful puzzle games like Myst were still selling like gangbusters, and IF has always excelled at stoking fear of what players can’t see or aren’t told about. It’s like Chekhov’s gun were replaced by a gaping maw filled with everything you’ve never noticed.

But twenty years on, it’s hard not to place one of the most famous IF games, period, and one of the best adaptations of Lovecraft’s ideas, into a more political context. I don’t only mean because of Lovecraft’s extreme xenophobia and earned terrible reputation for everything, but the most elemental parts of his storytelling. Nintendo promises 20 to 30 indie games a week in the Switch store, and one of 2018’s best reviewed games, Florence, is a mobile game where you help two people fall in love.

The dangers of daily life in the outside world, or the inside world of your Facebook page, has driven many players into calmer, self-paced genres like visual novels and other games with more looking and talking than fighting. And even story-driven platformers like Celeste, held up as “not typically my thing, but” by a lot of its fans, show how much people will show up for games that hold their interest with strong narratives.

Gentry said in an interview in 2001 that he didn’t believe there could be a text adventure market. In a past column, we shared Emily Short’s similar opinion about interactive fiction as a hobby for its creators. But Short has had commercial success writing sections of strongly texty games like Sunless Sea, and the folks at inkle have turned branching-story text adventures into a hybrid genre of their own. And in 2018, Gentry released an updated, illustrated version of Anchorhead for sale.

The original IF is an evocative, challenging puzzle game, like Short’s Counterfeit Monkey told by The 7th Guest’s Henry Stauf. There’s a gloomy family with a tenuous link to our hero and his wife, a mysterious inheritance, and a hereditary history of violence. On top of these hallmarks of Shirley Jackson’s brand of New England horror, Gentry liberally sprinkles in Lovecraftian monsters and locations like Arkham and the Miskatonic. It’s a pleasing, effective mix.

As if the pitfalls of secretive rich families and male-only inheritance aren’t clear enough in 2018, you play Anchorhead from the perspective of the male heir’s wife. Instead of the bewildering dreaminess lived by the main characters of Gilmore Girls, our heroine is thrown alone into a literally puzzling mystery. We never even learn her name as gore and bodies pile up around her. In the same 2001 interview, Gentry is asked what authors he likes, besides Lovecraft. He says he hates mainstream genre fiction and only likes those who are weird and original, before rattling off six of the 20th century’s more well known male authors.

But Gentry was just 28 when he gave this interview and 25 when he released the game, making him the same age as China Mieville, whose first novel also came out in 1998. Mieville speaks deprecatingly and even shyly about that time in his life. Gentry isn’t a public figure, but his 2018 rerelease has more than just fresh illustrations: he’s updated the prose and puzzles and added new content.

You can play the original, text-only Anchorhead online for free and buy the illustrated Anchorhead on Steam.

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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
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