Good ol’ Anchorhead.
On a rainy day back in 2014, while I was scrolling through a generic Top 50 Horror Games list, I happened to stumble amongst a curious entry on the list: Anchorhead. The very first picture I saw was this intimidating bright blue screenshot of the famous title screen.
The popular blue screen that greets you when you open Anchorhead on Frotz
My first thought; Is this really a game? It had the ‘command prompt-style’ background and text style for god’s sake! Definitely not something a typical 15 year old guy would ever touch in his life. Most of us were probably playing some AAA PC title like ‘Call of Duty’, or a MOBA such as the ever so popular ‘League of Legends’!
With a tiny stoke of luck, I happened to be an avid reader at that time, and hearing about a story that I could control from every aspect really amazed me (To be fair, that’s what the Wiki told me after I had everything set up!). So I did what I would always do when I feel bored, I downloaded the game file and attempted to open it.
Sadly, it just gave me an ‘ERROR, CANNOT OPEN FILE’ window. Apparently, I needed a tiny program called an interpreter to run the game. A slight inconvenience of course, but it didn’t push me aside from going on. Technical difficulties aside, I downloaded Frotz, and opened the game. I landed in the exact blue screen as seen above!
So I did what any newcomer to IF would have done. I read the welcome text, input >hello, >what do I do, etc. On second thought, I didn’t even know you had to type anything. I expected that pressing spacebar would lead you into the next wall of text, just like a storybook.
Upon that, I turned off the game, without much care about learning to actually play it. Well, that was quick, not even 5 minutes of getting everything set up before I quit.
Alas, the curiosity I had to this niche genre of games, and the urge to desperately play a Lovecraft game, made me reopen the same game the next day. This time not on a desktop, but… On my Android phone. To my glee, I had discovered that there were interpreters available as app downloads on the Play Store! That very app that I’ve downloaded was Text Fiction.
Text Fiction, Android
And once again, we are back again to the welcome text of Anchorhead, only on a 5-inch display this time. The same problems I had last time began to plaque my playthrough again; I had no idea of what to do next. With my luck, there were built-in commands available on the app that guided me on what to do, such as look, go north, take, examine. And in that instant, I knew how to navigate my way around this text adventure.
Examine office, so I typed, signalling to the real-estate office that was right beside me.
The door has a glass front with the name of the real estate company — Benson & Brackhurst — stenciled across it. The blinds are drawn, the lights are off inside, and no one appears to be home. Odd, since the agent knew you were coming today.
Go southeast, I typed next, after examining the initial text.
This narrow aperture between two buildings is nearly blocked with piles of rotting cardboard boxes and overstuffed garbage cans. Ugly, half-crumbling brick walls to either side totter oppressively over you. The alley ends here at a tall, wooden fence.
High up on the wall of the northern building there is a narrow, transom-style window.
In the distance, you can hear the lonesome keening of a train whistle drifting on the wind.
Just looking at the detail and atmosphere of the text; the whistle of a train, far away reverberating all the way through the tiny town, lights up my imagination and amazed me. So, this was interactive fiction. Beautiful prose that one can navigate their way through, connecting with the environment and filling in the shoes of ANOTHER PERSON.
Anybody can say that the same feeling can be replicated by playing a role-playing game or a first person shooter perhaps? But the very thing that separates graphical games from text based ones is its very structure. Just like watching a movie adaptation of a storybook, the very fact that a movie SHOWS you how a character is supposed to look like in real life, which immediately destroys the visualisation that you’ve created from reading text-based descriptions.
Graphical games work the same way too. What you see in front of you, the very structure of the character that you’re playing, is exactly what you’ll get during your playthrough. There’s no room for imagination, no self construction of how you want YOUR character and the environment to look like. Interactive fiction allows all of that to happen, thus it’s enjoyable to play it. This only applies to players who have strong imagination though! People who can’t imagine how a piece of paper looks like by reading a description of it from somewhere should just stick to graphical games, where everything is spoon-fed to them through a very specific arrangement of computer pixels.
Half Life 1, an amazing FPS, but leaves no room for one’s imagination to visualise the environment
Going back to Anchorhead, I was stuck after that, with no idea of how to enter the office. (It didn’t occur to me that the dustbin could be pushed to the window and that I could stand on it to gain entry!) When one is faced with a dilemma that he can’t solve, that person… tends to resort to desperate measures. Sadly, I opened up IFDB, the Interactive Fiction Database, to find a complete walkthrough of Anchorhead.
It was my first IF game. I was terrible at solving puzzles and kept getting myself lost. So I… followed the walkthrough. Every single step of it. It is a horrible thing to do, just cheating your way through the game. But seeing that it was my first experience at it, I just went through the game to read up the story, and to enjoy the wonderful atmosphere that it created! Difficult puzzles that I would have problems solving were completed in no time, and before I know it, I reached the end of the game!
They say, it’s not about reaching the end of a story from the very start. It’s about the journey that one experiences from the beginning ’till the end. My start and end for Anchorhead was brief, but it did more than enough to my mindset to make me enjoy Interactive Fiction. After Anchorhead, I started playing more IF games, from Lost Pig to the very difficult Curses!. A year after, I started up IFography, which lasted for a short year half, but was a very enjoyable experience after all.
The distinct Lost Pig cover art
I haven’t touched IF from 2016 until recently, due to me discovering games such as League of Legends and Overwatch, both very enjoyable games. But I’m happy to say that after casually introducing IF to a few of my school-mates and seeing how interested they were in playing it, my attraction for IF flared up again! The reminiscing of the good ol’ days pushed me to write this article, which was a pleasant experience to put down on WordPress.
IF is as strong as ever for those who know it, with the very large presence of Twine for story creators, and the occasional interesting TADS or Glulx parser release during the yearly IFComp. But even with the thousands of games available online for play, Anchorhead will forever remain dear to me, being the very game that showed me that a world of text can be interesting, and that all you need is a good imagination to have fun.