Anchorhead is a Lovecraftian horror interactive fiction game, originally written and published by Michael S. Gentry in 1998. The game is heavily inspired by the works and writing style of H.P. Lovecraft, particularly the Cthulhu mythos.
Anchorhead takes place in a fictional New England town of the same name, where the unnamed protagonist and her husband, a professor and aspiring writer, have relocated to in order to take possession of his ancestral family home. Through historical investigation of the town and her husband's family, the protagonist uncovers a conspiracy to perform a ritual that will summon a Great Old One and put the planet in jeopardy. The protagonist must stop the ritual from occurring and save her husband. The game story takes place across three days, with the first two corresponding to whole days and the third day divided into a number of segments. There is no time limit in the first two days; each day ends when the player has completed a required task or tasks. Only during the third day does the game impose constraints on the number of turns a player can take to solve the necessary puzzles.
Anchorhead was hailed by critics and players as one of the best interactive fiction games available due to its complex and intricate backstory and well-written dialogue and descriptions. In the 1998 XYZZY Awards, Anchorhead received the award for Best Setting, and was also nominated for Best Game.
The game is played through the perspective of an unnamed woman whose husband, Michael, suddenly inherits a large mansion in Anchorhead, Maine, from family that he wasn't aware existed. The previous owner, Edward Verlac, killed his wife and daughter before taking his own life under mysterious circumstances. The game itself is split into 4 "days", each of which contains a set of puzzles that are required before the advancement of the next. From the first day, the town itself proves to be host of secrets and mysteries, starting with the sudden disappearance of the realtor, who was supposed to meet with the protagonist and give her the house keys. Due to this, the protagonist is forced to climb in via window to retrieve the keys, and notices that the office appears to have been hastily deserted. The denizens of the town prove unhelpful, most ignoring the protagonist entirely or warning her outright not to investigate anything that happens, lest mysterious consequences occur.
After gaining the house keys, the protagonist finds Michael in the library, completely consumed in a book on supernatural occurrences in the east coast, but he reacts sharply should the protagonist attempt to read it as well. He reveals that the car broke under strange circumstances, and has been towed to the next town over, along with their cell phones, and upon arriving at the house they discover that power and phone lines will not be added to the building for another week, rendering any contact with the outside world impossible.
On the second day Michael is busy with work on his computer, so the protagonist explores the house and town, and becomes further engrossed in the mysterious happenings. She discovers evidence that Edward Verlac wasn't the eldest child to his mother, Anna; in fact he had an older brother named William who was born monstrously deformed due to the incestual relationship with her father, a relationship of which Edward was also a product. While Mordecai Verlac (Edward's Father/Grandfather, and Anna's Father) insisted that William be killed and another child be conceived for use as a "Vessel", Anna and the Doctor who delivered William hide him in the attic and bury a weighted coffin. The protagonist discovers an animal skull in William's coffin in the crypt, and keeps it for evidence. Furthermore, the protagonist discovers a secret safe hidden behind a book in the library, which contains a puzzle box and a strange metal flute of unknown origin, as well as a set of hidden pathways in the house that lead to a secluded observatory on the upper floor, with a telescope that appears to follow an unknown celestial object. With all that she has learned, the protagonist sets out into the town, discovering that a series of child abductions from neighboring areas have been occurring for years, the most recent abduction being a young boy named Jeffrey. While in town she finds a secluded shop, named "the Cauldron", whose proprietor proves helpful and willing to unravel the secrets of the town. He opens the Puzzle box from the safe, revealing a strange black disc, and gifts her an amulet that supposedly repels evil spirits. On the way back to her home, the protagonist meets the doctor who delivered William and Edward Verlac, and bribes him with alcohol to disclose the secrets of the Verlac family, but before he can tell her everything he becomes paranoid and stops, demanding that she give him an amulet from the Magic Store.
Upon returning to the house, Michael is no-where to be found, but his computer reveals that he has been unable to sleep due to nocturnal encounters with a red-eyes apparition, who "[a]lways returns to his blood". The red-rimmed eyes he describes match those of Croesus Verlac, the family's founder, whose painting sits in the living room menacingly. Over the course of the nights the protagonist has similar dreams involving the red-rimmed eyes. Waking up on the third day, Michael has returned, his feet muddy, and is irritable and distant, before shambling into the depths of the house. Using various peepholes in the home, the protagonist sees Michael enter a secret passageway in the wine cellar. While attempting to leave the maze-like corridors in the house, the protagonist rediscovers the telescope, and upon putting the black disk in the viewing slot, glimpses a Great Old One named Ialdabaoloth, who takes the corporeal form of a multi-tentacled comet, heading towards Earth at alarming rate. Entering the Wine cellar and opening the secret passage, the protagonist crosses a seemingly bottomless gap before reaching a blank door, which opens itself when she mutters the name "Ialdabaoloth", leading the a tomb-like structure under the center of the town. She discovers that the flute obtained earlier, when played correctly, can be used here to open a gateway to another realm called the Domain of Nephilim, from which there is no return.
Travelling to a nearby slaughterhouse, the protagonist has an encounter with the grotesquely deformed William, whom she believed to be dead, as well as discovering a teddy bear which belonged to the missing child, Jeffery, before noticing a lynch mob in town searching for her, which she evades by breaking into the town church, where she discovers the deceased body of the realtor and a key to the office drawer in the town. Taking a church robe for disguise and escaping via the sewers, she heads to the realtor's office, and finds a letter written to Michael claiming that the town is engrossed in a demonic cult which believes the Verlac family to be composed of reincarnations of its founder, Croesus Verlac. Whether they are really reincarnations, or under a delusion, the woman cannot say. The protagonist flees north and ends up in a neighboring town, where she returns to give to Jeffrey's mother, and then steals, a key from their home to access the nearby maintenance tunnel. Escaping into the abandoned mill, the Protagonist finds a set of mirrors that the townsfolk have created, which in tandem with an advanced ocular device and the town's pillars will be used to summon Ialdabaoloth to Earth, which would cause total destruction. The protagonist steals the mirror with the correct calibration and sabotages it, and then makes her way to the lighthouse, but encounters Michael there, whose new red-rimmed eyes indicate demonic possession. He knocks her out and locks her up in an asylum hidden in the depths of the lighthouse.
Waking up and escaping, the protagonist discovers a cell which held Edward Verlac after he killed his wife and daughter. His final note, scrawled in blood, details that for generations Croesus Verlac has been possessing the bodies of his progeny via a ritual in which he impregnates a daughter of his line and then takes the son's body for his own. Edward Verlac discovered this and attempted to end the macabre line, hoping that his death would prevent Croesus from regaining corporeal form and summoning Ialdabaoloth, but instead the cult merely tracked down Michael, a distant relative. Escaping the lighthouse, the protagonist makes it to the center of town, where the doctor whom she spoke to earlier is summarily executed for sharing secrets with an outsider, and in the commotion she regains the amulet that she gave him. Heading towards the machine in the mill she again encounters the monstrous William, whom she distracts with a picture of his mother, Anna, before killing him with a meat hook. In the mill she attempts to switch the mirrors in the device, but Michael discovers her and demands that she stop fighting and give in. She gives him the tainted mirror, which he doesn't notice, and they bound in handcuffs to prevent further meddling. Taken to the square, where Jeffrey is revealed to be the final human sacrifice needed to summon Ialdabaoloth, it appears as if the world will end, when the machine suddenly malfunctions due to the mirror, causing the town to begin to collapse. The protagonist picks her lock and frees Jeffrey, and Michael (Under Croesus's control) flees to open the doorway to Nephilim himself. Returning Jeffrey to his home, the protagonist makes her way to the monument under the town again, where Croesus, in Michael's body, sees that the doorway will not open. He attempts to choke the protagonist, but she shows him her wedding ring, and Michael manages to wrestled enough control back to allow for the player to place the amulet from before around his neck, which causes Croesus's spirit to be painfully expelled from his being.
Enraged, Croesus attempts to kill Michael and the protagonist, but she manages to play the flute again, correctly, and open a doorway to Nephilim, where Croesus is trapped and subsequently killed. Michael regains consciousness, and the duo escape the town as it collapses into the ocean.
One year later, the protagonist and Michael are back to their old home, and the player discovers that she is pregnant. Afraid that Croesus may attempt to possess her child, her fears are soothed by Michael, who innocently says that he hopes that they have a girl.
Anchorhead was written by Michael Gentry, who was living in Austin, Texas, in the Inform 6 programming language. Development took approximately a year, with several weeks dedicated to designing the game map and writing the story, "at least six solid hours of coding every day," and an additional three months dedicated to debugging. Gentry based the two main characters on himself and his wife. The game heavily draws elements from Lovecraftian literature, specifically The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, The Music of Erich Zann, and The Festival, as well as direct references, such as the Miskatonic River and the city of Arkham.
In 2006, Gentry announced a rewrite of Anchorhead in Inform 7 preliminarily titled Anchorhead: the Director's Cut Special Edition, where the main goal is to "be just as evocative as the original, while allowing more room for the reader's imagination." Gentry also stated that some technological limitations encountered in Inform 6 would be addressed and NPC characters would be more interactive, thanks to the language's relatively easy declaration of relationships between the game objects. Gentry released the source code for the first five rooms in this edition on May 17, and a playable demo was released on December 15.
Anchorhead has received critical acclaim. Praise for the game was often directed towards its attention to detail in its descriptions, which built an imaginative and convincing game world; though some criticism was directed towards its puzzles in the later half of the game, which for some meant resorting to a walkthrough. Gregory W. Kulczycki stated that the game was "the most intelligent, polished and captivating piece of interactive fiction I have played to date." Kulczycki praised the "excellent" writing, which had a "refreshing attention to detail," feeling that playing Anchorhead was "like reading a good book;" and the puzzles, although not particularly difficult, helped "build a richer environment for the player." However, Kulczycki felt that the frequent game saves due to easy death in the last chapter began to "distract from the natural flow of the story." Emily Short called Anchorhead a "deeply beautiful piece," stating that the game had a "masterful build-up of setting and mood unparalleled by almost every other game I have ever played," particularly focusing on the scenery descriptions that made the environment "oppressively real." Short described the structure of the game play as "natural and immersive," feeling that none of the puzzles during the first half of the game were tacked on or redundant, though she "would have preferred a trifle less emphasis on timed puzzles in the later part of the game." Terrence Bosky also called Anchorhead "a well-written, wonderfully designed adventure game," stating that it "works brilliantly as a Lovecraft pastiche, never entering the realm of parody." Bosky however disliked the over-dependence on nearly all the items, expressing that "it would have been nice not having to lug everything around."
In the 1998 XYZZY Awards, the game won Best Setting and was a finalist for five other awards, including Best Game.