The mega-collaboration-twenty-year-anniversary-tribute-to-Michael-Gentry's-1998-H.P.-Lovecraft-inspired-adventure-game-Anchorhead, called Cragne Manor, was released to the public this week. This is a great thing/event, but it's already been described a few times in a row on Planet IF, which is where I assume most (or all) readers of this blog come from. Therefore I don't feel like repeating all the details here – though it would be my deity-given right to do so if I wanted. I'll instead refer you to Andrew Plotkin's blog post about the game, to which I contributed a location. (I contributed a location to the game, not his blog post.)
I instead want to take a step back to Anchorhead itself. A further step back is first necessary, where I give a potted history of my experience with text adventures.
If mainframes are the beginning, I was there soon after the beginning. I played the Sierra (On-Line Systems) graphics adventures, Scott Adams adventures, and a bunch of other new graphic adventure games on my dad's Apple II computer in the 1980s. On the Infocom front, I had a mania for Suspended, which we picked up cheap in a Dick Smith store one day, but only for the beginning of it, which I replayed over and over because I couldn't get any further.
Later Infocom adventures mostly came to me in pirated fashion, and what with their elaborate manuals and such that you don't get with cracked copies, I got nowhere. So even though I now feel I know a ton about Infocom games, I haven't played many of them deeply. Except for Suspended, and later Wishbringer. No Zork for me.
Commercial text adventures went out of style. I particularly disliked the offspring of King's Quest, and also wasn't too interested in the point-and-click school. This includes both icon-driven games and things like Myst.
For a long time, I did nothing on this front. I only came back to text adventures in 2010 when I made Leadlight, and that happened because of a long delayed childhood wish to make a horror Eamon adventure on the Apple II. Finding IFComp via Leadlight was how I got back into text adventures. I began to explore the games that had been made while I was elsewhere.
A big thing that had been made while I was elsewhere was Anchorhead. While Andrew Plotkin, someone who never went away from these games, mentions looking back on it fondly in his post (the one I linked to in the first paragraph) from the perspective of having been there at the time, that's certainly not how I got involved in Cragne Manor. For me, Anchorhead was a large concrete block of frustration I came at repeatedly over time. I've noticed I find a lot of the major puzzle-centric games from around that time too hard. I want some kind of helpful hint system for them, and in most cases – and in Anchorhead's case – there wasn't one within or without the game. A dump of commands to enter manages to be both clunky and spoilery. Plus, the game just made me feel that I could be doing anything. But what was I supposed to be doing? This feeling was experienced as a sort of unhelpful aimlessness.
I think there's definitely a mental school of like experiences with Anchorhead out there. I mean, there's a topic on intfiction right now called Anchorhead is too hard for me, which I assure you I had nothing to do with.
Before you start thinking I'm just going to go tediously slagging off Anchorhead for the duration of this post, let me jump to the part of the story where, this year, when Cragne Manor was at the announcement stage, I thought, 'OK, I'll give Anchorhead another shot.' I looked around for better help, and this time found it in the form of Michael Hayes' Guided Tour (link is on the right of the Anchorhead IFDB page) which seems to hail from 2015. This was a Hallelujah moment for me. The guide comes as a spreadsheet with the game divided into sections, and it has a verbose list of commands with extra comments and context to help you along. Using this guide, I played through the game. Now finding myself out on the other side of the puzzles that had blocked me all those other times, I also found I had enjoyed Anchorhead and acquired a great admiration for it. (Admittedly, tempered with my prior roadblock experience of it. It will always be tempered!)
I then went and bought the new illustrated edition from itch.io
I would say my difficult experience with Anchorhead was partly due to my DNA, and partly due to my expectations of IF games, which formed both well before and after the chunk of IF time when Anchorhead arrived on the scene, but not during it. As I've said, I find games from that middle period sometimes exhibit the twin qualities of being too difficult and short on help. They're also much rawer in user-friendliness than what I discovered when I got back into IF in 2010. I mean, I restarted with Aotearoa, one of the most user-friendly IF games ever.
So if you've ever had trouble with Anchorhead, I recommend Michael Hayes' guide (from the Anchorhead IFDB page.) Thanks Michael Hayes, and viva Anchorhead (tempered!)