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Video Game / Anchorhead

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Not even the "R" key can cure the fear of the unknown...

Anchorhead is a 1998 award-winning work of Interactive Fiction written and programmed independently by Michael S. Gentry, and is heavily inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos. The game is set within the titular town of Anchorhead, which rests firmly within Lovecraft Country. You play the role of a nameless woman who has moved into town with her husband Michael, and quickly becomes enmeshed in the dark, disturbing goings-on — to say more would be to spoil a truly excellent plot.

The game is notable, in addition to its great writing and overall polished feel, for breaking the typical structure and conventions of an Interactive Fiction game; the narrative is broken up into "days", during which you must complete required courses of action in order to proceed to the next day.

Incidentally, you can find it here or here. The list of awards should really speak for itself.

An updated and illustrated version can also be found for sale on Steam.

Caution: spoilers may be found here.

Anchorhead provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Afterlife Express: Discoursed upon in a book of folklore and superstitions. (However, if you stand on the tracks and wait, you'll find the train is plenty real enough to run you over.)
  • Alien Geometries:
    • Secret passages in the mansion lead in directions that have nothing to do with the rooms or walls they are following. The peepholes you find in the walls clearly change floors without rhyme or reason, and one gives you a dizzying view that's only possible looking downward from the ceiling. Exiting dumps you to a crawlspace in the attic, which is described as so wrongly angled you get a headache just looking.
    • The backstreets and alleys north of the river loop and backtrack so confusingly you never find any usable path. You'd be forgiven for thinking, like the heroine, it's only mundane confusion, until the path to The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday vanishes and becomes just another loop that makes no sense.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: It goes all the way back to the town's founding four centuries earlier.
  • And I Must Scream: One ending involves getting trapped in a dimension filled with nothing but "the necrotic folds of the womb of Nehilim" that apparently violently torture you with unspeakable biological processes until the end of all time..
  • The Antichrist: Croesus Verlac; or at least, he and his followers seem to believe that he is.
  • Anti-Frustration Features: Later versions of the game removed puzzles that didn't fit well, or made their hints easier to find. There's also several puzzles that have more than one way through them.
  • Arc Words: "He always returns to his blood", "the buzzing of a fly" (or variants thereof), and "red-rimmed eyes" are three very prevalent phrases in this game.
  • Author Avatar: Michael, who shares his name and personality with the writer of the game.
  • Badass Normal: The protagonist, who has to go up against supernatural forces armed with nothing but cleverness and determination.
  • Babies Ever After: A very, very dark subversion. In the "best" ending, the protagonist learns that she is pregnant, to her shock and horror, with the fear that Croesus may still somehow return. The story comes to a close with Michael ominously (though innocently) saying that he hopes the baby will be a girl.
  • Backstory: There's quite a bit of it. You'll need to put some of it together (reading newspaper articles, etc.) to advance the plot.
  • Big Bad: Croesus Verlac.
  • Big Fancy House: The Verlac mansion. (Lucky you, it's also a Haunted House. Who would have thought it?)
  • Big, Screwed-Up Family: The Verlacs. And how.
  • Body Horror: William Verlac. You find a photo locket of his face early on, and wonder why it's so closely cropped. His face is on his chest, and the rest of him... gets worse.
  • Body Snatcher: What Croesus Verlac has been doing to his male descendants for four centuries, including your husband.
  • Book Ends: Both at the beginning in the deserted office, and at the ending scene which takes place in your bathroom, you note that:
    There's a fly buzzing around here somewhere.
  • Brown Note:
    • Using the telescope properly will give you a sight so disturbing it brands the true name of the approaching Eldritch Abomination into your brain.
    • If you continue reading the book in the church.
    • Looking too closely at William will drive you insane.
  • Burn the Witch!: After Croesus's death, many of the townspeople of Anchorhead, led by the local Calvinist minister, turned on his daughters, branded them witches, and burned them all at the stake (except for the youngest, who somehow managed to escape).
  • Chekhov's Gun: (caution: massive spoiler here) Your wedding ring.
  • Child by Rape: All of the male Verlacs, who were each conceived by the previous male Verlac's rape of his own daughter.
  • Closed Circle: Your car broke down and has been towed away to the city of Arkham, and your purse and phone are in it. The only phone you can find doesn't work; the road out of town leads into wilderness. In addition, as Croesus's power over him grows, Michael outright refuses to leave, and you're determined not to go without him.
  • Cobweb of Disuse: Between you and an intriguing-looking iron key in the corner of the Verlac mansion basement.
  • Cosmic Horror Story: Arguably — you can win in the short-term and wreck Croesus's centuries long plan, but it's not exactly Lovecraft Lite, either; the "good" ending strongly implies that everything is about to start all over again.
  • Cult: Guess what — the majority of the town is in it.
  • Demonic Possession: Croesus Verlac has possessed several generations of his offspring, and does the same to Michael.
  • Dissonant Serenity: You, in the Non-Standard Game Over where you go mad from reading the book and claw your own eyes out, smile the entire time as the narration describes you doing the deed. It's, after all, "the most natural thing in the world".
  • Downer Ending: It depends on your interpretation, or, rather, on what you want to believe happens after the end.
  • Dragged Off to Hell: Or to the Womb of Nehilim, to be precise. Can happen three times: you can get trapped there if you mess around in a certain area, it can happen to the whole world in one of the bad endings, and in the good ending, this is how you'll defeat Croesus.
  • Dreaming of Times Gone By: This can also occur in your nightmares.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Your nightmares.
    • In one dream, you're a little girl, waiting for your father to come and tuck you in to bed... but when your "father" comes in to your room, you realize it is actually your husband Michael, as he starts to remove his belt. In the best ending, you find out that you are pregnant - this dream was a vision of what could have been your unborn daughter's future, had you not stopped Croesus.
    • Your dreams also foreshadow the plot, and drop direct hints about the places you'll need to visit to get through the day.
  • Driven to Suicide: Anna Verlac died young, at only 25, and it is heavily implied that she committed suicide. Her son Edward does the same thing after killing his wife and daughters. All the deaths were desperate attempts to end Croesus's reign of terror over the family.
  • Easter Egg: Try actually screaming or crying at various points in the game.
    • Also, try listening to your husband singing in the shower.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Ialdabaoloth.
  • Eye Scream: Two, both by you (in self-defense, although one involves you losing your mind and calmly clawing your own eyes out in a bad ending).
    • In one mob death, your eyes get taken out by a pitchfork before you are torn to pieces.
  • Featureless Protagonist: Details about the protagonists' appearance, identity, and personality are very vague at best.
  • From Bad to Worse: By the middle of the third day, you are well and truly screwed. Michael wandered off and vanished for much of the previous day, and having gotten him back, it's clear he's not entirely himself anymore. Following your leads puts you in immediate mortal peril by introducing you to William. The cult decides not to tolerate your poking around anymore and starts hunting you down shortly after. You will spend the rest of the game on the run, hiding, or looking over your shoulder.
  • Genius Loci: The Eldritch Abomination the cult worships is a living comet.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Several of the The Many Deaths of You. Some of the ways to do this include reading the black prayerbook all the way through, looking too closely at William, and killing Michael in the lighthouse.
  • Guide Dang It!: The game has a large number of very difficult puzzles; at best, the hints you get are vague, and many cannot be solved if you've missed a necessary item or piece of information somewhere.
  • Inventory Management Puzzle: A partial aversion — you can carry almost all the items you'll ever need in the pockets of your trenchcoat, but you can only hold so much in your hands at any one time.
  • It Began with a Twist of Fate: An ordinary woman, with a perfectly ordinary life, learns that her husband of only five months has inherited a vast estate across the country, so they decide to pack up and move... and then it just gets more and more bizarre from there.
  • Kill It with Fire: You'll start to see this late in the game, if you make it that far.
  • Kleptomaniac Hero: Since you're playing an every(wo)man-style character, this incongruous behavior is initially lampshaded.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: The Cauldron, a tiny occult shop with a friendly old violin-playing keeper, with just the right blend of touristy knick knacks and mysterious omens. One of the only bright spots in the town, and although you can still hear the violin, you'll never be able to find it the next day. It seems it wasn't there yesterday for Edward as well, possibly to make sure the amulet he was about to throw away would be preserved for you.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: William, at least for the first few years of his life.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Edward Verlac's final journal is full of this. His mother Anna had made sure he was protected from Croesus, but Edward spent 30 years never taking off the amulet and never believing what would happen if he did. When he finally sells it, Croesus is still waiting for him. Edward spends months fighting for his sanity and desperately trying to recover the amulet. He finally breaks by murdering his wife and children, and then himself, seeing it as better than what Croesus would do to them.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Verlac, i.e. "warlock" (it's German). Edward's letter calls Croesus one.
  • No Name Given: The player's character is never addressed by name, even by Michael.
  • Non-Action Guy: The protagonist is an ordinary woman who is utterly helpless in a direct physical confrontation.
  • Non-Standard Game Over: The game has a large number of grisly ways to die, including insanity and suffering a Fate Worse than Death.
    • Actual deaths include getting fatally poisoned by spider bite, killed by monstrous tentacled things, hit by a train, cooked alive by high-pressure steam, mobbed and lynched by the cultists, strangled by your own possessed husband, choked to death by the ghost of Croesus Verlac... Yeah, it's a pleasant game.
  • Old, Dark House: The Verlac mansion, which has hidden passageways, unsettling paintings, windows painted shut, a family crypt out back, a dank cellar, and an Eldritch Abomination in the Attic.
  • Orderlies are Creeps: Chuck, the orderly of Danvers Asylum, enjoys reading pornographic magazines and making crass remarks.
  • Parental Incest: A route to immortality. Ew.
  • Portrait Painting Peephole: You can spy on Michael through the eyes of Croesus Verlac's portrait in the sitting room.
    • Extra Fridge Horror and Paranoia Fuel when the player remembers that, when you're in the sitting room, it sometimes appears to move subtly, "like the eyes are looking directly at you".
  • The Power of Love: Plays a crucial role in the ending... with the help of a couple bits of jewelry.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Red-rimmed eyes are seen in all depictions of the Verlacs over the years, and when Michael develops his own, it becomes clear it's a sign of Croesus taking over.
  • Shout-Out: There are references aplenty to Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. Among them are the city of Arkham, Whateley Bridge, the Miskaton University library.
    • The magic shop's violin (and the violin music you can hear in the lane nearby) are an extended reference to "The Music of Erich Zann".
    • The paintings in the mansion's gallery are horrifying, fantastical, and detailed to the point of photorealism. Paintings by Richard Pickman in "Pickman's Model" were said to have the same qualities. And, in both cases, they actually depict reality.
    • Several aspects of the town are pretty clear nods to The Shadow Over Innsmouth, particularly the librarian with "fish-eyes" and the local drunk who gives the protagonist key information for the price of a bottle of whiskey.
    • The abduction and sacrifice of children hints at The Dreams in the Witch-House.
    • William is inspired by The Dunwich Horror. And he finally shows up on Whateley Bridge, named after the monstrous brothers in that story.
    • Croesus Verlac's M.O. is taken straight out of The Thing on the Doorstep.
    • A real-world example: the Danvers Asylum is named after the real-world Danvers State Hospital located in Danvers, Massachusetts.
  • Spooky Painting:
    • Croesus Verlac's painting in the sitting room, described as pure madness captured in a portrait.
    • An entire gallery of them toward the back of the house, that like to rearrange themselves or randomly vanish without leaving any trace they were ever there.
  • Take Your Time: In dire situations, the game averts this, sometimes to frustrating effect. Most of the time, however, you do get to take your time, since the first three days don't advance to evening until you've solved all the major puzzles for that day.
  • Teen Pregnancy: Eustacia gave birth to her son when she was only 16. Anna gave birth to her first child when she was 17. Though this was because they were both victims of rape by their own fathers, so they certainly had no choice in the matter.
  • The End... Or Is It?: Heavily implied in the true ending - the protagonist learns that she is pregnant, and evidently fears that the spirit of Croesus may still somehow return through her unborn child.
  • Three-Act Structure: Splitting the game up into days reinforces the feel of acts. The first and second days serve as prologue and exposition as the player explores the town's mysteries. Day three is entirely rising action with many more active threats on the players life, and day four is a full-force climax as the town goes straight to hell.
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: The book in the church. Reading it all the way through causes a Non-Standard Game Over.
  • Town with a Dark Secret: The town of Anchorhead, naturally.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: How you got to Anchorhead in the first place. (Actually, Michael only inherited the house because the previous heir killed his entire family. Unfortunately for you, the Call can find a way.)
  • Textgame Cruelty Potential: You are gonna have to do some nasty stuff to escape the horrors of Anchorhead. You have the potential to do much worse than necessary, including murdering your own husband.
  • Video Game Remake: The original version of Anchorhead can still be downloaded for free. Anchorhead - The Illustrated Edition is sold via Steam, and was nearly completely rewritten with changes to the town, the clues you find, and the puzzles to get through.
  • Villainous Incest: How Croesus' spirit has carried on his bloodline.
  • Villainous Lineage: He always returns to his blood.
  • You Cannot Grasp the True Form: Plenty, and frequently includes Go Mad from the Revelation. You'll get a few glimpses of Things Man Was Not Meant to Know throughout, but be careful about digging too deeply.
  • You Can't Get Ye Flask: Averted. The game generally gives you hints about what you should do to progress in doing what you want (such as, should a player want to look in a high window in the game's first area, suggesting they push a garbage can closer to get close enough,) as well as recognizes a variety of valid commands to do it.