Anchorhead: A conversation with Michael Gentry
Michael Gentry is the author of the text adventure game Anchorhead. Originally published in 1998 and re-released as a commercial version on Steam in 2018, Anchorhead is considered one of the all-time classics of interactive fiction. It has been lauded for its Lovecraft-inspired horror theme, gripping atmosphere and rich prose.
This interview was conducted by Gunnar Lott and Christian Schmidt on November 10th 2019 via VoIP call. The recording was originally published as an audio podcast on www.stayforever.de. Here’s the full audio:
The audio interview was transcribed by Stay Forever community members Anym, cpt-marve and Brotrinde. We’re very grateful for their excellent work! The transcript was subsequently edited for clarity and better readability.
The interview was a supplement to our playthrough of Anchorhead, published as a series of podcast episodes. Stay Forever is Germany’s leading retro gaming podcast.
Stay Forever: Michael, thank you so much for joining us on the show and for giving us this opportunity to interview you regarding Anchorhead. Can you quickly introduce yourself to our listeners? Where are you located, what are you doing these days?
Michael Gentry: Certainly. I am living in Washington, D.C. I have a family, wife and a couple of kids and I work doing technical work in XML for publishing companies. Not very exciting work.
Stay Forever: Someone has to do it.
Michael Gentry: Exactly, exactly. And in my spare time I like to code games occasionally. I coded Anchorhead 20 years ago, and then two years ago I brushed it off and worked on it some more, and now here we are.
Stay Forever: You are famous in the interactive fiction community for writing a game called Anchorhead, that we played over the course of a couple of weeks. There’s not a single top 10 list on the internet of the best interactive fiction games which doesn’t feature Anchorhead. So it left quite an impression. It also left quite an impression on us, and we’re very curious to learn more about the origins of the game and your experience creating it. Can you take us back to the time and place when you started working on Anchorhead?
Michael Gentry: I was living in Austin, Texas. I had gone to school there. I had just gotten married and was working at another desk job doing more technical work. I was always a big fan of text adventure games when I was a kid. I’m old enough to have bought the boxed sets, Infocom and Zork and Trinity and so forth. And when I discovered the Inform community with Graham Nelson and the group of programmers who worked with that – and there’s also obviously TADS and Hugo and a number of other systems out there as well, but Inform happened to be the one that I found the first –, I was delighted at the idea of building my own.
I like to dabble in programming and I had dabbled in trying to create a text adventure in BASIC, but didn’t get very far. So I started working my way through the documentation and building the sample games and learning how it worked. And then I had this idea that I wanted to try something big and submit it, since that seemed to be the cool thing to do in the community I just discovered. Back then it was all on message boards, the rec.arts.int-fiction and the rec.games.int-fiction message boards. You didn’t have the nice web-based bulletin boards interface that we have today. And so I just started building it.
I’ve always been a big Lovecraft nerd as well. There were a couple of games out there that explored that genre, there was an Infocom game, but I wasn’t really satisfied with any of them. I thought the Infocom game was too kitschy, it was too ironic, it didn’t really delve into it seriously. It was a good game, but it was very jokey.
Stay Forever: That was The Lurking Horror.
Michael Gentry: The Lurking Horror, exactly. And there wasn’t much in the way of fan work by the interactive fiction community in that genre either, which struck me as odd. It seemed like it was good material to delve into. So I just started building it. I had a very rough idea of where I wanted to go, and then I just built it room by room, and it grew. I was as surprised as anyone with how well it was received.
Stay Forever: What year was that, when you started working on Anchorhead?
Michael Gentry: I started working on it in – I think – ’96, and I published it in ’97.
Stay Forever: And how old were you back then?
Michael Gentry: I was 24.
Stay Forever: Was interactive fiction one of your favorite genres?
Michael Gentry: It was. I always really enjoyed it when I was young and the Infocom games had first come out, the idea of typing in what you wanted to do in more or less English sentences, without the boundaries of a normal interface where your options are all clearly limited and laid out. I got swept up in the illusion of that, it really fired up my imagination. I always enjoyed them. I’ve played the whole Infocom genre. And I enjoy reading, so the text-based interface just really grabbed my imagination back then.
Stay Forever: You were already working at that point?
Michael Gentry: Yes.
Stay Forever: So, you were creating Anchorhead in your spare time, basically.
Michael Gentry: More or less spare time. I probably spent a lot of work time on it as well.
Stay Forever: You were also freshly married at that point. How did that work out?
Michael Gentry: It worked out really well, actually. Ramee has always been supportive and excited by that hobby. The original character in Anchorhead – to the extent that she is defined in any ways – is roughly based on my wife. The tidbits that reveal some of her interests and her features are largely based on my wife.
Stay Forever: We wondered why you decided to use a female protagonist. Was it simply to have your wife in the game?
Michael Gentry: I think so. I thought it would be a sweet gesture to create a character based on my wife and then put her through this hellscape. (laughs) And also it just seemed a little bit different; I wanted to stand out. The trend at the time was to create a blank slate character without much in the way of personality or drives. I think the idea was to have the player completely immerse themselves. It was pretty rare to have a specific character with any sort of character traits or personality traits that was imposed on the player. But I thought it would be neat to have a woman – they were also very underrepresented in Lovecraft’s fiction as well. So I just wanted to stand out.
In the story, the character is just married and has just moved to a new place. I guess I probably identified with that a lot, being just married myself; we hadn’t moved to the East Coast yet, but we knew we were going to soon. So that was probably weighing on my mind a lot.
Stay Forever: I guess that if the female protagonist is modeled after your wife, then it’s probably not an accident that her husband in the game is called Michael.
Michael Gentry: Certainly! (laughs) I think that helped me write the dialogue. It was easy to envision myself getting angry and slowly going crazy. I could imagine what I might be going through.
Stay Forever: So Michael is modeled after yourself?
Michael Gentry: A little bit. I’m not quite as murderous and horrible. (laughs)
Stay Forever: That’s good to hear!
Michael Gentry: In my defense, the „murderous and horrible“ aspect is another character taking over his personality, of course. The initial scenes where you meet Michael, where he’s distracted, hapless and a little bit infuriating, are probably closer to my real personality.
Stay Forever: So if we have all these references to your personal life in the game, then is June 28th your real wedding day as well?
Michael Gentry: It is indeed.
Stay Forever: If you go to this length to create a unique female character and even base it on a real person, why didn’t you give her a name? Was that a compromise with the blank slate approach?
Michael Gentry: It was. I still wanted to have a largely blank slate to let the player insert themselves and feel like they were the ones making these decisions and agonizing over these choices to as much extent as possible. So the personalization, the characterization were meant to be just light touches. I wanted to leave a lot of room to let the player immerse themselves. She has no name, there’s no mention of what she looks like, you only know that she’s short, which is also based on my wife.
Stay Forever: One observation regarding the female protagonist is that her femininity is really only defined in relation to her husband. She is the wife, and other than that her gender is pretty irrelevant in the game. She’s not doing particularly feminine things, on the contrary: one of the first things which she does is break into a locked office and crawl through the mud to the littered beach.
Michael Gentry: I didn’t want her to be squeamish. I like to think that if my wife needed to save me from a cult, she would crawl through whatever muck was necessary. (laughs) And I don’t see that as stereotypically feminine. I wanted her to be the protagonist of the game and for it to drive off of her active choices. That’s another reason why Michael is so indecisive and hapless at the very beginning and won’t even get up from his desk to help you. He’s not an effective character, he doesn’t make things happen, he gets acted upon.
Stay Forever: No, he’s not helpful. We also had our problems with him. (laughs) So you already mentioned that you were using Inform to create Anchorhead. Can you explain a little more what Inform is and how one creates a game with it?
Michael Gentry: Wow, okay. It’s a programming language that was developed by Graham Nelson in the mid-90s, I guess. I came in a few years after it really got started, so I’m probably not the best historian about that. But it started out as an object-based language. I’m not the most professional programmer in the world, so I can’t talk too technically about it. But it appealed to me because its syntax, even at the time in 1996, was very natural-seeming. It used a lot of plain English words and didn’t require a lot of elaborate structures of nested brackets and so on and so forth. There were certainly shorthands that you could use and they could look as confusing as any C++. But in comparison to, for example, source code from TADS, it seemed a lot friendlier. I have a knack for programming, but maybe not a legitimate talent for programming. So it appealed to me.
At the time in ’97, it was very DIY. There was a compiler that you had to download, there was a library of system files with a basic vocabulary and structure for creating rooms and properties and routines and so forth. You had to put that all together in a text editor of some sort and then compile it and then run it through an interpreter to test it.
Ten years ago, Graham Nelson released Inform 7, which is a complete development environment for Inform. The language itself has been vastly overhauled, it actually looks even more like natural English. It’s not really natural English underneath the hood, but it looks and reads even more comfortably to someone like me. And it has the convenience of having the compiler and the text editor and the library files and the interpreter all bundled into a single application so that everything is much, much simpler. You program it, you click a button, compile it and then start playing it to test it, all in one sitting. It’s pretty nice.
Stay Forever: In our experience, the process of making games is often defined by the interplay of the imagination of the creator and the limitations of the technology. That will essentially shape the game. How was that in your case, when you started working with Inform? Did everything work out perfectly as you imagined it, or were there limitations?
Michael Gentry: There were certainly limitations. For one thing, Inform at the time had a hard limit of how large a file you could create. I think it was 512K, that was the outermost limit. I hit that limit early on when I was maybe three quarters the way through. I was actually convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to finish the game for quite some time. I took my woes to the interactive fiction discussion group and got some tips on how to make my code more compact and manage to squeeze it all in. But I think that there were puzzles and elements of the game that I probably wasn’t really satisfied with at the time, but I felt like I was running up against a limit of what I could do, especially by the end. Everything else had been built, and so revising things was pretty monumental, and I had very little room to do so. So there were always a number of elements that I wished I could have fleshed out more in the original.
Stay Forever: Did you start programming with an idea in your head, or did you layout everything in advance, make elaborate puzzle structure charts and room charts and everything?
Michael Gentry: Oh, no. There was very little in the way of planning or organization. It started very organically. I had a vague idea of the plot. I borrowed elements from a few of Lovecraft’s stories and mashed them together; I had this idea of a town and a cult and an imminent ritual and so forth. And I think I had a rough idea of the map. I started out with a map of the town of Arkham that was published by Chaosium for the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, which I was also a fan of at the time. I started basing the town on that map and then realized that more than three or four streets was going to be a pretty monumental task, so it got pruned down a great deal and just grew from there. I would come up with ideas for scenes as I built the story from beginning to end. I would build in the rooms and the objects that I would need for that scene, and then go back and clean up the stuff that I had already created to make it fit, and then there were lots of dead-ends that I had to abandon and discard and rebuild in a different way.
There was originally going to be a cat that you brought with you from Texas, and part of the luggage was going to be the cat carrier. The cat would escape and then pop up here and there from time to time. That got killed – the idea got killed early on. I had another idea where you were transported into a different dimension and there were going to be this whole series of surreal pattern matching puzzles with floating shapes and glyphs and so forth, and that also got killed early on.
Stay Forever: Oh, thank god! (laughs)
Michael Gentry: Yeah, that was not one of my best ideas. But it really just grew organically as it went. There was very little in the way of planning. And it shows, I think, in the original. There are a lot of features that just hang out on the periphery without a whole lot of purpose to them, except for the atmosphere.
Stay Forever: I don’t think it’s particularly noticeable, which speaks to your talent as a storyteller. And I think you made a very good decision, at least from our point of view, when you created a game map which was relatively open and introduced the structure of days, which work like acts, so that you revisit locations again and again and have a feeling of exploring that game world. Is that something that you had in mind from the beginning, to have that open world and the day structure, or did that come during development?
Michael Gentry: It’s interesting, I often feel like I stumbled into a lot of the good design decisions that are in there. It was my first game that I’d ever tried to create in any serious way, and I’d never really given much thought to puzzle structure or map structure or act structure or any kind of structure. I do remember there was a game that was very popular at the time called Christminster. I’m blanking on who wrote it [Editor’s note: Gareth Rees, who published it in 1995], but it’s a well-regarded classic and there’s a time structure that’s similar to the day structure in Anchorhead. I was inspired by that, I thought that would make a good way to organize the story.
And I remember being somewhat inspired by the map structure of Trinity, which was always my favorite Infocom game. Once you get to the land of the mushrooms, it is a largely open map with gates around the edges that lead to smaller territories that you then explore and get more and more keys to the rest of the gates. I remember being somewhat inspired by that structure when I created the town, which is initially quite open. And I thought it would be neat to be able to essentially explore the whole town, or at least the outsides of it, from the very beginning.
Sometimes reviewers have complained about the number of locked doors, but I always felt like that was the neat part of the game, that you’re presented with this town with dozens of locked doors and places you can’t go and mysteries that you want to solve. Those are areas that you want to find out about. And so the game really lets you go about opening those doors however you want, although it does sort of nudge you into a certain sequence, and then that sequence builds the story scene by scene.
Stay Forever: You mentioned the interactive fiction community once or twice and seeking help with Inform. Were you a part of the interactive fiction community at that time?
Michael Gentry: I participated in the discussion groups quite a bit. I was still pretty young and had recently discovered the internet and discussion boards, and so some of my contributions to the conversation probably make me cringe a little bit now. (laughs) I thought I had a lot of things to say, and being well-regarded for my game really only fed my ego at first. But yes, I did enjoy talking and discussing ideas.
In recent years I don’t usually participate as much, at least not in discussions. Every once in a while I will go back and get my toes wet in the intfiction.org web forum that I frequent pretty often. Usually I just lurk, but try to help people out with their questions about Inform 7 and how to implement this or that.
Stay Forever: We felt that Anchorhead in many ways plays like a very old-school interactive fiction game. It could have been an Infocom game in the best sense, because it has this rich game world, it’s a storytelling game, but it also has lots of puzzles. There’s a large inventory, there’s pretty tricky puzzles. The interactive fiction database has given Anchorhead a difficulty rating of „cruel“ …
Michael Gentry: Yeah. (laughs)
Stay Forever: … and I would second that. That is a pretty fitting description. But I was wondering, when you were shaping Anchorhead, what did you have in mind how the players were supposed to feel?
Michael Gentry: Well, it is an old-school game. It was created during the old school. And those design decisions were pretty popular at the time. I really wanted to make it very much like an Infocom game. As far as the cruelty goes, I did want the player to constantly feel endangered. I also enjoyed writing creative and vivid death scenes, I thought that was just fun. I wanted death to be very possible throughout the game, and I wanted every death scene to be uniquely grotesque, so that even hitting a dead-end would be fun.
The cruelty scale was developed by Andrew Plotkin. I’ve read his descriptions of what the various ratings are meant to mean, and it’s not just how possible it is to die or reach an end point of the game, but it’s also how easy it is to trap yourself in an unwinnable situation, whether you will immediately know that you have trapped yourself in an unwinnable situation. But Andrew had not invented his cruelty scale at the time of Anchorhead. Those were less crucial design concerns amongst the community, I guess. The idea of a puzzle being fair mostly meant, was it easy to guess what the designer wanted you to do? How much did you have to read his or her mind when playing the game, how much sense did it make? The idea of trapping yourself in an unwinnable situation was something that you maybe wanted to avoid, but I don’t think there were a lot of conversations about it at the time in ’97.
So all of those possibilities in Anchorhead, I would say, mostly came about from me simply not thinking about it very much. The areas where you could get trapped and stuck, but not die, were regrettable, and I tried to avoid them where I could, but where I couldn’t, I think I just shrugged and said: „Well, it’s a dangerous world.“ (laughs) And I believe in the original, in the introduction, I did put a warning not to throw your house keys into the ocean, because the game would let you do it, and then you’d be stuck.
Stay Forever: I do have a bone to pick with you later about one particular puzzle, but we’ll get to that … first of all I’m really happy that you brought up the deaths scenes, because I have a point in my notes specifically about the prose of these scenes. The game is wonderfully written in general, but the prose is particularly evocative and rich whenever the protagonist dies. It seemed to us that you took extra care when writing these. But now knowing that it’s actually your wife that you killed off time and again in these scenes, it’s a bit morbid. (laughs)
Michael Gentry: Ah, I suppose it is a little bit morbid. No one in my family has taken offense at it. (laughs)
Stay Forever: That’s good. You’re still together?
Michael Gentry: Yes. We both have a somewhat morbid sense of humor and are able to appreciate that sort of thing. But yes, I did. I wanted the deaths to be almost collector’s items. I wanted people to be interested in figuring out how many deaths they could discover, because they would be unique and fun to play with.
This is one of the things I enjoy about interactive fiction in general, the idea of packing as much description and evocativeness into as compact and efficient a piece of prose as possible. I’ve only got three sentences at max, maybe two, to sell a really fun and interesting death scene or a room description, and so forth. How can I fold as much as I can into that prose with those limits.
Stay Forever: We especially enjoyed reading the black book, where you get mad and pull your eyes out. That was a nice touch.
Michael Gentry: Oh yes, thank you. (laughs)
Stay Forever: It did feel like a reward indeed. I mean, it’s a dead-end in the game and you’re dead at that point, but reading the descriptions is rewarding.
But since we’re already at the point of you taking extra care putting these little things in the descriptions in the game, there’s one thing in particular which I’d like to mention. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s in the original game as well, because that’s something we noticed in the remake. I’m talking about the subtle changes in descriptions which happen based on whether your character already knows something or doesn’t. For instance, if you’re in the mansion and looking at the paintings of the Verlac family, if your character already knows that the original Verlac is called Croseus, then that will be in the description of one of the paintings. Or going back to the bedroom and looking in the mirror and finding the description of yourself that reflects what you’ve been through. That’s something that we more or less discovered by accident, but I was so happy reading that. Because you took care to put that in the game even though most of the players probably would never notice it, and I really appreciate that.
Michael Gentry: That’s a good illustration of the advantages of Inform 7. When I redid the game, those little touches were a lot more possible in Inform 7 since there are very compact and efficient ways to create conditional text like that. You could have done it in Inform 6 in 1997, but it would have been much more complex and difficult to track and probably would have run up against the memory limit a lot quicker.
Stay Forever: We touched upon the deaths, which are delightfully dark. But there’s another thing in the game that’s dark but less delightful, and that’s the notion of incest and child abuse. That creates, I would say, gruesome moments when reading it. Why did you put that in?
Michael Gentry: At the time when I wrote it originally, it was a dark and taboo subject, but you didn’t have the same amount of cultural sensitivity around those topics as you do today. Which is not to say that that cultural sensitivity is bad in any way. It’s just that those kind of conversations about sexual abuse had not really started in the ’90s, at least in America.
I think I borrowed the idea of the Verlac family and him passing his consciousness down from a couple of Lovecraft stories. I believe „The Thing on the Doorstep“ and „The Case of Charles Dexter Ward“ have inspired that idea. I took some elements from those stories and mashed them together into this concept. And then the mechanics of this ritual – to impregnate a woman and then give birth to a daughter and then impregnate the daughter and then pass himself onto the grandson – just sort of suggested themselves.
At the time it was dark and diabolical and gross, but it wasn’t as sensitive a topic as it is today. Nowadays I would probably think twice before I embarked on a story like that, if I were going to publish it. At least think carefully about it. In the new game there actually is a trigger warning; if you open up the „About“ text, one of the options is to read a short trigger warning that explains that these topics are in the game and warns people if those are sensitive topics for them. I feel like that’s definitely warranted at this stage.
Stay Forever: A lot of the motifs and topics in Anchorhead are clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s fiction, but I think child abuse is not a topic which comes up in Lovecraft at all, so we felt like that is something that you brought into the game.
Michael Gentry: Yeah, I think Lovecraft doesn’t really know anything about children, as far as you can tell by reading his stories. He doesn’t really do children at all. So those were things that I thought were interesting. Clearly there is a lot of fertile ground for horror around children and child endangerment. Horror is about the things that we fear and are anxious about, and there’s plenty of that around children. So it easily suggests itself. But yes, Lovecraft didn’t really do women and he didn’t really do children, and so I thought those were interesting ways to make the story mine in a way that set it apart from just being a Lovecraft pastiche.
Stay Forever: You already mentioned, in terms of inspiration, that it’s Lovecraft and it’s interactive fiction. But one of the strong things about Anchorhead is your prose, your style of writing. Where does that come from?
Michael Gentry: It’s something that I’ve always been fairly talented at. I had a high school teacher who noticed it and got me to submit my writing to a contest, and it won. That was pretty revelatory to me. I probably don’t practiced it as much. I did have aspirations at one point about making a career of writing. It didn’t really work out for a number of reasons. But I do enjoy writing. And when I have an interesting project and a good reason to put it together, it’s just something I’ve always been talented in and had taken some pride in. I enjoy crafting sentences. I enjoy crafting prose, and as I said earlier, I find the challenge of crafting prose in a tighter word limit, as most of interactive fiction enforces, to be very interesting.
Stay Forever: I was especially impressed by the changes that you made from the 1998 game to the 2018 game. I felt that the prose was already strong in 1998, but somewhat rough. And all the changes you made – I compared them sentence for sentence in some parts – were like the work of a very experienced editor, somebody who clearly knows his way around. All the light touches, making sentences shorter and more efficient. Did this come from the writing you did in the meantime, or was it just more experienced reading?
Michael Gentry: Both. I’m a very harsh critic of myself. I have a tendency to write something that I’m very happy with and then, a week later, look at it and really hate it. In this case it was 20 years‘ worth of waiting before I went back and regret it. I haven’t made a career of it, but I do read continuously and I do write for little personal projects and side projects, so I have gotten better at it – I hope.
There were a number of takes and stylistic foibles that I had back then that I wouldn’t do now, and things I’ve learned or styles that I have developed that I like better now. And I can see also where the prose might have been sloppy. When you’re writing a game solo, it’s just you reading it. It’s just you writing it. It’s just you editing it. On top of the prose there’s all the programming that you have to concentrate on as well. And the tools for sitting down and revising it … it’s not as straightforward as just revising a normal piece of prose.
The interesting thing about the original Anchorhead is that to a very large degree, it is a first draft. It’s not like I went through and tried to tighten up room descriptions in 1997. I would put it together, I would read it, I would tweak it and then it was done. And I would move on to the next thing.
Stay Forever: I think that it’s not like there is one 1998 version and then there is this one 2018 version. There were iterations in between; I think the original version went through a couple of versions, didn’t it?
Michael Gentry: It did. I think there were five releases total. The releases were mainly in response to major bugs that I hadn’t found. And I would also take advantage of a new release to maybe revise a puzzle or change something that I didn’t feel worked very well. I didn’t have a lot self-discipline in that regard. So sometimes the different versions might change in substantial ways, how a particular puzzle might be solved or how some element might appear in the game.
For the 2018 version I have been trying to be much more disciplined. For one thing, it’s for sale on Steam. I don’t want to keep working on it after it has been produced and released in that sort of context. But I also did spend a lot more time trying to make sure that this was going to be a definitive version that I could continue to be happy with.
Stay Forever: But that was not the first time that you returned to Anchorhead, wasn’t it? I think you started revising it earlier.
Michael Gentry: Yes, I did. When Inform 7 was first released, about ten years earlier, I had the idea of rewriting Anchorhead in it. Partially because I thought it would be a nice project to update Anchorhead in ways that I’ve wanted. And also it seemed to me to be a good way to learn Inform 7 more thoroughly. I’m usually better at learning a new computer language or a new computer system when I have a specific project to work on. So I thought that would be a nice combination of goals. It didn’t end up working out, mainly because I had two toddlers at the time. And they just devoured so much more time.
Stay Forever: I can relate.
Michael Gentry: Yes, I had no way of anticipating that. I have twins, and when they’re young, it just devours everything else.
Stay Forever: What was different for 2018 then?
Michael Gentry: Well, my kids were in high school. So I was able to devote a lot more attention and time to other things, finally. And I think I just had more momentum.
The impetus for creating the new game was that I stumbled across a Let’s Play thread of Anchorhead on the website Something Awful. And I saw that the writer of the Let’s Play thread was also an artist and was supplementing the thread with illustrations as he went along. They were kind of cartoony line drawings, but I really liked them. And I was delighted by the idea of the illustrations.
By that time Inform 7 had developed a lot more and was even easier to use. And I had a lot more experience with it; I’ve done a few other projects in it as well. I thought of the idea of updating Anchorhead. Not only to take advantage of Inform 7, but also to present it as this illustrated version. Not like a graphic text adventure where each room is a picture and you have to hunt pixels and point at objects, but more like a book with illustrated plates, illustrating various scenes, and you would unlock those illustrations as you went along.
At first I contacted the author of the thread and said, „I want to do this, and I would love to use your art, and I’d like to pay you to make more art and to fill out the whole game with it.” That didn’t end up working, mainly because of scheduling; he didn’t have the time to devote to that. Which was fine. But by that time I was really enamored with the idea. So I put out a call for illustrators in a number of different forums and got an enormous number of respondents. I think there are a lot of hungry illustrators out there. (laughs) I found one whose art I really, really liked [Editor’s note: Carlos Cara Àlvarez] and worked out a system, and that’s really how it came about. Once I saw the art and had the idea of bringing specific scenes in the game to life with illustrations as well as the prose, that got me much more excited about the idea, and I think that gave me the momentum I needed to push it all the way to completion this time.
Stay Forever: The 2018 version is not simply a retouched version of the original Anchorhead with additional illustrations and prose. It’s basically a remake, because you changed the layout of the game map, you changed puzzles … So we were wondering, what was your philosophy, your guiding principle for the remake?
Michael Gentry: The main philosophy was, there were parts that I was never particularly satisfied with. There are no memory limits in Inform 7, so I could make it pretty much as big as I wanted to. I wanted to get things in a way that felt more right to me. I worked more with the story. And I did have a laundry list of puzzles and scenes that I wanted to make better. Things that seemed like a neat idea when I first created them, but I didn’t feel like that they really stood the test of time. And I wanted this opportunity to make it a much more definitive game.
For example the wine cellar puzzle. At the time, I came up with it and wasn’t really very satisfied with it, but I wanted to finish it and move on and get onto something else. This time I have really sat down and thought about what was something that maybe made a little bit more sense or fit with the general atmosphere and world building of the game.
There were other elements that I had since come up with, that I thought would have been a lot cooler if I had more room to play with it, if I hadn’t had the memory limit to deal with in ’97. So, for example, the asylum got expanded into almost a little mini-puzzle on its own, whereas in the first game it was three rooms in a row with the madman following you. Now it’s almost a “Hunt the Wumpus” style mini-game where you have to work your way around the madman and figure out how to get through the gate before he catches up with you.
That was really the main philosophical drive: What were the things that I didn’t like about the original, and if I could go back and redo them, how would I do them different? This was my chance to do it different.
Stay Forever: That’s really interesting, because if you went through the game like that and scrutinized every element, deciding whether to keep it or change it, then you must have made the conscious decision to keep all of the dead-ends in the game. For instance, in the paper mill, if you don’t take the fuse with you downstairs to the workshop, then you can’t get back up. Things like that. So – why, Michael, why?
Michael Gentry: (laughs) I did. I knew that changing the cruelty level of the game and actually erasing all the dead-ends would be way more complex than I wanted to get into, and also would involve a lot of curtailing player agency in a way that I didn’t really want to do. The only way to stop the player from locking himself out of victory is by preventing them from throwing the house keys in the ocean and simply putting an arbitrary refusal to do that action. I didn’t want to do that. So I decided to leave it all in. (laughs)
The fuse is probably the weakest part, the part where I had the most trouble trying to come up with a good way to work that puzzle out. I would say, the fuse is where I fell into the same trap that I did in 1997, where I kind of wrote myself into a corner and then decided to leave it. There is a bugfix that I have yet to publish; it does have a slightly stronger hint about the fuse, and it has a few more indications that the fuse is something that has to do with the elevator and perhaps makes it more likely that the player will have it on them when they go down into the factory. But it still definitely counts as a cruel trap that is perhaps left over from the old mindset of the game.
Stay Forever: I need to mention one more thing. Let me preface that by saying that we really liked Anchorhead a lot. It was a very rewarding experience. Wonderfully written game. I think that most of the changes which you did to the 2018 versions were thoughtful additions that made the game even more rich.
But – there is this one exception, and that’s the safe combination puzzle. In the original game you found the combination in the journal in the dining room, and then you just had to enter the numbers. And in the new version you changed that to a hint on Michael’s notebook. That really got us stumped, that puzzle. We were stuck for so long. I think it’s one of the most confusing puzzles that I have encountered in my career as a gamer. Because the hint on the notebook gives a lot of information that points to something else. The note that Michael writes specifically mentions that he is going down to the cellar and that he has dreamed of stars and constellations, and everything points to the cellar or what’s below it. I would never have made the connection to the safe. And also, what is particularly confusing is that this hint mentions that Michael dreamt of monsters and then hands and eyes. But how are we supposed to know how many fingers a monster’s hand has? Probably not five …
Michael Gentry: (laughs)
Stay Forever:… and then if you look at the painting of – I think it’s Elijah Verlac –, it says that he has six fingers on his hand. And so we thought, „Okay, that must be connected to the safe combination“. Can you understand our confusion?
Michael Gentry: Certainly! I’d never made that connection between the six-fingered hand and the hands and eyes and fingers. I thought that the safe combination in the original was maybe just a little bit too straightforward. You know, at some point somebody had written down the combo to the safe. Which is, you know, just bad security to begin with. (laughs) And then you just happen to find it, and there are the numbers, and you type it in. I wanted that puzzle to be a little bit more interactive. Something that I wanted people to puzzle over a little bit more. And so I came up with this idea with the eyes and fingers.
I believe for the original game, amongst the various releases I actually changed where that combination is found. I want to say that at one point it was scribbled on the bookmark that falls out of the library book when you get it from the library. And then later I put it in a journal tucked into a drawer somewhere. Once again, because I wanted to make it a little bit more interesting than just having the numbers fall into your lap. And then in 2017, I came up with the idea of creating this code out of fingers and eyes. I’ve heard other people complain about it. So I think those are fair criticisms.
Stay Forever: We published our thoughts about the game as a series of podcasts, and we published it a while after we actually had played it. Quite the number of people commented below the recordings: “How can they not get it! I wanted to shout into the podcast! How dumb is Christian!” So we might be outliers. But it was kind of confusing.
Michael Gentry: (laughs) I’ve heard other people complaining about it as well. I think at the time I thought that the structure of that sentence is such that it’s divided into three groups of eyes and / or fingers. I thought that that might trigger, you know, we are talking about three elements, three numbers; and then that would point people to the safe, because they probably found the safe by that point. But there are always connections that people make, and I think certainly pointing it to the cellar is interesting. The six fingers on the painting is a red herring that I just never even considered. Once your brain carries off down one of those paths, then your focus narrows. It can be really hard to back up and restart and think about it in a different way. That’s always the danger with these sorts of puzzle games: How much do you hint about it, how much hinting is too simple, how little hinting is too hard.
Stay Forever: Yes. It is a challenge, in particular with a game as complex as Anchorhead. And also there are so many inventory items that I think it’s probably very hard for you to keep track of every instance where something could be useful from a certain perspective. There are so many permutations.
One thing which, for instance, we only noticed after we had finished the game, is that we never had to use the cellar key, which is on the keyring from the beginning. Because the cellar door is always unlocked in the 2018 version. So I guess that was just a relic from the original version where you actually had to use that key.
Michael Gentry: I could be wrong, but I believe that if you go directly to the cellar at the beginning, the door will be locked. But by that point you have the key, and the key is on the keyring. There is a system in the game which I originally put into the ’97 game, because I knew there were a lot of keys and a lot of locks. I didn’t want people to have to fiddle with them a lot. So if you have the key on your person and the key is on the keyring, then if you try to open a locked door, the game will automatically assume that you try every key until you find the right one.
Stay Forever: Which is a very nice touch.
Michael Gentry: Yes, and in the Inform 7 version there are even more automated processes, where if you attempt to move in the direction of a door, you’ll automatically try to open it. If the door is locked, you will automatically try to unlock it. And if you have the keys, you’ll automatically search through all the keys. So if you simply go through a door and you have the key on you, it will all happen in a blur of those parentheticals that you get, you know, going north, first opening the door, first unlocking the door, first trying all your keys, and then the door is open. So to a certain extent that erases the need to really worry about locked doors much at all, and it may give the illusion that it wasn’t unlocked. But I believe the cellar door does start out locked at the very beginning of the game. It’s just so easy to pass through it, because by that time you will already have found the key, it’s not really meant to be a puzzle.
Stay Forever: Then I probably just missed it.
Michael Gentry: One of the pitfalls I would find, because I didn’t have any sort of plan or structure, is that I would build in a puzzle and then realize that that puzzle had just made another part of the game impossible or another large section of the game pointless. I just created a puzzle that allowed you to bypass a huge amount of the game. That was probably my biggest nemesis when trying to redesign the game.
In the original, there’s a whole scene where you meet the wino in the vacant lot. There’s a big conversation with him. It’s a major information fount where you find out a lot of the history of the town. And it’s right at the end of a scene that’s been kind of climactic and dramatic, and it ends with you handing over this talisman of protection that you have worked to get. The player at this point feels like they probably have need of it, but you have to sacrifice that in order to get this copper key – the copper key that lets you into the sewers. But in fact, it is possible to complete the entire game without ever using that key, without ever unlocking the sewer door.
Stay Forever: It is?
Michael Gentry: It is. It’s not even that hard. You can finish the original and it doesn’t even feel like you had to go out of your way to avoid it. So one of my goals in the new game was to fix that, to make that copper key necessary. And to make the passage under the sewers something that was vital to completing the game. There’s parts of the end game where parts of the town are blocked off, and your only way between the north and south halves of the map is through that tunnel. And at some point you have to use that key to unlock the sewer grating.
That turned out to be a nightmare! I went through so many redesigns, because it was a combination of map structure and puzzle structure and the way puzzles gated different parts of the map; this made this part accessible and this made this part inaccessible. It was so complex. It took me probably half a dozen very different solutions involving tearing up the map and creating new connections and then erasing new connections, and so forth. I only fixed it at the eleventh hour. It’s one of the last things I fixed.
Stay Forever: And the sewer is still glitchy, at least in the version that we played, because if you enter the pipe from the beach in the early game, then you can’t get out again.
Michael Gentry: Yes, that’s the big bug that I’ve let go. This coming year I’m going to try and update the game to fix that bug and add a few bits of polish. It won’t be a major revision, but fixing that sewer pipe will be one of them.
Stay Forever: We noticed that you removed or obfuscated Lovecraftian terms in the 2018 version or perhaps even in the earlier version. Once I heard that this is a Lovecraft game, I was looking forward to seeing Elder Gods mentioned, and you didn’t do that. Was that for legal reasons?
Michael Gentry: No, not really. I don’t think there were any copyright restriction on those names, Arkham and Nyarlathotep and so forth. I started out in the first game. I think it was another way that I wanted to make the story mine, in a way that set it apart from just a Lovecraft pastiche, but still acknowledge that I wasn’t creating all this, that this was all inspired by Lovecraft’s stories.
Part of the appeal and fascination of the Lovecraft mythos is the way that all the different authors in this circle at the time, [Robert E.] Howard and [Clark] Ashton-Smith and so forth, would share these elements and would create a shared universe where you felt that the investigators investigating Cthulhu over in this story could at any point travel up to Massachusetts and talk to the people at Arkham and go see the monster at Dunwich. I didn’t want to suggest that my story was necessarily part of that shared universe. Because I was borrowing all these liberal elements, I felt like this wasn’t a world in which the Dunwich Horror had happened. This was just a different world were the mythos played out in this way.
So in the original, I altered some of the names or changed some of the terminology a little bit. But I didn’t go all the way with it. I still mentioned Arkham, and the name for the college and the river was „Miskaton“ instead of „Miskatonic“. For the new version, I wanted to go back and make that more of a complete and thorough job. So Arkham got changed to Innswich, which is a combination of Innsmouth and Dunwich. And I felt just dropping the „ic“ from Miskatonic was a little bit weak, so I wanted to come up with a name that was similar. In the mythology of Anchorhead, there are tribes of Native Americans, so I wanted to have something that sounded like it might be a mash-together of a European name and a Native American terminology. You see that a lot in America in the way towns and rivers and so forth are named. Miskahawney comes from that.
Stay Forever: One other thing which the original version still had was a scoring system, like most of the old Infocom text adventures had. You did something right in the game, you got a point. That’s something that you removed for the 2018 version. Why is that?
Michael Gentry: I felt like it was extraneous. Scoring points came from the original Infocom games, of course. And it was fun. It was like collecting points. There was a term back then, „the last lousy point“. It was a fashionable in-joke to have one point that was tied to some seemingly innocuous or irrelevant action, and so it was kind of an Easter egg that you would find. If you didn’t find it, you could win the game, but you would only have 99 out of 100 points.
I took that out. I felt like it was a little bit to gamy. I wanted to focus more on the story itself. I didn’t think that the game really lost anything by losing the scoring system.
The last lousy point was if you take a bath on the first night after you get back to the house. You get an extra point. That’s also inspired by my wife. She loves baths. That was a tribute to her.
Stay Forever: Anchorhead is a widely celebrated game. It’s considered one of the greatest interactive fiction games of all time, it’s won awards, it’s been lauded and applauded. We wonder, what impact did Anchorhead have on your live?
Michael Gentry: I’ve been as surprised as anyone. Obviously it’s very pleasant to have the game lauded. (laughs) I’m very proud of it. At the time, after I published it, I had ideas that I would continue to roll across the interactive fiction landscape and produce some great games. Of course, it doesn’t really work like that. I’ve put out a few other projects since. I find writing enjoyable, but difficult. Very time-consuming and energy-consuming. I don’t devote a lot of time to it, not as much as I would need to make a career out of it.
I fell out of the interactive fiction community for a while, for several years. When I came back to it in 2017, it was very different. The online environment had changed. A lot of really fantastic and innovative work has been done by other people. Emily Short’s interactive fiction – I feel like anything I write would measure up so paltry compared to most of what she’s written. And then there’s been a great deal of exploration into more linear chose-your-own-adventure style interactive fiction. Which I find very interesting, but I don’t think it interest me as much as parser-based fiction. But the constraints and limitations of parser-based fiction are also very apparent. I don’t have any illusions about that. Tying yourself to a natural English or natural language parser is going to limit what you can do and what you can portray effectively in a game. And so, coming up with a really good idea that has the level of interest and momentum that I need to really throw myself into it doesn’t come along all that often. I hope maybe something will strike again, but we’ll see.
Stay Forever: Anchorhead has received one of the rarest and most flattering accolades that a game can receive, and that is a tribute game; an entire game dedicated Anchorhead, which is called Cragne Manor. When did you learn of that project?
Michael Gentry: Andrew Plotkin had mentioned it to me. I corresponded with him a lot in getting the game into a format that I could distribute on Steam. I got a lot of technical help from Andrew. But I also hadn’t been back to the intfiction.org forum for quite some time. I’d been worrying about other things. And he just happened to mention it in passing and said, „Has anybody contacted you about it? Because it would be fantastic if you contributed a room to it.“ And I said, „No, I hadn’t been contacted.“ In all fairness, a general call for writers had been put out on the intfiction.org forum, and I just hadn’t been there, so I hadn’t seen it. So I went and responded to the call.
Honestly, it was such a unique and flattering and kind of intimidating project; to have so many writers and creators who have been affected by this game, whether they wanted to pay tribute to it or critique it or satirize it or just comment on it, was just mind-blowing. And so many of them being luminaries of the interactive fiction community … Andrew Plotkin, I have always been in awe of his work and his writing, Emily Short I already mentioned, Graham Nelson contributed a little bit to it … All of these people together. And I felt like, „Wow, I’m the author, people are maybe expecting something pretty impressive, and I’m not sure if I’ll be able to deliver it.“ I think I parlayed that insecurity into the room that I contributed and the themes that it puts out. But yeah, that was a fantastic and very fun project to contribute to.
Cragne Manor had a very specific and rigid philosophy of having a „Kind“ rating on the difficulty scale. There were not going to be any dead-ends, there were not going to be any traps. Part of the author guidelines that they distributed to everyone was: Make sure that your room does not put anyone in an unwinnable state, that it does not destroy any inventory items arbitrarily or anything like that. And I managed to accidentally write a dead-end into my room in the very first draft. I had to go back.
Stay Forever: Old habits!
Michael Gentry: Yes, exactly!
Stay Forever: Very cool! I was surprised and excited to see that a game like Cragne Manor exists. And, as I mentioned, I think it’s the ultimate flattery, and also it is deserved. Anchorhead really is a wonderful achievement.
Michael Gentry: Thank you.
Stay Forever: But the most important question is: What does your wife think of the game?
Michael Gentry: She thinks it’s fantastic. She has played it through to the end, both versions actually. She played it in ’97 and she’s played the new version as well.
Stay Forever: You made sure that she doesn’t die … (laughs)
Michael Gentry: Ah no, actually, I showed off some of those sequences! She’s not a text adventure gamer. But I had to make her promise to allow me to help her pass puzzles, because left to her own devices, she wouldn’t ask for help. She would just puzzle about it and not solve it for months or years and never get through it. So I had to make her promise that when she got stuck, she would ask me for a hint, and I would guide her through the tough parts so that she would finish it. Because I wanted her to finish and read the whole thing. She really has enjoyed it.
Stay Forever: And have your twins played the game yet?
Michael Gentry: They have not. They have never really gotten into the text adventure games. I tried to get them into it early on when they were very young, I actually wrote a children’s game. It’s The Lost Islands of Alabaz. It has a strictly „Kind“ difficulty rating. You can’t trap yourself or lock yourself out of victory in it. Some fair critiques have been made against it. But by the time I finished it, they had grown up past the point where they were particularly entranced by it. And although they both dabbled in it a little bit in it, neither one of them has finished it.
Stay Forever: Man, kids these days!
Michael Gentry: Yes, it’s a very different environment. I think the interesting thing about text-based fiction is that it emerged in an environment when virtually all of your interface with a computer was going to be text-based. Writing „get lamp“ on an interactive fiction game is really very similar in many ways to typing in „move dir“ or „copy directory“ on a DOS-based operating system and how people, particularly technical people, actually interacted with computers at the time. So it just fit.
As much as I love it, I think it’s always going to be a very niche interest. Not only because of the puzzling that it requires, but that it requires people to interface with a computer in a way that they just don’t anymore. That just doesn’t happen. It’s very different from how you do virtually anything online.
Stay Forever: I never thought that interactive fiction would be something that’s particularly accessible to or interesting for children. I think you have to be of a certain age and maturity to really appreciate a work like Anchorhead. And I think your children will reach that point, and that’s something to look forward to. They will appreciate Anchorhead at some point and be very proud of their dad.
Michael Gentry: I think they will. They’re both avid gamers. They know about Anchorhead and they think it’s very cool that it has gotten so many awards and is sort of semi-famous. Their dad is semi-famous in a very small and specific context. And they both find that really cool and interesting. My son in particular will mention to me if he sees Anchorhead mentioned somewhere and has expressed that one of these days, he’s going to sit down and read the whole thing.
You know, it’s interesting. It requires a different mindset. It requires a lot of patience. You’re reading a novella-length story while sitting in front of a screen. You can’t move away from the screen. Nowadays you can put it on mobile devices, which is nice. But every paragraph you have to work for. My sister has published a couple of novels and has expressed guilt about not playing Anchorhead, and I told her: „Look, if your novel was set up in such a way that every time I turned a page, I had to solve a crossword puzzle, I probably wouldn’t have finished it either. So no guilt.“
Stay Forever: Michael, I am so happy that you took the time to talk to us. That was fascinating; and again, we really enjoyed Anchorhead. In particular reading the prose and being immersed in the game world that you created. That was a fantastic journey. Thank you very much!
Michael Gentry: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.