Anchorhead is too hard for me

To celebrate the re-release of Anchorhead, we might well play it at an upcoming IF Meetup here in Oakland.

So I started replaying it a bit, and then I remembered why I was unable to play Anchorhead, like, at all, because I could never figure out what my objective was (or was supposed to be).

Consider the very first puzzle of the game.

The first puzzle asks you to get the house keys, which requires you to break into the real estate agent’s office. The puzzle is pretty tricky; your only indication that it is a puzzle is the fact that there’s an out-of-reach window in the alleyway behind the office, which, by adventure game logic, implies that you can (and should) try to open it. (In the new edition, at least the trash cans are already underneath the ladder.)

But if you don’t visit the alley, (and there’s no particular reason to try that first,) you’ll find the entire town of Anchorhead, dozens of rooms filled with stuff to examine. Unfortunately, at this point, it’s basically all a red herring. You can’t solve any puzzles in town yet; you can’t do anything of importance until you enter the house, which requires breaking into the agent’s office.

If you keep exploring town, eventually you’ll find Michael, who will remind you to get the keys, but he says “Well, I’m sure the real estate agent just stepped out for a bit. You can get the keys from her when she gets back.” This sounds like a hint to just keep waiting (which doesn’t work, and the game will AFAIK never say “you’ve waited long enough; it’s time to do something desperate”) or perhaps it’s a hint to keep wandering around town looking for the real estate agent, which won’t help either.

Once you’ve explored 20+ rooms and examined their contents, most of which are not-yet-solvable puzzles, even when you do encounter the ladder in the alleyway, it stops looking like an inviting adventure game puzzle, but instead looks like yet another not-yet-solvable puzzle.

And it’s not just the first puzzle… the whole game is like this. The huge environment constantly forces me to ask, “What am I supposed to solve here? Is this a puzzle I can solve yet? Is this even a puzzle?” You can spend hours just exploring Anchorhead while making no progress against any of the story goals.

I’ve played quite a few parser games over the years, but I felt like had to just give up on Anchorhead and do the whole game by the walkthrough; at no point did I feel like I ever “got the hang of it” so I could solve even one puzzle on my own. Some of the puzzles felt fair enough (though not all), but to solve them myself, I’d have to know/believe that they were solvable puzzles, which I essentially never did.

Are there any hints available for Anchorhead beyond the walkthroughs I see on IFDB? I think a Q&A invisiclues-style hint system would be just the thing.

EDIT (Feb 2019): I made them myself. …

I have not replayed the game since it originally came out, except that I ran through the introduction a few times while testing the Steam release.

I assumed (without justification) that the game locked you near the agent’s office until you got the keys! That is how ingrained the idea of “restricted initial scene” is for me. But even if the opening scene were built that way, the rest of the game is all wide-open exploration of the kind you describe. It’s just a classic 1996 aesthetic – I don’t remember thinking any strange about it at the time. Curses is the same way.

That is exactly right.

Without commenting on whether this particular design aesthetic is good, bad, or better left to moulder in the grave of history, I just want to point out that the first Zork allows you to wander off into an expansive and essentially puzzle-less wilderness without ever forcing you to engage with its single, initial puzzle – which involves going around back of a building and breaking in through a window.

Granting that the aesthetic is part of a classic tradition, I of course never finished a Zork game without Invisiclues. Zork + Invisiclues is, I claim, a much better experience than Zork with a walkthrough.

In the last 20 years, has nobody created Q&A/Invisiclues hints for Anchorhead or anything less spoilery than a straight-up walkthrough?

Also I should maybe warn you that even the walkthroughs that are available are for the 1998 version. The Illustrated Edition is substantially different in several places (and trivially different in many more) and will depart from any previous walkthroughs very quickly.

I don’t know if anyone’s published any invisiclues-style hints for Anchorhead, but if they were written prior to last Wednesday they will have the same problem.

For what it’s worth, I did try to make Michael slightly more helpful this time.

Admittedly, it took me and several other high school students over a year to complete the mainframe version of Zork, albeit with limited terminal access during school hours and the occasional home use of a a portable terminal (TI Silent 700 as I recall).

But throughout the Infocom years, large games without obvious pointers to game-progression was the entire point. That’s what was loved. You didn’t know anything and nothing was handed to you on a silver platter. We’ve since moved on from those norms. Bates’ Puzzle Theory article: … Theory.pdf and Zarf’s cruelty ratings come to mind as catalysts for the change.

I can see how anyone playing IF in the last 10 or even 15 years would be used to designs that encouraged completion at every turn. I’m rather fond of the open expanse no hints design, but only if everything else is solid (which I think is true of Anchorhead).

If you want mild hints, it can help searching archives for whatever you’re stuck on. It’s kind of like invisiclues, because the effort makes you not want to do it too much, and it only reveals a bit at a time.

For the new version, you should post questions here so we can build a similar database for future visitors!

Bruno Dias posted an article connecting the “work on it for months” adventure game aesthetic of the 1980s and modern games like Minecraft/Spelunky (you need a wiki to play well), Super Meat Boy (die-die-die platforming), Shenzhen I/O (here’s a computer manual, have fun). Games with a very steep learning curve and no concession to “on-boarding” new players.

Article link: … 8s-lineup/

I’m not sure the connection is all that close. There’s an analogy, but the gaming context is very different. Back in the 80s, games were expensive to produce, expensive to play (both for the game and the home computer), and there just weren’t many choices. “Get your money’s worth” was a plausible, if not universally accepted, argument.

Now it’s the opposite: we have a vast surplus of cheap games trying to differentiate themselves from each other. And, obviously, group play is the norm (whether that means chatting on a game forum or watching Twitch streams). We observe that “really hard game” is a viable niche, but that doesn’t mean these designers ignore the needs of new players.

I’m a new author, but a old-time player.

In all phases of our society today, no change is more evident than the crunching of available time everyone has. Malls that once thrived are dying. We don’t want to spend hours strolling a mall , we rather pull up to a store - get in and get out. Spending a full Saturday at the Country Club is a ancient way of life. Now golf courses are lucky to attract players for 9 holes.

Playing Interactive fiction is no different. Long gone are the days players will persevere for hours on end to figure out a game when they get stuck, where as another game is online a few clicks away.

To that end, game help and hints will not be enough. It is not a satisfactory experience for a player to consistency refer to help in order to make progress in the game. There is nothing wrong with a large game, or even a difficult game. Everyone loves to be challenged now and then. The real issue becomes - how does a game respond when the player has seen all he can see, learned all he can learn, and now is stuck wandering aimeless around hoping to stumble upon the right combination of puzzle solving tasks. It is so much easier to jump into another game at that point.

Reed’s Blue Lacuna offered the concept of a drama manager and if parser based IF is going to be anything more than a nostalgic throwback to gaming, then its games will have to evolve. Every IF game should have enough built-in intelligence to assist the player, provide direction, hints, and keep track of their progress.

If there is one thing lacking in too many parser games, it is still that. We seem to have a plethora of ways to provide contextual help to a player stuck, but we need to take it one step further and have the game bring a level of AI to keep the player engaged and moving forward in the story narrative. The game should drive the player as much as the player drives the game.

With Twine and the CYOA options taking a larger market share of IF, that is the challenge which parser-based IF tools must address more fully in the coming years.

I think most of us parser folks are in agreement with this. Anchorhead is really an old school implementation. It still stands as an excellent parser game, but newer players may not accept that with the level of effort involved.

I’m not 100% convinced of this, simply due to the revival of point-and-click graphic adventures. And while modern versions of such games tend to include some help, there’s still quite a bit of you-can-get-stuck vibe going on.

It may be a “pick your hurdle” kind of situation - putting in graphics and an easy interface makes it so the player is more willing to get “stuck”, whereas text-and-parser adds difficulty upon difficulty and the audience isn’t large enough willing to put up with both.

I should also point out it isn’t unilaterally true that “people won’t make time” - I have a lot more patience for playing difficult games now than I did when I was a kid. This is partially due to my blogging experience, but some of it is I just consciously consider adventure games to be a sort of oasis where it’s worth it to slow down.

I’m pretty sure Invisiclues of the form “What am I trying to do on Day 2?” would give me, personally, 80%+ of the value I’m looking for, and would in no way ruin the game for me. I just want to know “there’s a puzzle over here, and you can solve it now.”

Admittedly, both Textfyre games had Invisiclue like interfaces. I never really heard from anyone if they were sufficient, but not hearing is probably a sign that they were.

Alas, UHS hints (an invisiclues-style system) seems to still exist but no longer be expanding, and charges for readers rather than going open-source/crowd-sourced and tip-jar or something.

Maybe it would be reasonably possible to put together a wiki-like clue site and collectively try to populate it, at least for popular games. I know I try to write progressive hints when I hint people here, because it’s fun.

I disagree a little. Anchorhead should not be approached in the mindset of a zorkian adventure. It is true that the game lacks handholding and some character motivation because of the time it was created, but the goals are there: get the key, find a newspaper for your husband, find now your husband, etc.

Anyway, I digress… Anchorhead was praised because of the organic design: you just must explore and uncover the mysteries of the family, manor, and town. Come on! it is even less puzzly than Christminster!

So, added to all that, it is a difficult game, so yeah, why there’s no invisiclues built for this game! Damn! I’m even playing Curses right now and there’s no invisiclues for Curses! What are we doing as a community!?

Writing walkthroughs rather than invisiclues-style systems, mostly. :slight_smile:

:slight_smile: I was joking but… continuing with it as it was a serious question… That’s what player need or want?

I don’t want to read a step by step solution of Curses. I want invisiclues!

Don’t you think they are best?

I like well-indexed walkthroughs, hmmm, but I prefer integrated progressive hints (I’ve finished recently Gun Mute).

Let it not be said that I just whine about problems without solving them. I spent a sick day this week converting a 1998 Anchorhead walkthrough into rot13 InvisiClues, and then playing through the 2018 Anchorhead and making separate InvisiClues for that version.

I put them up on IF Archive and added a link to IFDB. …

I also made a map of the 2018 version. … 18-map.png


Having assembled these clues, I still think most of Anchorhead’s puzzles don’t entirely make sense even in hindsight, especially the main puzzle for 80% of the game: “what do I have to do to end the day?”

• Breaking into the real-estate office, surrounded by red-herring puzzles. Why am I doing this?
• Proving that the bum lied about William. Why am I doing this?
• Spying on Michael in the wine cellar. The “correct” hole shows darkness, until randomly it shows what you want to see in the morning of Day 3, and only in the morning)
• Putting the black disk in the rectangular slot in the telescope (the disk isn’t rectangular!)
• Opening the back exit to the sewer
• Finding the hidden entrance to the paper mill
• Returning the bear to get a mill key
• Picking the lock after the ritual (with no training; no other locks in the game are pickable)

Nice! A few corrections and alternate solutions to the 2018 version that you might want to implement:


  • You can get Michael to come with you to the real estate office before you get the keys. First, TELL him about the missing real estate agent. Then type MICHAEL, HELP (or some variation thereof, as long as it contains the keyword “help”). Them, when he asks “are you sure,” say YES. Michael will put the library book away, accompany you to the office, provide hints in a couple of places, and even get the keys for you if you lead him all the way to the file room.
  • Michael will also provide you with the name “Verlac” if you ASK HIM ABOUT HIS FAMILY (alternate solution to the answering machine).


  • Your map of the Behind the Walls maze is pretty convoluted. It’s probably easier to visualize like this:
        to 4
            \ ____
             |__2_|       to 1
            /  |   \       /
       ____/  _|__  \____ /
      /    \   |    /
     /      \ _|__ /
 to Study    |__4_|
		   	       to 2
  • The peepholes are in rooms 2, 3, and 4. The ladder is in room 5.
  • The peepholes randomize whenever you move to a new room; not just when you enter the Study. You can just go back and forth between two peepholes and eventually see every scene.
  • Note, it is possible to solve the mural puzzle without using the peepholes at all, if you managed to grab Michael’s faculty card on the second day, and checked out the Monmouth book, and took copious notes.


  • You can smash the puzzle box with the meat hook.
  • You cannot smash the puzzle box by putting it on the train tracks (well, you can, but it will destroy the lens inside as well).


  • You can pick the lock on the real estate agent’s desk drawer with the needle, in case you forget to search the corpse in the church basement.


  • You can also reach the broken stairs by HOOK/REACH/SNAG/GRAB STAIRS WITH THE UMBRELLA or THE MEAT HOOK.


  • Note that after you hide under the bones, the teddy bear is automatically revealed (though searching the bones before you hide in them will also uncover it).


  • HANG LANTERN ON/FROM HOOK also works here (I only mention it because you said the parser was finicky here).
  • You can avoid getting lost at sea indefinitely, as long as you row WEST each time the tide pulls you further out.


  • The towel or the robe can also be used to drape over the valve wheel.


  • You might want to mention that the tool pouch can contain up to half a dozen small items AND can be worn without attracting attention; this is explicitly intended to ease the otherwise over-strict inventory limit of the end game.


  • You don’t mention the madman in your walkthrough. His movements are semi-random, but he will only kill you if you remain on the same room with him for three consecutive turns. It is possible (though unlikely) to run straight for the gate and not have enough time to unlock it before he eats you. You might consider telling your readers that giving the Foot Health magazine to the madman will distract him for several turns; and you can eliminate him entirely by stabbing him with the meat hook or the screwdriver while he’s distracted.


  • Although the hidden alleyway gives you the best view and allows you to see the amulet when the old man drops it, you can wait out the mob in the Asylum Courtyard or the Shadowy Corner as well. (The hidden alley connects to the asylum courtyard to the west.) The amulet will be visible in the town square after the mob leaves, even if you didn’t see the old man drop it.
  • For that matter, you can just stay in Town Square the whole time if you’re wearing the robe and not carrying the trenchcoat.


  • If the player has foolishly discarded the meat hook before encountering William on the bridge, the screwdriver will also do the trick.

I’m interested in your thoughts on the 2018 version; though I gather you were still unsatisfied, several of the changes made were specifically meant to address some (though not all) of your complaints about the original.