Running into Brick Walls in Anchorhead

First off, I would just like to preface with this: I am really, really bad at interactive fiction. I hesitate to include specific details about the narrative because I think that this is a really fun text that discourages spoilers, but I will show the final fruits of my interactive labor:


But I don’t think that I am entirely lost to the realm of interactive fiction, since judging from the first chapter that we read of Hayles’s Electronic Literature, not all of it is this narrative-focused, text-based, or wholly dependent upon the interactor’s directives. Michael S. Gentry’s 1998 IF Anchorhead draws heavily from the motifs of H. P. Lovecraft’s print horror fiction, including tentacled monsters, demonic cults, and unknowable cosmic phenomena wreaking havoc on mankind. The work makes its influence apparent from the start, beginning with the Lovecraft quote “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Beneath this, the text then encourages you to “press any key to begin.” This prompt is common to electronic literature, serving to draw attention to its physical deviations from the book: we cannot simply scan ahead on a page to see what is coming next, but instead we must submit to the digital’s absolute power over us as readers. This initial process invites the exact fear that the Lovecraft quote describes on the literary level by asking the interactor to approach the unknown in the form of the new frontier of interactive literature.

But despite this gothic piece’s dedication to rendering its environment realistically with an abundance of textual details, there are no graphics, sounds, explorations of the z-axis, or any other innovative digital components to help the interactor visualize her surroundings. The surface mostly mirrors the printed page, with black words on a white background in the middle of the screen. The big difference exists in the interactive processes of the work, the “>” symbol which prompts the interactor to type an action that appears in green rather than black text, and the text’s appropriate response to this action. The interface of this work, so much unlike the interface of the printed book, can become one of paralysis. If the interactor doesn’t type a directive and hit enter, the text ceases, and the interactor confronts a frustrating white space. The story halts until she can think of a productive action to perform that will elicit a new, narratively informative bit of text. This is easier said than done at times, as my screenshot below demonstrates.


Aside from depicting the static interface of the work, this portion of my game shows what I thought was a glitch but have since decided is an intentional inclusion on Gentry’s part. My desperate directive “ask for help” returns that strange description about the librarian, a refusal on her part. Obviously, I am nowhere near the library in this moment. Throughout the game, the parser demands that the interactor’s directives be specific and accurate to her placement – you cannot interact with an object or person who is not in the same room as you. But this plea for assistance seems to be an exception to the program’s otherwise consistent rules. To make sure this wasn’t a one-time fluke, I typed “ask for help” at the start of the game, before my character even meets the librarian. I encountered the same response, no matter where I was in the text.

That the librarian would function as a hidden yet perpetually present figure makes sense. The main goal of Anchorhead is to read text, within the fiction of the work and within the reality of the work: as a character, you must recover the books, journals, and letters that piece the story together, and as an interactor, you must type the proper commands to continue the story. But you also must perform these responsibilities without the comfort of the traditional structural conventions of the book and in the face of the immobilizing interface of this interactive form. The librarian, collector of text and keeper of archives, being an invisible presence throughout the interactive work embodies the claim of Keep, McLaughlin, and Parmar that while “not all books are manifestations of The Book, we should not lose sight of the fact that we continue to live in its shadow.” At the same time, that she appears when we ask for instruction only to deny us simultaneously suggests that the philosophy of The Book cannot direct us through the labyrinth of digital literature.

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