Close Reading of Anchorhead, by: Michael Gentry
Granting us readers the single most powerful tool of true fiction interactivity, Michael Gentry bestows to us the command line in his digital fiction masterpiece, Anchorhead. This provides us with a new dimension of authority over the text in which a large selection of verbal commands at times and places in the story solely dictate the progression of the plot. However, Anchorhead still only gives us a very small portion of autonomy in the narrative, both by design as well as perhaps the limitations of technology of the time. Furthermore, with this handing-over of narrative freedom and investigation in the text comes a sacrifice that results in confusion, tedium and occasionally frustration when stumbling through the haunted town of Anchorhead.
Wandering through the eerie map, I was excited to explore every alley, corridor and dilapidated building of Anchorhead. However, I was more curious to explore the limits of my own autonomy through the interface of the command line. From attempting suicide off the wharf to trying to punch Michael (my husband) in the face, I tried every command I could practically think of just to see exactly how much freedom Gentry gave me in his digital novel. We can explore, backtrack, reexamine, inquire or just redundantly type in the same command over and over again just for the hell of it. One may say that this is no different from flipping back and forth pages in a printed novel. However, in Anchorhead, unlike traditional print, we can decide how much plot we want to put in each chapter and to a certain extent where to put each chapter in the whole story (chapter definitions in Anchorhead explained later). We are able to either fly through a section of the novel going only where we are hinted to go or we can take our time to scour every corner of the map before moving on. Many items we need we can pick up in the very beginning of the novel or we can wait until the very end or right when we need them to get them. We can drop items anywhere and use some for different purposes (i.e. drinking the flask of putrid whiskey yourself or give it to the bum in the vacant lot). Given the right commands at the right times and places, we can even get ourselves killed along the way. It is fair to say that Gentry largely succeeds in making his readers the arbiters of their own fate. He in some ways, makes the readers authors themselves by allowing them to decide when exactly they want to “turn the page”. We add to the novel with our own “prose”, if you will, via the command line.
Very quickly though, I became aware that I didn’t have total freedom to do what I pleased. It’s impossible to leave Anchorhead. There is a maximum of eight different directions you can go in any scene, most of them restricted anyway. Most verbs in the English language can’t be understood by Gentry’s code and even the ones that are valid have limited use on only the “important” objects/people/conversations etc. One could argue that the year Anchorhead was written, with its limited technology of code and program platforms, could play a factor in this feeling of limitation. But I think through this establishment of boundaries (that we have to discover ourselves), Gentry reminds his readers that he is still the author, after all. Although we are enabled to craft our story and chapter content via the command line, Gentry restricts us from “turning the page” until we read/do/find/etc. what he wants read/done/found/etc. in each chapter. Gentry, through his use of boundaries and limitations engineered in the story, establishes chronology with a traditional plotline to make the novel more of a page-turner.
That being said, Anchorhead is still a huge data platform in which there is still an enormous combination of commands given at different times (in the story) and places. This vast programmed novel that allows for virtual autonomy comes at a price. Despite the restrictions Gentry applies in his code as well as the hints that he gives us through the text itself, it can be easy to become disoriented, confused, and veritably frustrated with the experience of Anchorhead. I was always somewhat lost when navigating through Anchorhead, even when just wandering around the Verlac house. Despite Gentry’s hints, I often was unsure as to what was important in a scene and what wasn’t. When I realized things changed in the same place based on the time you went there (i.e. empty mattress in vacant lot in day 1 vs. mattress with hobo on it in vacant lot in day 2) I immediately became confused as to when and where I should go based on what I had or how far along in the story I was. Even finding the correct commands, for a certain scene that you knew was important, proved to be difficult. And so, with the enormous, sometimes seemingly endless, possibilities of plot and interactivity contained in Anchorhead, Gentry introduces perhaps the most peculiar aspect of interactive literature yet: not knowing how to turn the page! We are given much freedom to explore, talk and find things in Anchorhead but unless we find what Gentry wants us to find that he has deemed important to the over-arching plot, we simply cannot proceed. In the beginning of Anchorhead, while looking for the keys that Michael kept asking for, I became so frustrated and hopelessly lost in finding them that I ended up cheating (to my shame). I read part of a walkthrough to get me over that one obstacle and if I had not, I would have had to keep looking for them (which probably would’ve taken me hours) until I was able to move on to the next section of the story (Verlac house).
Overall, Gentry in writing Anchorhead, is presented with a three-fold challenge. He attempts to give the reader a feeling of autonomy and even authorship in his journey through the text while at the same time tries to construct boundaries and limitations to craft an enticing novel with a traditional page-turning plot line. And doing all of this, he tries to keep the reader from getting lost and frustrated in the vast combinations of commands and scenes while keeping it just hard enough to keep the reader curious. Despite the occasional walkthrough lookup, I found Anchorhead to be a delightfully entertaining and well-crafted piece of interactive literature and I am excited to recommend it to many of colleagues.