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ParserComp 2022: Uncle Mortimer's Secret, August 4, 2022
If Jim MacBrayne’s previous work, Somewhere, Somewhen, was vibrant but inchoate, a messy attic riddled and riddling with draft ideas, then this current title presents a sculpted revision. The central hub leading into puzzle chambers structure is here neatly iterated into a time travel adventure, where you can easily bounce into vignettes of the past, solve some puzzles, then unlock the next link, all the while accumulating enough inventory to open a Costco.
If this sounds like standard text adventure fare, it is, and the game dives into the cliches with gusto: a letter invites you to your eccentric uncle’s house, so “You push the door open and make your way inside. As you do so it alarmingly slams shut behind you with a grim finality, and you seem to hear an ominous and rather sinister chuckle. / You wonder what your next move should be.” Naturally, you set about searching for items, and the game gleefully ricochets from there through a bounceabout solvearound that defies all good plotting, but keeps you guessing at every description, since most of these environments operate according to a Mystian paranoia, where every incidental detail that seems even slightly cryptic is actually a super cryptic hint for a puzzle whose only connection is geographical proximity. In an unfinished version of the Mona Lisa, a parchment says, “Most men remain loyal, / Most lack real morals.” From this clue, you’re meant to intuit that, when presented with three squares in a nearby room, you should press them in a certain order, based upon the cipher where a word starting with M = Middle, R = Right, and L = Left. Similarly, a note you collect says “When confined, tally, and Let Majesty Remain”; when you discover a secret passage engraved with “Let Majesty Remain”, you are meant to tally the numbers in “let”, “majesty”, and “remain” to set dials to 376. Like in Somewhere, Somewhen, an initially lateral solution leads you down a whole corridor of such logic leaps, rewarding you for paying attention to how the game itself pays attention. When you receive a set of numbered rods, you remember a sequence of numbers on a scroll you got earlier, and the whole puzzle happens very naturally, even though from a distance the puzzle seems a little scattered and vague: you’ve learned to recognize this as obvious, which is a great player arc. This arc weaves neatly back into the game’s general preference for overthinking incidental details, as to find the device you just unlocked, you have to go to a place that, when you first visited it at the beginning of the game, seemed strangely empty: “This is Uncle Mortimer’s sitting room where you remember him relaxing after a day’s experimentation in his private room next door, retained for that very purpose. Surprisingly, it appears now quite devoid of any furniture or decoration. The only obvious exit is to the west.” Now, of course, you have discovered enough to reveal what was hidden there all along.
The same care of progression keeps the increasingly gnarled playspace from choking the bloodflow. Rather than pinball you through mutually dependent puzzles, the game has a relatively directed course. In one layered puzzle element, you use an iron key to unlock a drawer that reveals how to get to the Florentine section, in which scenario you need to use a brass key, so you can use a transmuter you found earlier to make the iron key into a brass key. Later, you turn this brass key into a bronze key, then, for the punchline, cycle it back to an iron key. This clever puzzle hierarchy allows items to be multiuse, so that each tool feels alive with continuous possibilities, without the Zarfian cruelty loop of endless reloading, a design which captures a lot of the romantic puzzley elements of old school intricate multitracking, where you have to reimagine possible compounding routes against overlapping use cases, but without invoking the timesucking abyss of exponential misdirections. While it was fun having only one key which is changed to open new locks, it would have been interesting if other items presented similarly dynamic usabilities; unfortunately, the rest of the items are pretty static, either with an eventually clear purpose or as a simple red herring. Nevertheless, Uncle Mortimer’s Secret does a good job of capturing the old school spirit while using the wisdom of the intervening decades to iterate the design towards a healthier playfeel.
Despite the careful handiwork, the game functions pretty mechanically, with the set dressing peeling under even the slightest glance, much less the environmental obsession it invites. The time travel element, far from dazzling the puzzle jamboree into a series of evocative playspaces, is rusted girder drab. Finding Francis Drake on the dramatic eve of an epochal event, he immediately shuffles us off onto an implausibly mundane fetch quest: “Drake replies, “Yes, these ships you see are of the Spanish Armada which is hoping to invade England. Have no fear, however, as they are far too great in size and will be easily outmanoeuvred by our smaller and swifter vessels without doubt. I wish to finish my game of bowls first, but unfortunately appear to have lost my favourite bowl. After that I will be able to defeat the Spanish fleet.” He pauses then says, “Mortimer was a great help to me. I make the request to you to find my bowl in order that I can get on with my game. If you help me I will assist you thereafter.”” Despite tagging together a rich set of historical characters, mostly the game nods you on with a flippancy that tears at the already threadbare immersion: “As you stand surveying your surroundings, a man walks past and you ask him if he can tell you the reason for the crowd’s distress. He’s obviously very upset himself and relies, “Hello, I’m Abraham Zapruder and the president’s just been shot. I was filming the motorcade at the time, and it’s all in my camera. I just hope it will help the people who will investigate this.” So saying, he turns and walks back the way he came.” The attempts to render concrete the abstract puzzling sequences are often just worse than if we remained lost in the drafty halls of IF’s vaguest catchall fantasies.
Still, the game does manage to lavish some liveliness to charm you along. A particularly exuberant passage flirts poetic: “This is the laboratory in which Uncle Mortimer would carry out many of his experiments. You remember watching him as he would pore over his equipment, clouds of steam and multicolored smoke intermittently billowing all around him and at times all but blocking him completely from view, giving him the appearance of a dancing spectre.” While most of the historical figures are pretty bland, you can coax resonant guilt out of Francis Crick: “We both feel a little guilty about Rosalind Franklin. We did use her experimental results in X-ray crystallography on DNA without her actual permission, and it’s possible we will receive a Nobel Prize as a result. It is also possible that she will not.” And, in a surprisingly sweet, human touch, the password to a computer is named after the game you used to play with your uncle in the garden, showing he has cherished those memories mutually.
These vitality sparks within scattershot logic tinkering are indicative of the game’s general unevenness. The initial historic scenario you enter, Leonardo da Vinci’s studio, is more involved than many others, some of which, like Whitechapel and the Hindenburg, are noticeably barren. And while the game does work up some context about your uncle’s time traveling, including an intriguing plot point of his being imprisoned by mysterious entities, it also bumbles over some headscratchers that could use some additional context, like Mortimer's interactions with Oswald and Jack the Ripper. Like I get the sense that, okay, late Victorian Whitechapel probably just popped up when brainstorming interesting historical destinations, but then the destination isn’t really more than sketched in, and the bit of plot that happens there just points elsewhere, so the unsettling whiplash of this segment again emphasizes the echoing huh?
But if you keep in the spirit of the game and shrug all of this aside, it remains a chipper puzzlefest with loads of cute details, like when knocking on a door plays a soundeffect and the “Knock, knock…” ellipse extends to represent your wait for a response. The game expends effort to keep the player experience fluid, for instance by avoiding annoying backtracking through multiple time periods, and the inevitable “return to the present” mezzanine puzzles are usually well signposted, preventing the tedious lawnmowering such segments usually present. Good quality of life features, like a hint system and a large inventory space, maximize momentum.
Gliding along, you can pursue the sparkling intricacies through the game’s glib affability to enjoy away your evenings with a wry sense of predicament inherited from your uncle: “I have been confined in a sort of ethereal prison and my release will be in one thousand years. Alternatively if one of my own kind can solve the mysteries contained in my house, I will be released at once. I entreat you, dear nephew, to make this effort on my behalf as a thousand years is a long time and I have much I wish to do.” Well then, don’t dawdle, your uncle is doing enough of that, get solving!