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Traipsing through time, August 8, 2022
Sometimes I read a gameís blurb and it feels like itís inviting me into an exciting adventure, or to settle into a warm, comforting bath, and Iím chomping at the bit to get started. Others, though, like the sorry-this-is-broken lament of ConText NightSky, feel like a wet blanket. And to be honest, for an entirely different set of reasons I found the blurb for Uncle Mortimerís Secret daunting. The author flags that the game is large and takes at least 300 moves to solve (which seems like a lot?); that some extrinsic Google searching is required to solve the game; and itís a custom parser with a really really old-school appearance. That appearance was also somewhat familiar, which made me realize that the author wrote Somewhere, Somewhen 1 for last yearís ParserComp, which was a sprawling, hard Zork-alike that I respected for its achievements Ė the custom parser, at least, was solid, with the exception that it makes interacting with objects in containers or on supporters kind of a pain Ė but found too punishing to really enjoy. So it was with dread in my heart that I booted up this yearís entry.
Reader, that dread was ill-founded. This is another decidedly old-school game, with its plot focusing on a missing relative with a mansion full of magic/weird science, a collectathon metapuzzle (the MacGuffins this time are colored rods), and puzzle-forward gameplay. But itís actually a forgiving one: thereís a well-considered hub-and-spoke structure where you start poking around your uncleís mansion and discover the time machine, then start to unlock different time periods to visit, each of which opens up further eras, gives you one of those rainbow rods, or provides items or info you need to access new areas of the mansion hub. This helps pace out whatís a reasonable-sized game, so that youíre always pretty clear on where you should be focusing your efforts, and regularly get the dopamine hit of making progress on one of your goals. And thereís no inventory limit, or ability to get the game into an unwinnable state.
Another departure from old-school sensibilities is that the game eschews the overly-terse style of the 80s, providing enough texture to make the time-travel exploration lots of fun, at least for this history-nerd. The periods you visit are all reasonably separate in time and place, and strike a good balance between being instantly iconic, while not making you visit eras that have been done to death (though the choices are admittedly entirely Eurocentric). While each is usually made up of no more than a handful of rooms, with only a little bit of scenery and an NPC or two, thereís enough here to give you some flavor and scratch that time-tourism itch; I caught a couple of fun Easter Eggs, and Iím sure I missed more (Iíll spoiler-text my favorite: (Spoiler - click to show)meeting Watson and Crick as they discovered DNA, I was a little annoyed the author had omitted the contributions of Rosalind Franklin Ė but when you ask the duo about her, they shamefacedly admit they yoinked her work without credit). And while there are some anachronisms, usually to solve the puzzles, theyíre kept to a minimum, thankfully, avoiding the zany kitchen-sink worldbuilding that I thought detracted from Somewhere, Somewhenís effectiveness.
Speaking of the puzzles, theyíre also a traditional lot: some codes with attendant riddles, some item-swapping, and a soupcon of key manipulation. None of them are that novel, and sadly some of them are not especially well-integrated and feel like the authorís put a puzzle in for the sake of having a puzzle: in the Runnymede segment, for example, the central dilemma is that the Barons have shut King John up in a tent until he signs Magna Charta, but theyíve neglected to provide him with the means to affix his John Hancock to the thing. But taken on their own terms, theyíre for the most part satisfying to solve, and with rare exceptions are generally pretty simple, so at least the iffy ones donít draw too much attention to themselves (thereís also a two-tiered hint system, that prods then spoils each challenge, to get the player unstuck).
As mentioned in the gameís blurb, thereís also a less-traditional sort of challenge to proceedings, which is that you need to set the time machine to a specific year in order to access each different era. But only once is the year just given to you; in every other case, youíll be given a location, event, or more cryptic clue that the player needs to decode to figure out what year to put in. Keeping with the overall low-key vibe, the average player will probably know a couple of these off the top of their heads, and for the others a few seconds on Wikipedia will be enough to clear things up. But I still found it a fun dynamic, and I could see the need to pop open a web browser prompting some players to engage with the real-world history thatís teased in each era.
All told, I had a lovely time with Uncle Mortimerís Secret. Sure, the gameplay largely consists of crowbarred-in puzzles, and the story is sketchy to the point of nonexistence (hopefully youíre not expecting much of a climax or denouement). And the no-looking-at-stuff-in-containers-or-on-supporters thing continues to be an annoyance. But itís largely player-friendly, and has a certain hard-to-capture charm to it that makes those flaws melt away. If youíre in the mood for some low-stakes, low-friction time tourism, itís hard to think of a better option.