Uncle Mortimer's Secret

by Jim MacBrayne


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An internally-consistent and pretty big Basic time-travel adventure, September 22, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game placed well in the 2022 Parsercomp competition. It's in Basic, with a custom parser; most games written in Basic with a custom parser are pretty bad, but this one is good. It's only as I write this review that I realize I've played another game by this author, from last year, so it seems this parser has had plenty of time for polishing.

This is a time-travel adventure. Descriptions are sparse and leave a lot up to the imagination. Puzzles are often riddle-based or combination-based; individually, they are often obscure, but as a whole they have consistent internal logic.

The parser generally works well; it has a few oddities that I noted in my review of Somewhere, Somewhen, and which others have noted as well; since the author has been aware of them for some time, I doubt they will change, so won't note them here.

I found it all generally pleasing. I almost never played text adventures as a kid, but there were two I played a lot in 5th grade in the 90s. I remember one of them being a Wonderland-like game that had gardens and interesting areas, and most puzzles were riddles. This game has very similar vibes to that era of game, and I found it charming.

Overall, this is a big game (I played about 4 hours and used a walkthrough about 11 times), and fun. I'm glad it was entered.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Traipsing through time, August 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Sometimes I read a game’s blurb and it feels like it’s inviting me into an exciting adventure, or to settle into a warm, comforting bath, and I’m 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 Mortimer’s 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 it’s 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 year’s ParserComp, which was a sprawling, hard Zork-alike that I respected for its achievements – 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 – but found too punishing to really enjoy. So it was with dread in my heart that I booted up this year’s 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 it’s actually a forgiving one: there’s a well-considered hub-and-spoke structure where you start poking around your uncle’s 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 what’s a reasonable-sized game, so that you’re 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 there’s 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, there’s enough here to give you some flavor and scratch that time-tourism itch; I caught a couple of fun Easter Eggs, and I’m sure I missed more (I’ll 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 – 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, they’re kept to a minimum, thankfully, avoiding the zany kitchen-sink worldbuilding that I thought detracted from Somewhere, Somewhen’s effectiveness.

Speaking of the puzzles, they’re 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 author’s 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 they’ve neglected to provide him with the means to affix his John Hancock to the thing. But taken on their own terms, they’re for the most part satisfying to solve, and with rare exceptions are generally pretty simple, so at least the iffy ones don’t draw too much attention to themselves (there’s also a two-tiered hint system, that prods then spoils each challenge, to get the player unstuck).

As mentioned in the game’s blurb, there’s 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, you’ll 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 that’s teased in each era.

All told, I had a lovely time with Uncle Mortimer’s Secret. Sure, the gameplay largely consists of crowbarred-in puzzles, and the story is sketchy to the point of nonexistence (hopefully you’re 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 it’s largely player-friendly, and has a certain hard-to-capture charm to it that makes those flaws melt away. If you’re in the mood for some low-stakes, low-friction time tourism, it’s hard to think of a better option.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
ParserComp 2022: Uncle Mortimer's Secret, August 4, 2022
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 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!

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An entertaining old-school romp through time, August 4, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2022

Uncle Mortimer's Secret intimidated me, but at the same time, I wanted to play it. Details leak out from a game's reviews even if nobody means to spoil anything. And that worked both to draw me in and push me away. It was obviously a big game with a custom (and old-school) parser, replete with scoring, but it was also well-organized, by someone who knew what they were doing. It probably got fewer ParserComp votes than average because of the custom parser. It's got its oddness, but that's not a cover for the author's laziness or inability to put a story together. It feels more focused and assured than Somewhere, Somewhen, which the author submitted to the previous ParserComp, which had That Something. UMS had a lot more, maybe because the author didn't need to focus as much energy on the parser itself. It was the first ParserComp game I came back to post-judging, and I was surprised how quickly I did so. I'm grateful to the people who pushed others to play this game, and I hope I can do for so beyond ParserComp.

Your eccentric uncle Mortimer has disappeared and left you a letter. He's gotten involved in magic and alchemy, and he's probably been captured by someone quite evil. To rescue him, you need to visit several important time periods and events, and you may not have to do much, but when you do, you'll gain the trust of historical figures Mortimer meant and get the next piece of the puzzle. You travel through time by twiddling four numbers on a bracelet while in Mortimer's machine, and for me, it was nice to be able to get something right before doing what I had to.

I did so in all cases except the (Spoiler - click to show)Whitechapel murders in 1888, I was clueless as I never connected them to Jack the Ripper. This isn't all bad; for me, it was nice to know a lot without knowing everything, and also there was enough of a new spin on (Spoiler - click to show)Kennedy's assassination in 1963. I think with this sort of buffet-line approach to important historical events there's always going to be something you wished to see more or less of, and nobody's pleased perfectly, so your tastes may differ from mine, but overall it should work out right. For me the funniest puzzle was finding (Spoiler - click to show)Sir Francis Drake's bowling ball in 1588.

Eventually you do find Uncle Mortimer with a weird tesseract puzzle. The journey is worth it to me, though you will have to dedicate a lot of time. But it's the sort of game you can blow by with a walkthrough, if you have to, and you will get a lot out of it, and maybe in a few weeks you'll find yourself coming back to it, too, to see how much you remember. I found, briefly poking around, I enjoyed both what I remembered and what I forgot.

A few things still slow it up a bit, though. I'd still like to see a more understanding parser--the disambiguation isn't great, and there are some abbreviations, but maybe I'm spoiled with Inform. I'm pretty confident that the author will tweak what they want and need, though, given how they've honed a lot from the promise shown in Somwhere, Somewhen.

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