“The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” is not only a great quote if you want to sound smart, but it’s also quite appropriate given the circumstances. Time is often a theme in video games, especially science fiction video or fantasy video games, but you don’t often find it as the central concept of a narrative adventure thriller. This is where Twelve Minutes comes in, bringing the concepts of thriller cinema, point-and-click adventure games, and temporal loops together at last.
Twelve Minutes is a theatrical adventure thriller by Luis Antonio telling the story of a man who is stuck reliving the same 10 minutes stretch of time over and over again. However, unlike more humorous takes on the subject such as Groundhog Day, in Twelve Minutes things are a lot less funny, and a lot more violent. Before long you realize that there is something horrific hiding in the background, and it’s up to you to uncover exactly what it is so you can escape this nightmare.
One of the first things that greet you when you boot the game, other than the title, is a list of the stars, and it’s easy to see why. There are some pretty big names on the list for the voice cast of this thing. Daisy Ridley, James Macavoy, and Willem Dafoe make up the primary cast, and they all do a really good job of it too, but that shouldn’t be too surprising. When you use three Hollywood actors, the least you can expect is for them to be able to act. On the plus side, there are no noticeable problems with their specific voice acting abilities, and at least to my British ears, I couldn’t detect a hint of fakery from the American accents Ridley and Macavoy were using, although your mileage may vary.
The principle gameplay style of Twelve Minutes takes heavy inspiration from classic point-and-click adventure games. You have an inventory and can use items on other items to solve puzzles and further the story, and can also converse with the other characters to learn more information. The key difference here, other than the more cinematic style of storytelling used, is the focus on information specifically as it pertains to solving puzzles. You do have an inventory, but most of the time the way that you’re going to solve puzzles is by learning new information and applying it in the right places. That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of item puzzles too, but they’re not the primary focus here.
If it seems like I’m avoiding talking about the storyline in anything but the vaguest terms, that’s because I am. Being a point and click game with a very, very heavy focus on narrative, any sort of spoilers at all will completely modify the experience for you. That being said, the trailer does reveal a few things itself, so I can share some details with you. As the game starts out, you’re just a man arriving home from work, greeting his wife, and sitting down for some dessert together (no mention of dinner, so clearly this is a world gone topsy-turvy), before long your pleasant event is interrupted when you’re strangled to death and wake up as you entered the room earlier in the evening.
The storyline goes to a lot of different places from there, but as I said, without ruining your experience it’s impossible to talk about them in specifics. I will say though that the story and characters are incredibly well written, and on top of that their dialogue and actions are well-constructed. Whenever you go through a loop for a second time, even if you’re repeating the same actions, things don’t always go the same way. Slight differences in the dialogue make the characters feel more alive, and this is especially true of the main character.
Each loop you go through, and each step you take towards solving the puzzle of being trapped in the loop makes the main character more and more frustrated. He can get aggressive more easily or voices his inner feeling more readily as he tries and fails over and over again to break free of the temporal prison he’s trapped in. Even as he feels like he’s getting closer to a solution, his dialogue reflects that, and if it’s all snatched away again he falls deeper down into the despair he was feeling before. It’s all very well handled and highly emotional in more ways than one.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few annoyances in Twelve Minutes that stop it from being a perfect title. The frustration of the main character is easily reflected in the frustration of the player as they have to redo a loop for the fortieth time. This is relatively minor, but it gets much worse when you get all the way through a time loop only to discover that a very arbitrary detail ruins your run, especially since in several cases you had no way of knowing about these details at all. Having to start again after this run isn’t particularly long-winded, but when you’re sitting through the content you’ve already seen 30 times because of a mistake you couldn’t have planned for it’s easy to get annoyed.
Another issue is that in aping old-school point-and-click games, you can’t help but drag along some of those hang-ups. Several situations in the game can only be solved with the very specific logic that the designer had in mind. There are a few moments where just using words would have solved an issue, but because the game was designed around the idea of solving that situation with an item, you’re stuck. It’s not too big of an issue as any mistake can easily be rectified by starting the loop again, but it’s still annoying when obvious solutions are passed over for the specific brand of logic that was on the developer’s mind.
If you find yourself getting frustrated with Twelve Minutes in the earlier parts of the game, allow me to give you some advice. Stop trying to solve the puzzles. If you go through the game just trying to find the correct answers you’re going to have a hard time. Instead, look around the apartment where the game takes place, and try interacting with everything. The key to having a good time here comes from experimenting and just seeing what you can do. I had a breakthrough in the game when instead of trying to solve puzzles, I just got fed up and started trying to annoy my wife instead, revealing a way for me to move forward.
Once you do reach the ending, you’ll find it is suitably twist-heavy for a thriller plot, even if the actual reveals do test the bounds of believability at times. Either way, the resolution is mostly satisfying, but in the sort of way that leaves you feeling almost uncomfortable by the end, but in a good way if that makes any sense. Despite the frustration, the reactive dialogue, interesting characters, and intriguing story make the experience well worth playing through, especially once it’s over and those feeling of frustration quickly become forgotten. At around a 2-3 hour experience, it’s a short but sweet adventure.
While the graphical fidelity isn’t anything to write home about itself, the style and visual tone of the game are incredibly well done. There’s a lot of atmospheric lighting, which really adds to the mood of the game, but the real star of the show in that area is the sound designed. Twelve Minutes does feature some music, partially on the radio and partially non-diegetic for the sake of building tension during stressful moments. Weirdly though, it’s not the music that’s impressive, it’s the ambient sounds. Rain on the window pains, the ding of an elevator, footsteps in the hall. It all goes together to create a scene that you feel like you’re really inside of and will feel incredibly familiar to you by the time you’re done.
Overall, I look back on my three hours with Twelve Minutes with a lot of fondness, and probably also a little bit of discomfort and confusion. All of the times that the game made me feel frustrated melt away in the revelations that came once I finally figured out what I was doing. If you’re the sort of gamer who can experience the same short segment of gameplay over and over again with a few minor changes to experience more storyline, then you’ll probably have an excellent time with one of the most polished and well-constructed story-based games in recent memory. Having said that, if you lack patience for frustration, it should be no surprise that you may give up before the game really gets going.