As a narrative adventure there are some aspects of 12 Minutes that you might want to experience without any prior knowledge. While we’ve done our best not to spoil the tale, there are structural spoilers ahead as they are directly related to the final score.
The cinematic sheen of Twelve Minutes is undeniable. Perhaps you might have gotten an inkling of the game through its star-studded, Hollywood cast of voice actors—Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy, and Willem Dafoe—who have imbued the title with a veneer of prestige, elevating it beyond its scrappy beginnings: a game made by one guy while juggling a full-time job as part of the development team for 2016’s The Witness. It’s a tactic that its developer, Luís António, has smartly leaned into, with the game billed as an interactive thriller about a man stuck in a time loop. Even the game’s poster looks like it’s plucked right out of a Stanley Kubrick movie catalogue.
The time loop trope may have been thrust into popular consciousness by the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, but it’s also one that’s curiously adaptable to games, with the means of pulling together the huge chasm between the cinematic and videogame language. That is, movies require you to cede a certain amount of control, and the interactivity of games is about yielding control back to you. And par for the course in time loops, you’ll inevitably lose control of the day as it resets itself. By keeping this loop to a brief 12 minutes—thus letting players scour about for clues while keeping a tight rein over the game’s transitions—Twelve Minutes gradually and brilliantly tightens the elasticity of time, heightening the mounting tension at every cycle.
So this is the time loop in question: you’re a man who’s coming home after work to a cozy candlelight meal with your wife. This otherwise mundane night, however, gets interrupted by a cop who barges into your home, accusing your wife of murdering her father eight years ago. Retaliate against the policeman, and you’ll get knocked out—and the evening resets itself, with you collapsing right at the front door. The point, as you’ll intuitively understand, is to figure out why all these are taking place and hopefully stop the time loop once and for all.
At first, Twelve Minutes is meticulously presented and relentlessly succinct; the entirety of the game takes place across just three or four locations. There are a couple of loose threads you can pull at to unravel the mystery behind the entire sequence: an unopened present, a polaroid picture, uneaten desserts. And across several loops, you’ll see patterns emerging; your wife will be busy in the toilet for a few brief moments, before coming out to greet you with a hug and a kiss.
She’ll whip out a book to read while waiting for you to settle down. A faulty light switch will always trigger a cry of exclamation from her, as she gently admonishes you to get that fixed. What happens if one of these routines is disrupted, the parameters of this time loop lightly tugged at? At this stage you’re simply poking at possibilities and uncovering vital clues, playing at detective and drawing conclusions of your own. And when you chance upon a previously unseen clue or unlocked a new dialogue option, the rush of exhilaration and relief from breaking through a stalemate is electrifying.
But these initial impressions soon become tinged with a growing sense of tedium and weariness. After several rounds of the time loop, your wife’s warmth becomes grating. You yearn to speed through all the niceties and smash through the boundaries of the loop to get to the crux of the mystery. That usually means putting yourself—and your poor wife—through a thoroughly callous regiment of violence and abuse, until you grow numb to these cycles of exploitation reenacted by your own hands.
The nonstop twists to the mystery, as if being introduced in a desperate bid to hold your attention, are exhausting and nauseous—and it’s at this point where Twelve Minutes slowly outstays its welcome. Somehow, the game attempts to reconcile this grind by cutting its conversations short, with the man spitting rapid-fire truths about the myriad twists and turns that got both of you where you are. At one point, your wife will simply mutter variations of “Uh, what?” until she ends up sobbing, and it would have been hilarious if the events leading up to this weren’t so marred by brutality and contempt for its own characters.
I don’t think Twelve Minutes had any intentions to be transgressive; at its heart it’s a murder mystery, and its violence isn’t particularly juvenile, even though it’s discomforting because it feels necessary to resolving the game’s enigmatic case. But there is a primal cruelty in these actions—one that I did not want to participate in, unlike more supposedly violent fare like first-person shooters—which belie the game’s seemingly benign Hollywood premise. Then there’s the final nail on the game’s coffin: its attempt to shock audiences one more time with the biggest and most unbelievable of twists, an inclusion so perverse and unexpected that it made me contort my face in sheer disappointment.
Yet perhaps this conclusion is inevitable. The time loop formula is built upon repetition, and breaking free of this routine is always going to be a hassle. In one instance, you confessed to your wife in exasperation that you’re living through the same minutes over and over again, and your wife nods in mock agreement, saying that she has those nights herself. Being made to relieve the same evening infinitely is sure to induce feelings of dreariness, even for players of the game, and maybe it’s António’s efforts to reinvigorate these moments with increasingly bombastic plot twists. It’s like keeping up with a fib you’ve spun up on the fly; the only way to keep that going is to tell bigger and fanciful lies until it all comes crashing down. And that’s probably Twelve Minutes’ undoing: that it has fabricated such a persuasive, compelling story at the beginning until it simply couldn’t outdo the immensity of its astonishing tale towards the end.