There’s a reason why mainstream media often depicts hell in an endless time loop format. It’s because repeating the same thing over and over again is never fun. So who’s bright idea was it to make a video game out of that concept with a very poor skip function? Five hours. Five hours it took me to finish Luis Antonio’s point-and-click adventure game, Twelve Minutes, which doesn’t seem very long in video game standards, but that was five hours of hearing the same conversations over and over again. My new party trick is going to be reciting the entire script of Twelve Minutes.
Repetition was to be expected from a game about a man caught in a time loop. This man (James McAvoy) comes home from work to be greeted by his wife (Daisy Ridley) who has some exciting news for him and she’s prepared dessert (strangely enough, without dinner) in celebration. But their romantic meal is interrupted when a cop (Willem Dafoe) forces his way into the flat and accuses your wife of murdering her father. The night will end with you either being knocked out or killed, and then it starts again with you entering the apartment, unable to leave until you have solved the mystery. But just because repetition was to be expected, doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been handled better. You can skip certain conversations, but only one script line at a time, so be prepared for plenty of clicking through dialogue. And to top it off, some conversations can’t be skipped. Which, overall, just makes the experience incredibly painful if you’re stuck on a certain loop whilst trying to explore some different options.
The gameplay of Twelve Minutes consists of guiding the main character around the apartment and picking up objects to interact with. Discovering evidence will open up new dialogue options to explore and help put the pieces together to solve the mystery. Each loop will reset if the husband is knocked out or killed, if he leaves the apartment or every ten minutes, putting extra added pressure onto the player to get the information they need before time runs out. Once the loop has been reset, the husband can use the information he has gathered to progress. Certain interactions involve discovering phone numbers on the cop’s phone and calling them on your wife’s phone once the loop has been reset, or picking up certain details that you can use to prove to your wife that you’re stuck in a time loop.
Twelve Minutes had everything going for it, to begin with. Inspired by psychological thriller classics such as Memento and Rear Window, as well as directing legends Stanley Kubrick and David Fincher. It had already set expectations high by nodding towards these elements with its references in the poster and even the carpet of the hallway leading up to the apartment is the same one from The Shining. On top of that, it was backed up by great performances from high profile A-list actors James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe. To put it bluntly, Twelve Minutes needed to be bloody good to live up to expectations after all that.
Unfortunately, it suffers from a bad case of ‘side characters not sharing anything and therefore making the situation worse’. Your wife refuses to reveal the location of the pocket watch the cop is after, even as he is strangling you to death. The cop will not listen to any reason unless you go to extreme lengths and won’t even explain the situation to you, which only makes things worse for himself when you discover his circumstances. It doesn’t make sense. And if this wasn’t bad enough, the storyline is disgusting and I’m genuinely disturbed that, out of the three endings, which one is considered to be the real one. This story was coming with a twist, it was bound to happen with influences such as these, but the twist was so painfully obvious in parts that it felt like the game was literally spoon-feeding you the answers, becoming less of a task of slowly unravelling the mystery in each loop and more about desperately trying to trigger the prompts to get the characters to say what you want so that you can progress.
Despite being an adventure game, Twelve Minutes is really lacking in the adventure aspects. After some research, I discovered that the game was initially planned to be much bigger, which a larger cast and map. It didn’t need this. What it needed was a big game in a small space; a plethora of small choices that will build up to cause the hurricane from the butterfly’s wings. Why can’t our character try climbing out of the window? Or tell his wife to go and hide, even after you convince her you’re stuck in a time loop and a cop is coming to get you? Why can’t you give the knife to your wife so that she can defend herself? None of it makes sense and it means the characters don’t feel like real people because they’re not making realistic decisions. Why on Earth are these not options, but drugging your wife is? And this is the only way to progress in the game, I might add. Because otherwise when Willem Dafoe enters the apartment, she consistently just stands there and does nothing if you’re the first person to be tied up, yet if you try and hide she will expose your hiding place by stupidly calling you out. Drugging your wife, it’s twisted but it’s the only way forward because it seems the storyline has gone for ‘shocking’ rather than clever to generate more impact. The game doesn’t even acknowledge that the husband is doing something unspeakable, it’s just like ‘hey yeah, just spike your wife’s drink, I’m sure that’s ethical’. The characters in Twelve Minutes are already hugely dislikeable, being some of the most selfish creatures on the planet, but it doesn’t help that they act so much like broken AI.
Twelve Minutes needed a really impactful storyline to work, that and some decent mechanics to deal with the inevitable boredom that will come from a time loop game, but it fails to deliver on both of these. It started off well, I enjoyed spending the first hour or two exploring the apartment and discovering the various options available at my disposal. But this wears off pretty quickly as you suddenly realise there’s a very specific order things needs to be done in to get it right. And if you get it wrong, then you need to start again. Which is painful, especially when it’s so easy to get it wrong, with the slightest mistake triggering Willem Dafoe to just knock you out again. We were midway through a deep and meaningful conversation, when I thought maybe presenting him with the object he needed would help, but it only abruptly triggered his ‘kill mode’ again and he resumed to strangle me. Not to mention my playthrough was heavily broken with bugs towards the end, meaning I missed the final cutscene and had to watch the end on YouTube. The worst thing about Twelve Minutes is that it is a massive pile of wasted potential. It’s obvious that a lot of time has gone into it, being that Antonio has been working on it for a very long time since it was first premiered at PAX East in 2015. But, with the amount of money that must have gone into the cast, I can help but think what could have been if that budget had been left with the storyline and mechanics instead. Antonio’s biggest missight can be trailed back to his interview with Entertainment Weekly, where he describes wanting Twelve Minutes to feel like a cinematic experience. Unfortunately, we’ve seen too many games recently trying this feat, many were much bigger projects with more hands on deck. And it’s clear to see that too much time was spent trying to balance between the two when in actual fact this is a video game at first and foremost. Not a great experience. Not a $25 experience anyway, maybe it will be worth it when it’s cheaper.