In the era of $100 million dollar budgets and ‘games as service’ hits, most video game publishers have become increasingly weary of doing anything too radical or outside the box, instead going for the sure fire hits and yearly updated releases. That’s why I appreciate publishers like Annapurna Interactive who aren’t afraid to support developers who are taking chances and trying to create something more ambitious. Sadly though sometimes that ambition can be more than what the game makers are actually able to deliver. In the case of 12 Minutes, the ideas behind the game are admittedly brilliant, but the execution unfortunately doesn’t always hit the mark.
The game begins as a husband (the player) is returning home from work on what seems like a pretty typical evening. His wife has prepared the two of them a delicious desert as a special treat, they put on some music to set the mood, and slow dance in the living room. She tells him to wait while she goes into the bedroom because she has a surprise for him. And then comes the knock on the door.
This is the moment in which the lives of this young couple will be shattered forever. A police officer enters the apartment and accuses your wife of murder, shoving you out of the way and slamming her to the ground. Depending on how you react to the situation from here the evening will end in a number of violent and terrible ways. The catch is that every twelve minutes (or sooner if you end up hurt or dead) time loops back to the moment when you enter the apartment, making you relive those events over and over again. The first time it happens the husband is understandably panicked and confused, not understanding what’s happened. But after it happens over and over he begins to realize that he’s trapped, doomed to repeat this horrible encounter endlessly. Luckily you (and you alone) retain the memories of the loop before and are able to change the course of the evening through your words and actions. Dialogue choices will allow you to try and diffuse the situation, or escalate it if you want, and by interacting with objects in the environment you’ll be able to change the course of events and search for clues as to what’s really going on.
It’s an absolutely fantastic setup for a game and ever since I saw the announcement trailer, the game has been high on my most anticipated list. Going in I also expected the game to be much more of a narrative focused adventure game with some light puzzle elements, but in fact the puzzle aspect of the game plays as big of a role as the storytelling, if not more so. Everything you do in 12 Minutes is in service of trying to find out information. You don’t get new items at the start of a loop or upgrade anything, it’s the information you find out over the course of those dozen minutes that allows you to progress further in the story. In that way it reminds me a bit of one of my favorite games of the past decade, Outer Wilds. The more you know, the further into the story you’ll be able to progress by possessing more knowledge from the outset. It’s a great mechanic, but unfortunately the game doesn’t do a great job of leaving you a trail of bread crumbs to follow to your next bit of information, instead forcing you to just try anything you can think of to see what kind of reaction it brings.
A great puzzle game gives you sense of accomplishment as you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, but in 12 Minutes I never felt smart or clever for something I discovered. I would often resort to bizarre, out of character behavior just to see if the reaction would reveal something useful, or antagonizing the cop to see what he might say or do. There are a few “aha” moments when a clue will lead you to something in a satisfying way, but more often than not you’re just throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. It gets even more frustrating when you get halfway through a loop and accidentally make a mistake that closes off any further progress, like pissing of your wife who then locks herself in the bedroom. You do have the ability to manually reset the time loop by leaving the apartment, but it is so frustrating to hit a roadblock through no real fault of your own and have to do it all over and over again.
Like Outer Wilds, it’s difficult to speak too much about the specifics of the game without spoiling anything as, like I said, everything you experience or learn over the course of your time loops will serve to further your progress. But I will say that I think there are some great ideas here and there are glimpses of something great, but the game is constantly tripping over itself and I have to wonder if they just bit off a bit more than they could chew with a game this complex with so many moving pieces. There are definite moments when you can tell the game is having a hard time keeping everything straight. Some of those moments come when there are multiple ways in which to learn an important piece of information. You may have already discovered one piece of the mystery, but when you come across a different clue which informs that same thing, the husband will act shocked as if it’s the first time he’s learning this. It didn’t happen often but it definitely breaks the immersion when it did.
Something similar can also happen with the actual performances of the actors in the game. Overall the all-star cast does a great job. James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley play the husband and wife, and Willem Dafoe is always a joy in whatever he does and he plays the role of the police officer well. But the game can again get confused about where all of the pieces fit together and you’ll come across moments of dialogue that feel out of place, specifically with the tone. For instance a fairly calm conversation can have a line of dialogue with a much more aggressive tone in the middle of it. Why is the husband all of a sudden so angry? Probably because the actor wasn’t quite sure where that particular puzzle piece fit into the bigger picture.
It may sound like a pretty harsh review at this point, but despite all of the issues I had with the game I still feel like it’s an interesting and unique experience worth checking out for those who love narrative focused indies. There are some interesting twists during the finale and it’s the kind of game that will have you looking up theories online afterwards about the game’s multiple endings (which I like). The bones are there for something truly fantastic and I would love to see what director Luis Antonio does in his sophomore effort. I think it’s simply a case of a person’s ambitions being loftier than what they were capable of achieving. At the end of the day though, I’d still rather see developers take big swings like this and not quite pull it off, rather than play it safe and churn out more of the same.