As the years go by, I have come to realised that video games have increasingly just become comfort food for me. There was a time where I would endeavour to play everything and anything that came out in order to give myself a rounder and more expansive perspective of what was available to me. These days I really do seem to want to stick with the tried and true games that I enjoy.
So it feels like a real nostalgia trip for me to come back and play a game like Twelve Minutes and be able to talk about it while it’s still a relatively hot topic.
I’m almost certainly going to spoil the events of Twelve Minutes during this post. So it you do have an interest in experiencing the game yourself, then I’d recommend against reading further. This is really one of those games that the act of talking about it will end up spoiling to some extent.
Twelve Minutes is one of those games that feels like its been coming out for a decade. Coming out of publisher Annapurna Interactive, this title is the brainchild of former Rockstar developer Luís António. The premise of the game was born in the very video gamey notion that most player learn and improve at a game through trial and error: trying something, failing and building on those failings to find success.
It’s the same premise that made the movie Edge of Tomorow feel like a video game movies much more than movies based on actual video games ever seemed to manage. Like my given example, Twelve Minutes takes place in a single apartment in which the player character finds themselves stuck in a ten minute time loop. During which time a Cop bursts into the apartment and demands to know the location of a watch from the player character’s wife.
Usually with violent results.
In the build-up to the game, it made a very strong early impression. The entire game takes place from a top down perspective and solely within the tiny three room apartment, only providing the player with a limited tool set going forward to try and solve the unravelling mystery that is the core of this game’s progression. It was what kept the game in people’s minds despite the arduously long lead-up time from its announcement to its release.
And that strong first impression transitions from the game’s marketing into the early stages of the game itself. Almost everyone who plays this game will have the same first “loop”, meeting the wife and having the desert while learning about her pregnancy. Only to get interrupted by the Cop and get strangled or punched out by him at the conclusion.
At these early stages of the game, when most everything is a blank slate is when the game is at its strongest. Trying things out, experimenting with items you do have access to and trying how you can manipulate and change the loop is amongst the most fun you’ll have with the game. In which changing something and starting to uncover the real reasons behind this Cop’s invasion is exhilarating.
Like all mysteries though, the real task comes with how effectively the writer manages to close the deal and make the conclusion of the story, no matter how mundane or insane the actual truth ends up being. And the deeper the player digs into the mystery of Twelve Minutes, the less effective I think it ends up being.
In part due to the methods it takes to get there, and then also in the actual realities behind the final mystery being laid bare.
I’ll cover the methods first… There is a real lack of guidance when it comes to assisting the player in progressing the mystery. Because you’re playing through a ten minute time loop over and over, it can very very easy to become hyper-fixated on certain aspects of what is going on and end up spending loop after loop going at the story from the wrong direction.
While this is tiny development team, it feels like there are certain interactions that end up being dead ends when they really should have some kind of narrative payoff. Even if it were a fail-state, at least you knew that the game acknowledged your train of thought and said “I like what you’re thinking, but that’s wrong“. Rather than just giving you a dead end that ends up making it feel like you might have done something wrong rather than the developer simply not guiding you effectively enough.
I had to look up guides to progress in the game several times because I found myself focusing down on a very specific aspect of the loop without realising I had missed some super obvious alternative that happened much earlier in the sequence. It was almost like I’d sequence broken the narrative and the game couldn’t find a way to account for pointing out what it was I’d missed.
It’s the major frustration with the game mechanically. While it’s cool that the game wants the player to use their own observational skills and intuition to recognise things in the loop as important, because you’re locked into playing the ten minutes over and over, it’s super easy to brush over some early part of the loop because you’re in a rush to get to the part later on that you think is important when it’s no. Or at least not yet.
My frustrations with the mechanics could be forgiven if the mystery itself had a satisfying payoff. But as you could probably guess based on what I’ve said already; that doesn’t end up being the case.
Without much of real warning, this content of this story goes to some pretty dark and unpleasant places. While it initially starts off making you think it’s a story about simply trying to save you, your wife and your unborn child from this strange invading Agent 47 looking mother fucker, when you do that and the loop begins again, you’re left to continue digging into things to find out what the hell more there is to learn.
After the traditional “happy” ending to the story has passed, you start to dig deeper into the murder from 20 years previously that drives the three major characters in their actions within this brief loop. And as you reach the final conclusion of the story, approaching what feels like the final truth of events, the game forces you to make what I feel is an unnatural leap of logic in order to finally put the story to bed.
Without digging too far into the weeds of how you get there, the final big reveal of the mystery is that the “father” of your wife, who was also the mentor of the invading Cop was murdered by his bastard son, born from an affair with the nanny. The final twist in the tale the game wants to shock you with is that the player character is that same son, half brother to the Wife who has somehow blocked the whole murder and stalking of his sister from his mind.
Now, this could have been a pretty effective shock twist to the story in a traditionally told mystery story like this. The problem is that the game requires the player to figure out this twist themselves in order to reveal it to the other characters in the room. Which kind of lessens the entire impact of the revelation in my eyes.
Here’s why I have a problem with it: it was a twist my brain could arrive at on its own. The game spends so much time showing how this couple genuinely love one another, how the wife is pregnant and the fact that the baby clothes she uses to reveal she’s pregnant at the start of the game are the key to figuring out the truth. With all of this in mind, the idea that I was supposed to reach the conclusion that the husband was actually her brother and their child was a product of incest never entered my mind.
Nor do I think I would have been able to come to that conclusion on my own without looking it up online. I feel like it’s part failure of the mechanics to keep those baby clothes a prominent enough element in the story throughout that by the time they become a key to solving the entire mystery, they’re the last possible thing in my mind. But also because it’s such a strange twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere for me that I would have never managed to reach that conclusion myself.
I’ve seen a lot of the other strong reactions to this game complain about how triggering the content of the game is. How it deals with elements of stalking, parental and sibling abuse and unhealthy relationships. I suppose I struggle to see why that would be the most upsetting aspect of the game when it starts with a home invasion and a murder. But these elements are the crux of the story by the time the full truth is out in the open and even I find them offputting.
So much so that the game actually does have a number of endings the player can activate using all this information, but by the time I got there, it had left such a sour taste in my mouth, for all of the reasons listed above that I just wanted to be done with it. Which is the feeling I read most other people seem to be walking away from it with also.
Twelve Minutes is a game front-loaded with such a strong premise, and gives a super strong first impression. And then slides further and further down with trajectory of a slope on a right angle triangle. It’s strange that I feel like so many people seem to be having the exact same experience with the game in almost the exact same way as I did.
It’s a cool game in theory, but the choices behind the reveal of the final mystery and narrative of the game were off-putting enough that most people don’t really want to interact with is every again after seeing it. Unless you boil it down to a pre mechanics toybox. something that has since lost it’s appeal to me after lord know how many loops.
Twelve Minutes isn’t bad. It’s just divisive and is a cool idea I feel has legs if the developer wants to expand the idea out one more degree. But, y’know, without the incest.