Xbox One, PC, Xbox Series X
August 19, 2021
I don’t envy the developers of puzzle games. Surely there is no genre more fraught with unintentional pitfalls. There is a lot of skill that goes into finding the right balance of challenge, as well as providing a solid thread of logic to follow. Even then, a developer cannot guarantee a player will interpret things in the same way. Players may pursue other lines of logic that you, the developer, didn’t even consider. Such is the case when I played Twelve Minutes. It’s an interesting gameplay concept telling quite a good story, which harnesses a style that is minimalist but contains impressive depth. But beware, venture too far off the path and you may become lost in the woods.
Glock Around the Clock – The Story Starts
“Viewing Twelve Minutes as a roguelike obscures what this game more closely resembles, which is that of a branching narrative”
Twelve Minutes falls into the increasingly popular theme of time loops in games. I imagine that the popularity and prevalence of roguelikes plays a large part in the sudden time loop influx. After all, what is a time loop but a roguelike narrative? As it will become clear though, Twelve Minutes does not map cleanly onto this mindset. Part of my difficulty with the game may even come from that very misconception. Viewing Twelve Minutes as a roguelike obscures what this game more closely resembles, which is that of a branching narrative. It is more a game of pulling scraps of information from various runs, and the revelations that come from talking to other characters.
Your first turn of the wheel starts innocently enough. A man returns home from work. His wife has made dessert and hands him a present. It’s a onesie, she’s pregnant with his child. The levity and joyful atmosphere are temporary, broken by a pounding on the front door. A police officer has arrived. The wife has been accused of murdering her father, but the cop is not just here to arrest her. The officer places the couple in handcuffs and demands the wife give him a key piece of evidence: a pocket watch. Upon refusing, the cop raises the stakes, strangling you. The wife relents, but halfway through her disclosure, the man, who is the player character, collapses just inside the apartment’s front door. He is not dead, and neither the cop nor the wife is in the room anymore. He has been reset for the first time in this time loop. If he leaves the apartment, dies, or reaches the end of 10 minutes, he re-emerges just inside the apartment’s front door. Unless he can figure out how to break the cycle, that is.
Minute Detail – The Simple Design of Twelve Minutes
Twelve Minutes is a fascinating case study in doing a lot with a little. That’s part of the charm of a lot of what indie games as a whole have on offer. I mean there is economic storytelling, and then there is a narrative focused on the drama between “Man”, “Wife” and “Cop”. This may sound like a backhand, but trust me it isn’t. A lot of Twelve Minutes comes across this way: simple, but not so simple as to be confusing. Not to sound ostentatious, but I’m reminded of “No Exit” by Jean-Paul Sartre. The point I want to make is simply that there is a rather well-portioned narrative put in place, albeit one that doesn’t always hit me in the sweet spot.
There are some parts of the story that don’t quite hit the mark. Now, as this is a mystery story, I will do my best to avoid anything that borders on spoiling the twists. But hey, feel free to skip a few paragraphs if so inclined. I’m a big fan of mysteries, and it takes a very skilled hand to tread the right balance. On one hand, you want there to be big twists and reveals. On the other, there needs to be a solid thread of logic to pull on. The latter is even more important in a game, as the player needs some manner of direction. As we will discuss, the gameplay itself is not going to push players towards the ending. So the narrative is tilted towards “clear and obvious logic”. Unfortunately, this means that taken as a whole, the mystery is a little obvious. Although with that said, it’s not as though I predicted the whole story from the get-go.
The ending itself, once again not wishing to spoil, is a bit out there. Firstly, getting to that scene is… it’s odd. Aesthetically pleasing, thematically appealing, but tonally there’s a bit of dissonance here. I suppose it’s just an odd disconnect. The rest of the plot is, aside from the obvious time loop element, soberingly mundane in its presentation. Maybe that is why it feels jarring, it has to be to shake you out of how numb and defeated the game can leave you. The final layer is an interesting one. I won’t go into specifics, but it ties in well with a little detail from the start of the whole game. It leads to the entire thing feeling and, to an extent, being very open-ended. Granted, it further undermines the denouement of the whole thing. Of course, this leads to the classic counterargument: the ending feels unsatisfying because that’s the whole point. I’m never sure what to make of that argument. I can’t really explain why it fits but suffice to say it fits somewhat. However, regardless of the ending’s intellectual justification, at the end of a long first playthrough, it didn’t leave me satiated.
The Big Time – Adding Depth, and One Hell of a Cast
Regardless of how simplified some elements of Twelve Minutes are, there is still a great deal of depth to how the game presents itself. The top-down view does make navigating the world easy, but it also lends a feeling of detachment. It mirrors the detachment we have from the wife and the cop. These are two deep characters, yet hollow when pacing their pre-determined routes through each recurrence of the evening. The top-down view also makes these characters seem powerless to resist the forces that seek to ruin them. The developer’s decision to set the game across only three rooms may invite warranted critique of small scope, but I don’t view it as such. It feels instead like a narrative that is both spatially and temporally claustrophobic yet has impressive depth.
“It feels instead like a narrative that is both spatially and temporally claustrophobic yet has impressive depth.”
Of course, a lot of the praise in the cinematic feel must be laid at the feet of the actors. A cast of only three actors and you get James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe? That’s kind of nuts. Fangirling aside, creating deep soberingly real characters that you can connect with, yet unable to read the expressions of, is an achievement. I would be also remiss if I didn’t lay some praise out for the motion capture actors too. Both the voice acting and the physical interactions of the characters are picking up a lot more work than usual here. The amount of attention to detail in both spheres is truly impressive.
Game Time – Do the Mechanics Stand Up?
The narrative may be well and good, but the pre-release anxiety has been aimed at the gameplay. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in the same boat. After all, a game set in a shoebox apartment doesn’t feel like it’d have the room to have good gameplay. I’d argue that the mechanics, like the narrative, are smaller in scale, but it’s deeper than it looks. On the surface level, the top-down look enables some very straightforward point and click interactions. Take an empty cup, rub it on the sink, receive a cup full of water, that kind of thing. That being said, simple cause-and-effect can lead to much more complicated webs of logic. It’s through manipulating these branching paths that you can control the story that unfolds. In doing so, you gain opportunities to plumb deeper and deeper wells of knowledge and understanding. What’s further impressive about the small scale is that virtually everything has a purpose. I said earlier that I didn’t like the final twist. There’s one caveat to that critique. The final twist hinges on a casual, offhand comment about an item at the start of the game. It was a really impressive way to tie the entire experience together. There isn’t any flab here, it’s all laid out for you to parse through dialogue by dialogue. Well, that’s the ideal at least. In practice, you can, and I sure as hell did, try and push down a completely wrong path.
In trying to finish the game to get straight onto reviewing this thing, I inadvertently took twice as long to finish it. Of course, the cosmic joke is that this is good news for all the people worried about the game being too short. But in all seriousness, I took 12 hours to sunset this game. To counterbalance this, and restore a shred of ego, the second run took me about 90 minutes. Recommended runtime from the devs is 6-8 hours, I’d say that may be a fair estimate. It’ll come down to how quickly you can follow the threads and/or get your bearings on how to get over certain hurdles.
So, why did it take me so bloody long to finish the first run? From my perspective, I was following leads, and trying to make the most of opportunities. In reality, I was running down the wrong pathways, and honestly, most of the exaggerated length is my own fault. But I’m not just saying all this for the purposes of public self-flagellation. It demonstrates that there is a downside to leaving the player with minimal guidance.
There is a tendency with this game to leave the player to their own devices. What that means in a practical sense is that the player isn’t told how to progress. At no point does the game explicitly state a goal; your top-left corner will remain untouched by objective text. This is part of the need for that “clear and obvious logic” I was talking about. With no “go and talk to wife” text, you have the license to circumvent any conversation, which I did. I mean hell, I wouldn’t see the value in talking to my wife if she would just think I’m crazy or whatever. So I was free to go off the rails into a land of pure speculation.
Diminishing Returns – Opening Up to Experimentation, or How I Spent 12 hours Playing a 6-8 Hour Game
Each loop is a perfect little experiment. The small scope ensures you only have so many permutations to try out, you can see all manner of branches to create distinct timelines. From the outset, this was a genius part of the game. An unexpected failure can nonetheless draw attention to how tiny changes can reverberate into serious ramifications. In this way, it can encourage you to try out every possible combination of actions to arrive at the desired result. There is definitely a need to try things out. You do need to do that to a certain extent. I, to put it mildly, really overshot that extent.
When you have no guard rails and no clear goals, it can drive you a little crazy. I don’t make a habit of it, but I’m not above brute-forcing the odd puzzle. I try not to go off the deep end. If faced with a four-digit lock, I don’t immediately start entering all 10,000 combinations. But hey if I know 3 or even 2 digits, and I can’t find another clue, how long could it take? There are some obvious holes in applying that logic to Twelve Minutes. For starters, the time loops throw the comparison quite out of scale. After all, it usually doesn’t take 5 minutes to test a new four-digit combo. Despite this and other holes in the plan, I still went ahead. I have multiple pages of A5 exercise book paper full of notes. My decline of sanity is quite literally documented. Rational experiments and their results, that over time devolve into incoherent speculative nonsense. In one example I tried to get my wife to drink a cup of water, whilst also making sure she never saw me. Without any context, that sounds ridiculous. With context, it’s… well it’s ridiculous in a way that at least feigns rationality. What I was trying to do is play this like a roguelike, where succeeding at the game means accumulating tactics. Using previous runs to further hone my strategy to perfection, to slide straight through from arriving at the front door, to whatever ending the game has cooked up for me. In a sense I did succeed, but not in the way I had hoped.
When the stars aligned and I reached my first ending, I wasn’t pleased. It was a laborious affair to reach that point, the ending itself firmly lands in the “BAD END” category. To further punish me for my hubris, I got an achievement labelled “Coward”. Healing or not, I don’t really want that kind of salt rubbed into my wounds. So perhaps it’s good that wasn’t the true ending, retrospectively, I’m glad it wasn’t. “Retrospectively” is the keyword there. Going through all that and then getting dumped back at the start regardless? Well, I’m not allowed to use the kind of language I would need to properly communicate my lack of composure. Hard as it may be to believe, I wouldn’t have said that I was grateful.
“Each loop is a perfect little experiment. The small scope ensures you only have so many permutations to try out…”
This is the other side of the coin to the “clear and obvious logic”. Logic can push us as to what to do next. Though it doesn’t smooth out the emotional speedbump of getting reset when you thought you had finally broken the chain. Suffice to say there are a few of these, and I’ll cut some slack here; it is a big part of the genre. The scary thing about stuff like time loops is there is no escape. But goddamn if it doesn’t just make every inch of my skin sizzle all the same.
Also worth mentioning that the ending of the game is so far out in story terms, and gameplay-wise it’s a bit unhinged as well. It’s not how you have been doing things up to that point. It’s off enough that the game seemingly cheats the system a little. They put the solution kind of in front of you, once again trying not to spoil. I mean, on one hand, I can’t conceive of someone just stumbling into the solution otherwise. On the other hand, it once again solidifies how left field the whole sequence is.
Finally, the game has bugs, but not ones that upset the game too much. I should qualify that statement, some glitches are pretty common. Top of the list is that characters will just walk straight through one another. Makes a bit of sense. Characters have strict schedules and limited pathways. Hell, even functional animations can come across stiff. If the cop finds you, you’re grappled, spun around 180 degrees, marched out the door to the wide-open living room, where there is ample space to throw you into your little section of carpet real estate. Similarly, I found that hiding spots could be found, even if the person didn’t seem to be close enough to see me. The juicier glitches came from going off the rails. Of course, they can’t test every possible combination. So for example, I saw an opportunity to get the jump on the cop, he beat me up as usual. The difference here was that he managed to land his blows through a closed door. In another run, attempting to hand the cop an item led his AI to completely blank on my presence. The loop ended with me eating dessert with a rather intense man standing stock still menacing the wall behind me.
- Simple presentation belies a lot of depth
- The Narrative, if occasionally predictable, is well portioned out
- The cast and the motion capture is very impressive
- No real guard rails to prevent you meandering off-track
- As per time loops, there are a lot of false endings
Twelve Minutes is a game of dualities. It is very economic in how it presents itself. The focus is tight on three characters, in a small apartment that houses the few instruments of change at your disposal. This allows each little detail to have a nauseating amount of depth to it, including the fantastic performances of the characters and their backstories. The downside to this is that it can lead players astray, due to the limitless possibilities and comparatively limited guidance. Regardless, Twelve Minutes is a tidy and reasonably well-told pressure-cooker drama with few divots, provided you can follow the path.