Providing storytellers with opportunities for subversive humor and thought-provoking dilemmas, the time loop narrative concept is seemingly evergreen — though few stories have managed to do anything new since “Groundhog Day.”
In the world of video games, this year alone is also seeing the release of several time loop titles, such as Returnal and the upcoming Deathloop, in addition to indie developer Luis António’s recently released puzzle game Twelve Minutes.
On the surface, Twelve Minutes at least appears to be something unique. Unlike the action-based shooter gameplay of Returnal and Deathloop, this game is a slow-paced point-and-click narrative that takes place entirely in a one-bedroom apartment. Players control a husband (James McAvoy) who returns home to find that his wife (Daisy Ridley) has planned a special romantic evening to reveal some big news. Minutes into their dinner, however, an intruder (Willem Dafoe) breaks into their apartment, accuses the wife of murder and strangles the husband to death.
Time then rewinds to the moment the husband entered the apartment, and it soon becomes clear that the evening is repeating itself. The following 12 minutes become a cycle that the husband must find a way to break by stopping the intruder. In order to do so, players must use different strategies to solve puzzles in each subsequent loop, learning more information about the situation by, for example, moving objects or hiding to observe how characters behave alone.
This intriguing setup is bolstered by the stellar audiovisual style. The game’s top-down, voyeuristic perspective gives the story a foreboding atmosphere and places players in a position of omniscience over the happenings below. The claustrophobic setting of the apartment grows more and more menacing as the loop continues to trap players within its confines, and the nonrealistic graphics strike a perfect balance between quirky and uncanny. Ticking clocks are a recurring motif, complemented by a moving score that is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s work on films such as “Vertigo.”
Soon, however, the finely crafted facade begins to crack. Though Twelve Minutes purports to deal with the consequences of one’s actions, its technical limitations prevent players from experimenting in any meaningful way. Despite giving players a toolkit and a sandbox, with minimal hand holding, the scope of possibilities narrows rapidly and there is a disappointing lack of variation for potential solutions to the situation. Twelve Minutes encourages players to try new things, but discourages them from acting intelligently, often preventing players from thinking beyond the next step.
As a result, moments that are tense and emotional in the first run-through quickly become routine. This desensitization is part of the game’s fascination, but it fails to satisfyingly capitalize on the winding promises of the time loop premise.
Another reason Twelve Minutes’ story does not fully resonate with its players is due to its one-dimensional approach to the wife’s character. Despite being the story’s centerpiece, Ridley’s character, known throughout the game simply as “Wife,” is mannequinlike. She is defined almost exclusively along dated gender roles — she cooks, sets the table and really only matters to the story in terms of the relationships with her husband and her father.
Throughout the game, players are given the impetus to subject the wife to horrific violence and torture. The game makes the case that, through this subject matter, it’s commenting on violence against women. However, a ridiculous, genuinely sickening, borderline nonsensical third act twist flies in the face of such an effort, and anything the game has to say about gendered power dynamics and cycles of violence is lost behind pseudo-intellectual psychological bulls—.
Much of the promotional material about Twelve Minutes boasts its all-star cast. For the most part, however, McAvoy and Ridley’s talents are wasted. They both put on unnecessary American accents, and without the marketing, their performances would be indistinguishable from any other actors’. Dafoe, on the other hand, has such recognizable line delivery that it’s difficult not to picture the actor instead of the character. Their performances are also hampered by haphazard audio editing, which features jarring changes in tone and inflection that make many lines sound robotic and unnatural.
It’s clear that with Twelve Minutes, António wants to blow your mind. After a solid setup, however, there is little beyond the superficial film references that leave a lasting impression on players.
This review is based on the PC version of Twelve Minutes.