From Luis Antonio and Annapurna Interactive, 12 Minutes takes the Groundhog Day scenario and puts a murder conspiracy on top of it, asking you to untangle a deep-set mystery and complete the puzzle of your wife’s past. Unfortunately, however, this never-ending temporal thrill ride has just a few too many nauseating twists.
Murder on Groundhog Day
It’s hardly new ground, but 12 Minutes is hoping to make novel use of the typical Groundhog Day scenario. A far cry away from Bill Murray-esque hijinks, 12 Minutes takes place exclusively in one apartment amongst three characters, each embroiled in their own way in some murder plot from the past. You take control of the husband of the house (voiced by James McAvoy) returning home to his adoring wife (voiced by Daisy Ridley). She has a surprise for you, she exclaims as you come in to your small, dilapidated yet humble apartment. Now here on your first run you have no reason really to be expecting anything out the ordinary, and so you can just let the scene play out as your wife surprises you with your favourite dessert and tells you that she is pregnant. Great news! A celebratory slow waltz to your favourite song, lovers cradled in adoration—all is right in the world.
That illusion is quickly shattered by a ringing doorbell and so, as all great adventures should be, your new journey begins with the gruff yet oh so brilliant shouts of one Willem Dafoe, claiming to be a policeman with a warrant for your wife’s arrest. Dafoe claims that your wife murdered her father eight years ago, and before you can get to the bottom of what is going on you are strangled to death, only to awake again back at your front door, exactly as you were 12 minutes ago.
Here begins the 12 Minutes puzzle. You have these short loops to try to learn more about this murder plot and how best to change the loop at every iteration, hoping to eventually clear your wife’s name. As you learn more about your wife and your apartment you’ll be able to work together little solutions to piece together the puzzle, however plenty of patience will be needed here. Trial and error is pretty much the name of the game until you start to find yourself in a groove, making more and more sense of the situation and how to solve it as it opens up.
The Issue with Time Loops
Let’s get more into the technical aspects of the game. Time-loop games are not new, and they can be very inventive with how they best dispense new information every time you go through. By their very nature a time loop game will be repetitive, so it is up to the game to then find a way to not make that repetition grating. Unfortunately I think this is where 12 Minutes does begin to struggle.
On console the controls can be clunky, which is particularly annoying when a missed button press here or there can be the difference between progressing and having to sit through the exact same conversations again. You will need the patience of a saint at times because you are going to have to redo the same actions a lot and wait for certain scenarios to occur at certain times. 12 Minutes does include a few quick hacks to skip over certain things as you progress, but unfortunately they aren’t quite enough, and particularly in the latter stages of the game you are going to be required to labour through the exact same actions a few times just to get a tiny piece of information that you yourself have probably already worked out. It is incredibly frustrating to be ahead of the characters but still required to play as though you aren’t just for the sake of another piece of exposition.
There doesn’t tend to be enough new to grab onto from loop to loop to not get a little bored from the repetition. The reward is of course the unravelling of the story (which we’ll get to in a moment, because oh boy) but 12 Minutes probably needs another solution here to keep things moving nicely.
The puzzles themselves do work quite well. The apartment is small but there are quite a few elements to it that, though individually don’t amount to much, with some cunning can be combined to create some very nice solutions. Early on you’ll be mostly just using your time to explore the area, trying out combinations of items or attempting certain actions (such as accidentally stabbing your wife in the stomach with a kitchen knife) and piecing together how each element might fit to the puzzle. By the end of the game it’ll be like this apartment is your own, knowing exactly where and when each item can be used – it just, however, becomes a laborious task of actually doing so.
The Art of the Loop
To credit 12 Minutes and Luis Antonio the game is going for a distinctive style that mostly works well. You sit looking upon this apartment from a top-down view like a god controlling the events as they go. These characters in your own nightmarish play are at your whim as you bend them to work to your needs to complete the puzzle. It’s a good art style that worked well for me—simple but with just enough artistic touch to be interesting.
Antonio also leaves a lot of sneaky little nods to the game’s story around the apartment as though it is all one big pre-determined show of destiny, doomed to play out no matter the control you exert. Paintings around the apartment that appear meaningless or abstract later become meaningful tells that were staring you in the face the whole time. For some that might be pretentious or too self-congratulatory; however, I liked it.
That said other little nods here and there exist as knowing winks to influences that the game is, supposedly, drawing from and quite honestly these are a little pretentious. The first hallway of the game, for example, is carpeted in the distinctive pattern of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel hallways, which, for one, having been done to death already also doesn’t really work to anything else that 12 Minutes is attempting to do. It just feels a little empty as an artistic choice, as though merely recognising the existence of other masterworks puts you in conversation with them, which does take us to the root of where 12 Minutes so distinctly lacks.
A Story Intent on Its Own Destruction
Speaking of husks with shiny shells but empty cores: 12 Minutes’ story. I won’t spoil the game, because the story is the driving force of why you would be playing 12 Minutes anyway, but we do have to delve a little into what is making the game tick here.
12 Minutes wants you to dive into its mystery using this distinctive time loop mechanic. By its very existence 12 Minutes exhibits a unique ability that video games have for storytelling above other artistic mediums. Few other mediums can place you into this sort of exact position as an audience and ask you to become so involved as an active participant of story. Groundhog Day has you watching Bill Murray struggle a time-loop and figuring out how to break it; 12 Minutes on the other hand has you fulfilling that role yourself, and you as audience/participant are making explicit use of the time loop mechanic to manage that. It is the argument for why a game can tell one story that other art can’t.
To that end you then have to ask why this is the story that Luis Antonio wishes to tell in this way; why this is the story that you need to experience as an active participant; and quite frankly I don’t think 12 Minutes itself actually knows. Over the course of the loops 12 Minutes increasingly swallows itself up with a need for shock-value and deeper conspiracies. It starts to lose itself the further it goes on, adding layer upon layer to the mystery when it just is not needed. There are a few points in which they game might well be content to end, but like a never-ending loop it just has to get one more word in, again, and again, and, unfortunately, again.
This all amounts to one twist epiphany that really just brings the whole game crumbling down. It certainly gets the shock value that the game seems to want, but this “twist” in itself just makes the entire experience utterly inscrutable. The value of the shock is precisely only that, and possesses no further value beyond that. You’ll leave the game just feeling a little empty, a lifeless husk, questioning “why” over and over again. All the set up and the interesting aspects of the game are ultimately let down by an ending that is quite simply woeful. No one wins in the end of 12 Minutes, least of all you who’s hard work to break the puzzle amounts to naught for a reward.
I can credit Luis Antonio and 12 Minutes for making a go of something a bit different in a presentation that is novel by itself, and for many there will certainly be quite a bit of enjoyment in unravelling this puzzle and story, but ultimately this is a game doomed to fall under itself.
The main takeaway of 12 Minutes, as far as I can gather, is that sometimes it is better to forget the past rather than reliving it over and over.
Final Score: 5.5/10