I think it was on my tenth run through time-loop puzzle game Twelve Minutes that I accidentally stabbed my wife in the chest. A few runs after that, and I’d only gone and turned the knife on myself. In fact, nobody made it through my time in Twelve Minutes without dying at least once or twice, which has influenced my main takeaway from this game: being in a time loop sucks.
You play an unnamed man voiced by James McAvoy, whose wife (Daisy Ridley) has prepared quite the surprise. She’s pregnant, she tells you over dessert. You’re going to be a parent.
Then there’s a knock on the door.
An intruder, brought to life by the Green Goblin himself Willem Dafoe, begins questioning your wife about her past. Before long, he’s choking you unconscious, and the evening starts anew. And again, and again…
Those first few loops are honestly magical. Twelve Minutes plays from a top-down perspective, allowing you to navigate a beautiful dioramic apartment by click, click, clicking away. In true point-and-click fashion, you can stuff every possible item into your pockets, and combine them with each other (and the environment) in creative ways. There’s a fantastic logic to how you exploit the environment and character routines in the early going. A faulty light switch in the bedroom, for example, zaps anyone who might touch it. It’s just a matter of getting the right person to turn on the lights at the right time.
In fact, everything to do with the puzzle of subduing Willem Dafoe felt satisfying and solvable. There were of course loops in which I’d forget one small detail, causing the whole plan to collapse, and such failures were frustrating. Here we go again. But they also emphasised the wearying repetitiveness so key to the concept of a time loop. In other words, such irritations were just about thematic enough for me to let them go.
Eventually, however, you’ll realise that to escape this loop you must uncover the central mystery of the plot: what happened to your wife’s dad eight years ago? And this is where things fall apart.
Shifting the focus from interacting with the present to investigating the past changes how you communicate with the game. Whereas to begin with Twelve Minutes encourages you to tinker with the environment to produce specific results, by the final hours you’re relegated to questioning the same two characters in slightly different ways. Repeatedly I was forced to through almost identical conversations, just so that I could earn an extra line or two of dialogue. Fast-forwarding through the same monologues dozens of times, hoping that I might finally be prompted to ask a useful question, is exasperating. Twelve Minutes is at least authentic, then; I truly felt like I was going insane by the end.
Even so, Twelve Minutes might have been worth the psychological struggle if the story was excellent, and it’s worth saying that there are plenty of people enamoured by the twists and turns that unfold. But for me, a barrage of truly strange third-act reveals and a few too many contrivances along the way left me feeling disappointed.
I keep on thinking about those first few fascinating loops, though. Developer Luis Antonio has created a tiny, brilliantly realised apartment that promises true reactivity. There’s a spellbinding sense that every interaction might be the first teetering domino in a microcosm of cause and effect. Twelve Minutes doesn’t quite deliver on these lofty ideas, but for an hour, at least, it comes pretty damn close.
Fascinating, frustrating, and a little bit like purgatory, Twelve Minutes is an authentic time-loop experience, with all the repetitiveness that entails. A disappointing mystery and painfully incremental progress somewhat dampened my experience, but Twelve Minutes is nevertheless a brilliant experiment in game design, and something you should check out if you’re at all intrigued by the premise. Oh, and it has Willem Dafoe. That’s a pretty big plus.