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‘Twelve Minutes’ Will Suck You Into Its Time Loop

The latest Annapurna Interactive title—the much-hyped puzzle-packed game released on Thursday—is confounding and thrilling at once

Annapurna Interactive/Ringer illustration

I’m talking to Luis Antonio, creator of Twelve Minutes, about the ending of his game when he informs me that I have not, in fact, finished it. This comes as an embarrassing surprise, because I’d confidently told him that I had. I’ve played a lot of video games. I normally know when they’re over. Not this time: While playing Twelve Minutes, I questioned more than once whether I’d beaten it, or even whether it could be beaten. The one consolation is what Antonio tells me next: Some players put the game down at even earlier apparent stopping points. “I think that’s OK,” Antonio says, “that you arrived at a moment that you feel, ‘It’s a conclusion.’ … That’s kind of what I wanted.”

Antonio isn’t big on telling players what to do, or what not to do. “I think there’s a certain ambiguity in the game that will flow for some people, and might become incredibly frustrating for others,” he says. Twelve Minutes straddles the line between the kind of ambiguity that makes the player push on and the kind that makes other activities start to seem more appealing. And Antonio doesn’t mind putting some players off, as long as his game makes an impression, whether positive or negative. “It’s not a game for everyone,” he says. “It’s doing something that works for some people.”

Twelve Minutes, which came out on Thursday for PC and Xbox platforms (including Xbox Game Pass), is the latest release from Annapurna Interactive, the powerhouse publisher known for curating indie games with distinctive styles, stories, and mechanics. Twelve Minutes has all three. It’s a point-and-click time-loop game in which the player’s unnamed protagonist comes home to a tiny apartment to find his wife waiting with dessert and a surprise: She’s pregnant. But a few minutes into a candlelit conversation, a knock on the door ruins the romantic mood. It’s a man who claims to be a cop and says he has a warrant for the wife’s arrest for murder. No matter what the player does, the cop is coming in. And, inevitably—at least at first—the cop kills the husband or knocks him out. When he does, the loop starts over, just as it does if the player tries to step outside the door. One way or another, the player must spend the allotted time inside this claustrophobic space, rearranging deck chairs in the hope that some configuration of items or sequence of events will avert another ugly ending and depressing reset.

Antonio is an artist who worked for Rockstar and Ubisoft before joining Jonathan Blow to help him make The Witness and then striking off on his own to complete Twelve Minutes. Like The Witness, another enigmatic, puzzle-packed game that doesn’t hold players’ hands, Twelve Minutes was several years in the making. “This is likely the first time you’ll have heard of Twelve Minutes,” wrote Rock Paper Shotgun in a preview of a prototype from August 2014. “It definitely won’t be the last.”

It wasn’t: Over the ensuing seven years, the game kept popping up at festivals and showcases, turning heads wherever it appeared with its blend of high-concept premise and relatively low-fidelity look. As the years piled up and the game graduated, with Annapurna’s backing, from stripped-down dialogue balloons to a fully voiced cinematic experience starring Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy, and Willem Dafoe, Twelve Minutes seemed stuck in a loop of its own. Antonio says it takes the average player roughly 40 loops to finish the game. Asked to estimate how many loops he’s played, he laughs wearily and says, “Way too many.”

Antonio cites recent releases such as Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn, and Gorogoa as examples of puzzle games he’s admired, but Twelve Minutes was mostly inspired by the cinematic platformers, puzzlers, and point-and-click adventures of his youth, including 1989’s Prince of Persia and 1991’s Another World. He wanted to emulate the varied ways in which those games allowed players to interact with their worlds—not just by jumping and shooting but by using dialogue and environmental cues to pick up information, and then manipulating items and tools to overcome obstacles.

The appeal of Twelve Minutes on a gameplay level lies in its deceptive simplicity. The loop is the protagonist’s prison, and the apartment is his cell. It’s small and sparsely decorated: There’s a bedroom, a combined living room/dining room, a bathroom, and a closet. (It’s the least of this couple’s problems, but the layout doesn’t leave a lot of room for a baby.) There’s no TV and no computer; aside from cellphones, which can be used to trigger certain story events, there’s little indication of when this story takes place, let alone where. The radio, the only other technological link to the outside world, has only one channel, which plays old-timey instrumental music. Even the windows are soon obscured by rain, suiting the game’s stormy mood.

The objective—unstated but implied—is to use each loop to learn something that can be applied the next time around. There’s no leveling system or skill tree, but knowledge is power: The player and protagonist retain the memory of experiences in previous loops, whereas the wife, the cop, and other peripheral characters keep starting anew. To some extent, the player’s hands are tied. The cop is kind of a Terminator: You can’t simply memorize where he’s going to go and get the drop on him or anticipate his attacks and retaliate with your own. But you can glean enough about your surroundings to spring a trap that takes him down. Sometimes the solution is doing something; sometimes it’s refraining from doing anything. Eventually, the player’s purpose advances from simply surviving to delving into backstories, unraveling relationships, and uncovering the truth of the alleged murder, all in hopes of halting the inexorable jump back to the beginning of the loop.

Because there’s not a lot of real estate and only a limited array of items or interactive objects, the next step always seems within reach, though much of the game’s magic stems from the surprising number of ways in which its events can be influenced, and the plethora of possible paths through the loop. Point-and-click games, Antonio says, “all suffer from the ‘I have no idea what to do, let’s combine items randomly’ [problem], which is something I tried very hard to solve.” He wanted Twelve Minutes to require “barely any trial and error.” Instead, he hoped, players would follow a clear and logical progression: “You formulate a plan, and then you execute it and it works.”

In practice, there’s plenty of frustration. Some of it sets in after you learn things that the wife and the cop don’t know. At that point, the challenge morphs from figuring out what’s happening to determining the precise order of operations that makes it possible to impart your newfound knowledge to characters with 12-minute memories. There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from big breakthroughs, but the runs that make you feel like a big-brained puppet master who’s about to crack the case are outnumbered by the ones where you’re stumped or you make a crucial misstep and have to start over. The stretches between big breakthroughs can feel like grinds where the rewards aren’t experience points, equipment, and combos but brand-new dialogue options alongside the grayed-out ones explored in past attempts.

A lot of time-loop stories skip the tedium of escape attempts 3 through 30: Characters discover that they’re trapped, resign themselves to their fates, and then fast-forward through a montage or two to the point of expertise. In Twelve Minutes, the player stumbles face first into every dead end. By the end of the game, Ridley’s humming from behind the bathroom door, so hospitable and soothing in the first playthrough, sounds as soul-crushing as the opening strains of “I Got You Babe” must have sounded to Phil in Groundhog Day.

Unlike action-oriented roguelikes like Hades or Returnal, in which the disappointment of defeat and the tedium of repetition are alleviated by procedurally generated (or semi-randomized) maps and the visceral exhilaration of dealing death, Twelve Minutes isn’t a joy to play. Its allure comes from intellectual epiphanies, not from feats of coordination. Then again, each loop lasts only 12 minutes—and, in practice, less than that, thanks to one of Antonio’s concessions to accessibility, the option to skip past painfully familiar dialogue or bypass extended stretches of inactivity. There’s also something to be said for feeling the full weight of the implacable loop; sure, it’s a bummer to re-live these events over and over, but, well, it would be.

Finding the right difficulty calibration was part of what took Antonio years to finish the game. Although Twelve Minutes doesn’t deliver explicit instructions, it provides subtle signposts, such as sounds from an adjoining apartment that mark the passage of time, or casual comments from the wife that suggest tricks to try. One potential ally is a faulty light fixture, which the wife calls the player’s attention to. How much attention fluctuated during development.

Initially, the player had to turn the light on three times to trigger a desired outcome, which made its utility too opaque. Antonio first reduced that to two times, then set the switch to off when the loop reset, so that flipping it on would cause sparks to fly. Finally, he had the wife flip it first and remark on the shock as another cue. “There was this going up and down on how obvious certain things are, to find a sweet spot that works for most people,” Antonio says. “There’s still some gratifying effort to figuring things out.” Similarly, Antonio tested different loop lengths until playtesting helped him pinpoint the Goldilocks loop that wouldn’t be so long that it seemed daunting to do over or so brief that it seemed stressful. Given 12 minutes to work with, he says, “the time will be short, but the things you need to do, there’s plenty of time to do.”

Another nod to lowering the barrier to entry is the game’s top-down perspective, which presents the apartment as a shoebox diorama (and puts the pressure on the line readings by the big-name cast, because the player can’t see the characters’ faces). That design choice made the game less intimidating and complex to control, less intensive to design, and less demanding to run, but it also paid off in unexpected ways. For one thing, it doesn’t look like a lot of other games, an instant advantage in a crowded gaming marketplace: “You can spot a Twelve Minutes screenshot immediately,” Antonio says. For another, the view from above adds an air of voyeurism, enhancing the unsettling atmosphere.

The point-and-click control scheme is less successful: Despite a streamlined inventory interface, navigation is awkward, especially with an Xbox controller standing in for a mouse. Still, Antonio sees some narrative upside to eschewing a more natural, responsive system and withholding some direct control from the player. If the player tries to harm the husband or the wife, he notes, “you can see that [the husband] doesn’t want to do that. Almost like you’re planting a thought in his head, and he will go through with it, but he’s his own person.” If you go ahead with being bad, though, Twelve Minutes will allow it. You won’t win anything, but you won’t lose anything, either. “I tried very, very hard not to put any judgment into the game,” Antonio says.

At some point—and possibly at multiple points—almost every player is going to get stuck. But some amount of delayed gratification is part of the plan. Antonio is trying to conjure the confusion of the pre-internet era, when answers weren’t always at hand.

“I don’t want players to be unfairly frustrated and pissed that the game just doesn’t make any sense, or that they have no idea what to do,” he says. “But I also think we’re in a generation where you open a game, you get a radar, you get an objective, you get a marker. And you go to the marker, and you get a million things for doing so. I wanted to take a step back on [that]. Like, OK, you didn’t get all the objectives. OK, turn the game off, go enjoy your day. Maybe an idea is going to pop up in your head. Maybe you’re going to talk with your friend.” Playing pre-release, with no game guide to bail us out, my wife and I pooled our brainpower to solve the stickiest puzzles. Some of the most memorable parts of our trip through Twelve Minutes weren’t actually playing the game but brainstorming about what we would do when we did.

Twelve Minutes is a psychological thriller in the tradition of Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Fincher. (The eye-catching carpet in the hall outside the apartment is straight out of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel.) Aside from the strained yelp McAvoy emits if—out of either mischievousness or desperation—you flush items down the toilet, there’s not a lot of humor here. The game goes to dark places, and it is, at times, a tough—or potentially traumatic—hang. It arrives on the heels of a gaming-community controversy incited by Boyfriend Dungeon, an indie dungeon crawler/dating sim released earlier this month. In response to player complaints about an inadequate content warning, developer and publisher Kitfox Games announced that it would update the warning to more accurately convey its events and themes. Requests for content removal, or for the ability to opt out of interactions with one of the game’s toxic characters, sparked conversations about the difficulty of balancing empathy for the player with preserving the virtues of art that induces discomfort.

Boyfriend Dungeon is rated T (Teen), whereas Twelve Minutes is rated M (Mature). The game’s generic warnings—“Blood and Gore,” “Sexual Content,” “Strong Language,” and “Violence”—arguably don’t quite capture its capacity to disturb, though it would be difficult to detail why without spoiling some of the twists (which the game’s small assortment of characters makes it tough to disguise as it is). “We trusted the rating system,” Antonio says. He also observes that the marketing has made the game’s tone apparent, and that the narrator isn’t reliable, which means that some of the game’s supposed events may not be “real” (though that may not affect their impact on the player). Lastly, he asserts that a detailed content warning before Twelve Minutes, like a similar message inserted before movies like Chinatown or Oldboy, “would immediately break all the narrative that the director tried to build for you.”

On occasion, Antonio’s narrative is broken by the routine inanities of interactive entertainment, from clipping and crashing to the fact that some actions are off-limits and some dialogue options that pass muster early in the game sound silly later on, when the player and McAvoy’s character have fumbled through many more loops. There’s likely no way around the odd discordant transition, short of making the actors record a dizzying number of takes. “If the budget was 10 times bigger, and if we had a huge team, I would have definitely done that,” Antonio says, but “there’s a cutoff point in terms of how much I can put into the game.” (McAvoy spent a lot of time in the recording booth as it was.) And at dramatic junctures, words won’t suffice. “I wanted to make sure that all the key moments are done through actions,” Antonio says. Describing a scene near the end when an item mentioned much earlier plays a pivotal role, he continues, “I didn’t want that option to pop up in a menu, I want you to arrive at a conclusion.”

The release of Twelve Minutes and the impending debut of Deathloop offer more evidence that we’ve reached peak time loop, both in movies and in games. Antonio says he has “no idea” why time loops are suddenly so ubiquitous, but the proliferation of loops hasn’t led to a lot of carbon-copy creations. A loop is a premise, a jumping-off point; it’s not a mode or mechanic that Fortnite could easily swallow whole. Apart from the presence of time streams that reset, there’s little that links Twelve Minutes and Deathloop, or Outer Wilds and Elsinore, or Returnal and The Forgotten City, or Boss Level and Free Guy. Each loop looks different to a degree, just as it does as the player progresses through Twelve Minutes.

In earlier versions of Antonio’s game, the loop was impermeable; there was no way to stop it from snaking into eternity. In its final form, Twelve Minutes can be conquered, and I did belatedly beat it. (I think.) But to the end, its story remains stubbornly ambiguous. “The game does not have a canonical answer to [everything],” Antonio says. “But I think it has quite a few clues that would raise questions that will peel off more layers of the narrative.” Antonio doesn’t have every answer either. He can furnish the apartment, but even after the better part of a decade in development, he says, “I cannot account for the way everyone plays.” Maybe Hitchcock and Kubrick are lucky they made movies instead.