As I enter my small, one-bedroom apartment, my wife approaches me, kisses me on the cheek, and lets me know she made dessert. I shove her aside, scrambling for the mug on the end table of the couch. Dejected, she sits down to read while I rush to the sink to fill it with water, then to the bathroom medicine cabinet. I empty the bottle of high-strength sleeping tablets into the mug and place it beside her. “Oh, thanks!” She downs the glass. I don’t even know why I do it, but I can’t stop drugging my wife.
Twelve Minutes is a game about a man trapped in a time loop. A gruffly-voiced cop (Willem Dafoe) arrives at his apartment exactly four minutes and thirty seconds from the time the loop begins. He handcuffs the husband and wife, claims that she killed her father, then, usually, strangles the husband. Then it starts again.
The most rewarding parts of Twelve Minutes are its opening couple of hours when you’re first given free rein to explore all the options for physical mayhem at your disposal. There’s a faulty electrical switch, a kitchen knife, and those sleeping pills, to name a few. Messing about, causing as much chaos as possible just to see what is possible, was my favorite part of the game. It is also, intentionally or not, black comedy gold. For example: use “kitchen knife” on “self” in front of “wife.”
The next best thing about Twelve Minutes is its dialogue. Our couple plays their parts like we’re looking down on a well-directed stage play, the husband retaining his harrowing memories of the loop, while the wife is a perfect blank slate each time. They tease each other, laugh, flirt, and dance. Their love feels natural, real, and lived-in. The performances are top-notch, and I found myself quoting the dialogue more than once as I relived the loop in real-time.
Twelve Minutes is, unapologetically, an old-school adventure game. There’s not quite pixel-hunting level complexity, but you’ll certainly be scratching your head at how best to unravel its narrative and tie together disparate threads in your allotted time limit. The scripting of the thing is incredible — not once did I notice a loose end from any of my mosaic-like setups. Everyone reacts expectedly, your character retains key pieces of information, and you can always use what you’ve learned in clever ways the next time.
This comes with a slight downside, however. Because everything runs in real-time, setting up your “perfect” loop to gain a key piece of info or discover a hidden item can become tedious. At around 6 hours long, more complex loop setups can become grating. There’s a fast-forward option for dialogue, but it never felt quite responsive or quick enough to keep feelings of frustration from setting in.
This can become maddening when you aren’t quite sure if something will work, but you have to wait a whole six or seven minutes to find out anyway. Trial-and-error adventure gameplay and a strict time loop don’t make for a harmonic mixture. Fleeting moments of breakthrough are punctuated by long, repetitious slogs, especially in the later hours.
Still, the story is gripping, and the feeling of knowing exactly what you want to do next is addicting. I would wake in the middle of the night thinking to myself, “What if I tried this next.” Rarely, if ever, does Twelve Minutes say “no” to the player, and that’s one of its best features. Whether your escapades will pay off is another story entirely, but the freedom to catastrophically mess everything up is nice.
I mentioned earlier how rewarding the physicality of the world can be to experiment with, but once these elements are thoroughly explored you’ll be tasked with manipulating others, emotionally or otherwise, to gain information. This usually involves choosing from several dialogue options, any one of which can lead to clues or completely altered scenarios. As information becomes available to our protagonist, he can very realistically use this to his advantage in future loops. I loved it when I was personally yearning to say something to prove a point, only for it to become a dialogue option that I could actually use.
These dialogue trees are wonderfully scripted, just like the rest of the game. I just wish this scripting didn’t mean that concrete progress was required to “unlock” certain dialogue options on future playthroughs. Then again, without being able to type in dialogue a la Facade, this kind of engagement would be impossible, so this is a completely inconsequential nit-pick.
On the topic of things that are largely inconsequential, while the presentation of Twelve Minutes is overall quite good (and very Lynchian), some minor quibbles pop up. Characters bob their heads to emphasize speech since we can’t see their mouths, but this gives them a sometimes cartoonish cadence. I also ran into a few minor pathfinding bugs when other characters were scripted to move to a certain part of the apartment, and some animations can look a little undercooked at times. Despite these complaints, the palette and art style are top-notch.
By the end of this journey, my head was spinning. There’s a lot to digest, and certainly enough complex elements to inspire hour-long video essays in a couple of weeks. I enjoyed my time with Twelve Minutes, and it’s a uniquely original take on tropes that aren’t often combined, let alone to this effect. The writing is excellent, the characters believable, and while I was left slightly befuddled once I reached the end, it’s entirely possible I’m just too dumb to put everything together in my head. It’s sure to frustrate at times, but this is a mysterious adventure worth the roughly 30 to 50 loops it’ll take to unravel.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A code was provided for review by Annapurna Interactive.
At times maddening, but always fascinating, Twelve Minutes is a unique vision worth experiencing. It blends disparate genres and explores a twisting narrative using a terrarium of the mundane.