Games don't half seem to be inspired by Groundhog Day at the moment.
It makes sense for the medium really, since a lot of games are about repeating challenges and learning from them until you get better. And there has certainly been a more noticeable trend for time loops recently, from this year’s PS5 blockbuster Returnal to upcoming assassination shooter Deathloop, while another Annapurna Interactive-published game Outer Wilds repeats a solar system’s final 22 minutes until its destruction.
However, none have managed to distill this concept quite as compactly as 12 Minutes, the work of indie developer Luis Antonio, set almost entirely in a tiny apartment with just three rooms and three on-screen characters, and a central mystery you’ll have to figure out if you’re to escape its suffocating loop. If the strangely tense music and hallway carpet with a pattern uncannily like the Overlook Hotel’s in the film adaptation of The Shining is any indication, you won’t be prepared for what happens.
Three in the chamber
The set-up goes like this: you play a man (voiced by James McAvoy) who comes home to find his wife (voiced by Daisy Ridley) greeting him with a special dessert in the fridge and a surprise. However, exactly five minutes into this impromptu date night, a man claiming to be a cop (voiced by Willem Dafoe) knocks on the door and barges in to arrest your wife for murder before tying her to the ground.
Any attempt to talk or resist results in you being knocked to the ground or choked out, only for you to find yourself back at your front door, the only person who remembers what just happened. But how do you change this outcome, how do you convince your wife that you’re trapped in a time loop, and why is it happening to you?
Some of these beats will definitely feel familiar for those who’ve seen the Bill Murray classic, from how hearing Ridley singing to herself in the bathroom echoes the torturous repeat of Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You, Babe’ each time you fail, to finding ways to prove to your reasonably sceptical wife of your predicament.
Considering this is all seen from a top down perspective, with no facial expressions to read, the three stars do a tremendous job of bringing out the emotional drama of the situation, as well as a surprising dose of deadpan humour, while Dafoe is never not menacing when he makes his fateful appearance.
Thinking inside the box
12 Minutes plays very much like a point-and-click adventure, which makes it natural to play on PC with a mouse - although it does make moving around the apartment a bit clumsy, especially as character models are prone to clipping through one another. Yet despite being set in such a confined space, there’s a surprising amount of interactivity, even if a lot of objects don’t function as red herrings.
You can pocket items and then bring up your inventory to drag an item and hold it over another object or person that may yield an interaction. Compared to the rather restrictive nature of classic point-and-click adventures, there are also quite a surprising amount of outcomes. We don’t want to spoil anything but there are some pretty messed up things you can wind up doing as you try to exhaust your options, as well as some amusing ways to annoy your wife.
It’s not just inventory that’s important but also information, as you may discover new revelations in a previous loop that opens up new dialogue options. This becomes essential for skipping ahead or diverting over to another dramatic beat, all the more important when you’re also running against the clock (which is actually less than the advertised 12 minutes). It’s also here that the audio also comes out strong, from the realistic thud of a body on a hard floor to the subtle change of the atmospheric score that hints you’re on the right track.
Play it again
Of course, the problem with this time loop scenario is that it’s also prone to repetition, as you basically reenact trial-and-error. McAvoy plays the absurdity of this convincingly, though, and chances are when he lets out the swears you’ll be doing it too.
Fortunately, there are ways to speed up each loop or even reset it early, such as being able to fast-forward dialogue, while other options like choosing to have a lie-down in your bedroom let the clock tick down quicker so you can get right to the Dafoe’s entrance.
But even these features won’t prevent you from having to repeat a certain scenario over and over again but just with a slightly different dialogue choice or interaction in the hope of gleaning some other tidbit, though a more astute player may also be able to have enough at their disposal to proceed and figure out the next step.
If you were hoping for a thrillingly paced drama you can wrap up in one sitting, this will vary for people as you may find yourself stumped for a couple hours without having made any meaningful progress. But as each twist and revelation falls into place, with a couple “fake” endings thrown in to keep you on your toes, the occasional rough edges fall to the side as fall deeper into the loop with a denouement you won’t forget anytime soon.
12 Minutes verdict
Presenting the time loop concept in its most stripped down form but still packed with more possibilities than the old-school point-and-click game, 12 Minutes starts modestly and gradually goes in a direction you won’t anticipate.
It may suffer from occasional technical hiccups and the genre’s sometimes grating trial-and-error approach, but the award-worthy performances from McAvoy, Ridley and Dafoe ultimately keep you invested in its drama. As the final act approaches, some players may want to rush it, but even as you’re up against the clock, just trust us that patience is a virtue.