The first time I loaded up Twelve Minutes and pushed past the intro screen, I watched as the letters spelling out the title slowly faded from view until only four were left: L-I-E-S. It was a warning, and a sneak preview. Twelve Minutes is not to be trusted.
The new interactive thriller conceived by Luis Antonio, a Rockstar Games and Ubisoft veteran, and published by Annapurna Interactive hides many secrets. It’s a dark, sometimes torturous, and yet strangely compelling dive down the rabbit hole of lies: Both the ones we wield against others and the ones we tell ourselves.
No one in this brief, character-focused story gets to have a name, but they all come packing deeply layered identities. As players, it’s our job to tug at the corners of those identities by unearthing snippets of information and then using that knowledge to delve deeper into the central mystery of why a happy couple’s joyous evening would be violently interrupted by a murderous cop and his obsession with a pocket watch.
The quirk to all of this is right there in the title. Twelve Minutes is a reference to the game’s core time loop, in which a husband walks into his apartment after work and a series of inescapable events play out. Your wife is always there, waiting to share a special dessert and some happy news. That cop is always going to show up about five minutes later, shattering what should have been an idyllic evening.
And without your influence, the scenario is always going to end the same way: Wife and husband facedown on the floor, hands ziptied behind them, while an angry cop gets to the business of murdering them. We watch all of it unfold, every time, from a bird’s eye view that gives us a fully detailed view of each of the apartment’s three rooms while leaving faces obscured.
The influence you can have on how a loop plays out is forever limited by what you know. You use the mouse cursor to move, converse, and investigate points of interests in the apartment. Your clicks equate to a growing understanding of what’s really going on. The loop always resets in the end, but the idea is for you to step into each one armed with new information that you can use to suss out even more details.
‘Twelve Minutes’ is not to be trusted.
Conversations with your wife and the cop unearth family histories and unseen secrets. The clutter and build-up of a lived life scattered all around the apartment opens the way to clues. You’re meant to poke and prod everything, and find as much useful information in the environment as you do in dialogue.
Twelve Minutes doesn’t hold your hand or guide you along in any way, beyond some basic control explanations right up front. This is a game of observation and experimentation. If you spot a phone number somewhere, you can call it. If you find out a new detail in your wife’s personal history, you may find you can probe her more directly in future loops thanks to the added context.
It’s a thought-provoking and suspenseful kind of fun that wears its influences proudly. The floor tiling outside the apartment — which you get a clear look at only once, the first time you start the game — is an obvious intentional homage to the Overlook Hotel carpet in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The single-apartment setting summons up memories of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, and the fixed overhead perspective is a similarly Hitchcockian flourish.
This is a thriller that’s studied at the feet of masters. When Twelve Minutes greets us for the first time with a Shining nod, it’s forecasting the dark journey that awaits. The bird’s eye view that persists all throughout creates a sense of distance between player and scene, which serves as a constant reminder that the control we may think we have is an illusion. There’s another puppet-master at work here.
We’re never allowed to get close to the characters because this is their story. There’s no identifying with the protagonist, and there’s not even a protagonist at all, really. Our understanding of what’s going on at any given moment hinges almost entirely on the voice performances of James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley, as the husband and wife, respectively, and also Willem Dafoe, who brings his gravelly menace to the cop.
Antonio’s tightly designed house of cards always depends on players picking up on clues. Twelve Minutes does a great job overall of making key bits of information accessible without it being obvious, so long as you approach things with an investigative mindset. But as often happens with games like this — an adventure game, make no mistake — it’s easy for players to get tripped up when they form ideas about how things work that run counter to the developer’s intent.
I got hopelessly stuck at one point not because I didn’t know where to find the next tranche of clues, but rather because I misunderstood the mechanical requirement tied to moving the next phase of the plot forward. It was only after a spoiler-free email exchange with Antonio — mostly to ensure I hadn’t hit some game-breaking bug — that I realized what was going on.
Prepare to spend lots of time visiting this bathroom.
Credit: luis antonio
With games like Twelve Minutes, these are often the moments where players will either turn to a guide for help or simply walk away to re-examine the problem later with fresh eyes. The point, though, is it’s not a completely smooth experience. I enjoyed my time with Twelve Minutes, but it doesn’t always communicate the rules as clearly as it could.
That’s certainly by design to some extent. The suspenseful core of this story works because of how opaque the rules are. There’s just a fine line to walk with an approach like that, and just on the other side of that line lies needless frustration.
The overall pace of Twelve Minutes also starts to weigh a little heavy as you reach the end stages of uncovering its mystery. Time loop games (think Outer Wilds) depend on some amount of repetition, and that’s definitely true here. It was smooth and nonintrusive during most of my six-hour playthrough. But there’s a final stretch of Twelve Minutes where you can easily piece together a big piece of the mystery yourself, and it makes finding the specific set of steps the game wants you to follow to get there a chore.
Problems like these feel unavoidable given the premise and structure of Twelve Minutes. And while they definitely led to their share of frustrations for me, those down moments were quickly washed away by the deepening mystery — which definitely has an ending, but it’s perhaps not where you might expect it to be once you get there.
It’s like I told you right up front: Twelve Minutes is an untrustworthy game. It’s driven by lies, thematically and literally. You’re offered the illusion of control in exchange for an unexpected story that twists and turns in ways you’ll never see coming. As the minutes tick down on each new loop, and the inevitability of its gruesome end approaches, all that’s left for you to do is hack away at the lies again and again until the dirty, horrifying truth is finally exposed — whether or not you want to see it.