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12 Minutes - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Very intimate mystery
  • Puzzle is as much temporal as it is spatial
  • Less repeated dialogue as game goes on
  • Consequence-free design allows experimentation
  • Reactions to player activities

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Final plot twist
  • Confusing ending
  • Having to do certain things in very specific ways to proceed

Overall Impression : B-
Mostly intuitive time-travel mystery
almost spoiled by an awful twist ending

12 Minutes - cover

Developer:
Luis Antonio

Publisher:
Annapurna Interactive

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
XBox One | Series X | S (via download),
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $25 USD

Original release date:
19 August 2021

Genre:
Point-and-click mystery thriller

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
5 hours or less

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and gore, Sexual content, Strong language, Violence
MegaBearsFan Parental Rating: Mature audiences only because of:
disturbing adult subject matter, including domestic violence and sexual taboos.

Official site:
twelveminutesgame.com/

It may have taken almost 20 years after Majora's Mask, but it looks like time loop games have suddenly become an emerging fad. Not that it's a bad thing, per se. Outer Wilds has, after all, become one of my favorite games ever. Twelve Minutes is much more scaled-down and far less ambitious than Outer Wilds; it takes place entirely within a small, one-bedroom apartment, and the individual loops average 5-10 minutes instead of the 22-minute loops of Outer Wilds.

12 Minutes has a high-degree of responsiveness to player actions.

12 Minutes is also a much more straight-forward point-and-click puzzle-adventure game in a vein much more reminiscent of classic Lucasarts games. There's only a handful of interactive objects in the apartment, and each one has a variety of different uses. In this way, 12 Minutes rather explicitly telegraphs the solutions to puzzles, since there's only a handful of things that the player can even try. The options available to the player lead the player down the path to progress, and if you ever get stumped, idle conversation will often provide clues as to what you could maybe try next.

Although the seams in the facade do become evident if the player gets stuck repeating a particular loop too many times, I did find myself impressed by just how naturally reactive 12 Minutes is to player interference. The wife and cop will react believably to many things that the player might do, including some off-the-wall things. The wife might comment on weird or rude behavior by me, or the entire time loop may go in a completely unexpected direction because I chose to do something slightly different. It's a surprisingly wide and robust possibility space.

The short duration of time loops, and the relatively small amount of intractable objects really encourages lots of player experimentation. Screwing up any given loop doesn't lose a whole lot of progress, so there's very little penalty for trying some seemingly-crazy solution on a whim, and sometimes, it will even reward the player with some new piece of information that you didn't have before, or a clue to how you might proceed.

12 Minutes provides lots of subtle clues for ways to proceed.

12 Minutes is also quite good about providing clues that are subtle enough to not be obvious spoilers of what to do next, but which might still make you facepalm in retrospect "of course that's what I should have done!" What makes these clues work without feeling like they solve the game for you is that there is often multiple ways to go about testing them. The wife making an off-hand comment about needing to clean the closet is, in retrospect, an obvious clue that the player should check the closet. There is a useful object in there, but its usefulness isn't necessarily immediately obvious. What might also not be immediately obvious is that there's another way that the closet is immediately useful, it just has nothing to do with the object you found there.

Just like Outer Wilds, it is important for the player to construct a mental map of where and when everything happens, because some actions are time-sensitive. The puzzle is just as much temporal as it is spatial, and many solutions rely on the player taking advantage of your foreknowledge of the events to enable you to play around with cause and effect.

One place where the game stumbles is its stubborn insistence that the player do certain things in very specific ways and in a very specific order. Doing the right thing, but at the slightly wrong time can sometimes mean the difference between a successful loop that moves the mystery forward, or a premature restart. Again, you never lose a whole lot of progress, but repeat failures can add up, and can be frustrating if you eventually realize that you had the right solution, but were just not doing it the way that the game designers want.

The game requires me to immobilize the cop to proceed, but it won't let me zip-tie his ankles?

There are also a few common sense actions that I wanted to take, but which the game did not allow. For instance, I was able to zip-tie the cop's hands, but the game wouldn't let me zip-tie his ankles, even though he has two sets of zip-ties that I can steal. It's particularly annoying because the game does still require me to immobilize the cop, but I didn't want to do it the way that the game forced me to do it. Why can't I zip-tie his ankles?

These sorts of problems mostly revolve around interactions with the cop character. At several points, he has to be given some piece of evidence or information, but the game won't just let you give him that information. You have to tell the wife in advance to give it to him (which usually requires a loop or two of setup to explain to her why she needs to do it); otherwise, the cop will just tell you to shut up, punch you, and send you back to the beginning of the loop.

Leaving a sour taste

The real killer for me, however, is the final plot twist. I don't want to spoil too much, but I got to a point in the game in which everything seemed to be wrapping up. I thought I was about to get a satisfying, happy ending as a reward for my diligence and problem-solving. But then suddenly I'm thrown back to the start of the loop. I didn't know why. The character didn't know why.

The reason was that there was one last plot twist. A plot twist that completely obliterated my ability to relate to the characters. A twist that confused me about who Willem Dafoe's character is and what he represents. A twist which made the entire game feel kind of moot and even more contrived than it was to begin with -- and this is a game that has already contrived a 10-minute time loop as its central premise. And it certainly didn't help that it's a variation of a twist which frankly, I feel like I've seen a million times in horror games over the years, and so it felt derivative.

It's a shame too, because I was really enjoying the game up until that point. There's still a potentially-valuable message under there about listening to each other and communicating (in both personal and professional capacities), but it gets largely buried under the contradictory message and confusion of the ending. I still think I liked the game overall. Even though the end was gross and disappointing and utterly unsatisfying, I still mostly enjoyed the journey to get there. It's certainly no Outer Wilds.

Not so fast! There's still an awful plot twist coming.

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