The most interesting unreleased video game I've played this year is an adventure called Twelve Minutes. It involves living and dying in the course of 12 minutes, all of them spent in a three-room apartment. Then your character wakes up back in time with a memory of what happened and tries to survive those 12 minutes.
I saw this game in Boston last spring. It's taken me a while to write about it. I guess I've been stuck in my own time loop of trying commit fingers to keyboard to write a preview. Many starts, no completion until now. Here it finally is.
Of course I liked Twelve Minutes. I love stuff like this. My favourite game is The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which is also about controlling a character through a time loop.
In that Zelda game you try to save the world in the 72 hours before a moon falls from the sky and kills everyone. In each accelerated 72-hour sequence, you acquire key tools, learn crucial things from key characters, then play a song on an ocarina and go back to apocalypse-minus-72-hours to try again. You fail repeatedly, but you gradually learn ways to avert the end.
In Twelve Minutes, you're just a guy named Aaron who is settling in with his wife for an evening in their apartment. Maybe the two of you will have dinner and talk about your day. Five minutes later, a cop knocks on the door, accuses your wife of murder and soon knocks you out. Then you wake at the beginning of that sequence and try to make things go better, try to not die and such. The Zelda game is a sprawling action adventure. Twelve Minutes is a confined, choice-filled conundrum.
(Note, by the way that all the images in this story use placeholder art from a playable build; great graphics will come later, the developer's priority now is great design.)
Twelve Minutes is made by Luis Antonio, an artist and former developer from Rockstar and Ubisoft who went indie a few years ago. He had been thinking of making a game that would let players knock through the dominoes of consequential decision-making. First, he considered making a game that took place across a whole neighbourhood for a full 24 hours, but it wasn't manageable. He scaled it down and then shrank it some more. His game would be plenty complex just taking place for a fifth of an hour in a bedroom, a bathroom and a main living-dining-kitchen combo.
I played Twelve Minutes for about 30 minutes at the PAX East show earlier this year. It plays like an adventure game, as you click on various objects and try to use one thing on another thing to see what it will do. It's intuitive, not frustrating, partially because you are dealing with real world items like phones and clocks and knives in a familiar, ordinary space.
At the start of my first play session I saw some soup being cooked on the stove. I set the table, served the soup and then started eating. My in-game wife got annoyed with me and went into the bedroom to read a book. I'd eaten without her. We had an argument. The cop showed up, started making accusations. Everything went to hell.
Antonio later explained that eating dinner without the wife prevented her from giving me a present, which was the reason she wanted to have dinner. Because of that I assumed I'd made the wrong move. After all, in subsequent playthroughs in which we had dinner, she gave Aaron a gift and announced that she was pregnant, which seemed to be an important progression. Except maybe it wasn't. Spoiling the dinner and having her storm off into the bedroom could be a good thing? "You can use this to your advantage (e.g. her being in the bedroom)," Antonio said. "Or it can become an issue (e.g. asking her to cooperate on a task and she won't go along with it)."
Antonio is coy about what his game is really about and what's really happening, though he emphasises that the guy you play carries his knowledge back. He says that as you replay the loop Aaron's awareness that he just lived these 12 minutes already becomes a more and more crucial part of the game. I experienced this myself. On my second or third loop I was getting the option to have him try to convince his wife that he'd already lived those moments. How do you prove to your significant other something like that? What can you tell them about what will happen in five minutes that will convince them or keep them safe?
"Since the game never gives you any goals, you will be working towards what you believe will 'fix' the loop," Antonio told me over email. "Aaron, being the only character aware of the repetition, will provide the player with a sense of progress as he learns and reacts to what you make him do. For example, you can only tell your wife you are living the same day after you have lived the first loop, since he doesn't know it yet. Also, as you force Aaron to repeat the same tasks over and over, he will be more efficient at them. Actions that he would initially refuse to do, once he realises there are no consequences, he will be open to try."
Back in April Antonio let the guys at Kinda Funny Games try a build of the game that is similar to the one I played. I highly recommend spending 40 minutes watching their playthrough attempt. The game's art is far from done, but the gameplay is far enough along that you'll see how things play out. The KFG crew has the dinner, finds out about the pregnancy. The cop shows up, beats everyone up for some reason and they do the loop again. They eventually start using the knowledge about the pregnancy to convince the wife that they are living events they have lived before. Telling her that she is about to give you a gift is pretty convincing (maybe gauche, too, but this is no game about manners, not with murder knocking on the door). The cop still arrives and beats them up, though they seem to be onto something when they start barricading doors and hiding in the closet.
I couldn't figure out how to deal with the cop either. Preparing for his arrival by packing a knife didn't help. Cutting your way out of the ties he binds you with just results in him killing you anyway.
Twelve Minutes is fascinatingly compact, but it's not intended to be short. According to Antonio, the most recent full play-through of the game, which runs those twelve minutes in real time, took 10 hours. There's just a lot to be done in that brief, repeating period of time and in that small apartment. "Everything in this game, and I mean everything, has a reason to be there, from the layout, to the timing, objects placement etc," Antonio said. "Sometimes I change a detail that I feel isn't that important (e.g. the position of a couch) only to realise that it creates a huge chain of repercussions that I didn't notice."
I did spot one detail that probably won't make the final game, a carpet in the game's brief tutorial foyer that resembles the one in Stanley Kubrick's great horror movie The Shining. Antonio said the filmmaker's efforts to use every aspect of cinema has been influential to how he approaches game design. "His movies were one of first examples where I clearly realised how you can use your medium to its full extent. Like in The Shining, the way he sets up the shots, the colour palette or the spatial layout, all expanding on the themes he is exploring. It's crucial to understand the tools of our medium since they will reinforce or fight against what you are trying to say. I'm comfortable to do this as an artist but it's a whole new challenge as a game designer." That said, he thinks he'll remove the carpet from the finished game.
Antonio is two years into development as is, but he's had to solve his own extraordinary time management puzzle to pull that off. By day he works full time as an artist on the forthcoming Jonathan Blow helmed game The Witness. Twelve Minutes only gets his attention on nights and weekends. "After two years of doing this, I'm starting to feel exhausted," he said. "But seeing everyone's reaction to the game gives me a lot of energy. We are close to finishing The Witness so hopefully I'll be able to dedicate myself full time to Twelve Minutes after that." He's hoping to release it on Steam and eventually on consoles or tablets. He's about a year away from completion. He just needs to manage his time well.