Twelve Minutes is, or at least should be, a game about trauma. It is, but it isn’t.
It is but it isn’t? What does that even mean? Start the story over.
Twelve Minutes is a game about a man stuck in a time loop. That time loop gives him the opportunity and impetus to do terrible things to his wife. There are moments where it made me feel sick.
Getting there, but not enough context for a real thesis. Try again.
Twelve Minutes released one week after Boyfriend Dungeon, a queer action RPG/dating sim hybrid, which was met with immediate controversy over what some claimed to be inadequate content warnings. Twelve Minutes asks you to drug your wife upwards of a dozen times as you puzzle your way through torturing a man into giving up plot-critical information. The same discourse has not repeated itself, despite a complete lack of content warnings.
Closer, but wordy.
Twelve Minutes is a game about hurting everyone around you as an excuse to process your own trauma. It is, in its most hopeful and generous reading, a game about a bad man trying to be better. I do not think it deserves that reading. It does, however, deserve the quiet storm brewing over its true ending.
Good enough, for now.
The setup for Twelve Minutes is simple: a cop is coming to kill you and your wife, and you will be stuck in a 12-minute time loop until you stop him. To break said loop, you will adventure-game your way through a series of puzzles, uncovering more information about character motivations and relationships each time. The game’s animations are stiff, and its puzzles are obtuse. The star-studded voice cast isn’t given much to work with, and fails to contribute to the experience in any meaningful way. Its ending is terrible. This is the most I can say without spoiling the entire game. Consider yourself warned.
Twelve Minutes has three major twists. First, that your wife killed her father. To learn this, you have to watch her get murdered from the closet. Second, that she failed to kill her father and it was actually you, the protagonist, who killed him. Oh, and you’re her brother. To learn this, you have to drug her and torture a man. And third, that all of this was part of your psychosexual mind palace and the only thing that really happened was the incest. That part was real. The rest has been a fantasy.
And what a gross fantasy it is.
Twelve Minutes makes you watch as your pregnant sister/wife (this was tough to type) is kicked in the stomach, shot in the head, and strangled. Drugging your sister/wife is plot critical, and must be repeated multiple times. To get enough information from the cop, you must zip tie him on the ground and shoot his limbs until he talks. Also, there’s a really graphic animation for stabbing your wife to death in the game for…some reason? No one’s quite sure.
All of this shit sucks, which is compounded by how poorly delivered it is. It’s as if Twelve Minutes was supporting its entire body weight on its nose, and that nose is breaking.
The cop who keeps killing you and your wife is actually the psychosexual representation of your own (shared) father. You can tell because they have the same voice actor, and in the game’s true ending, your father uses the cop’s most oft-repeated line to get you to stop fucking your sister: “Thank you for understanding why it needs to be this way.” He also reminds you that “you can’t just try again,” cementing the game’s time loop narrative as a failed attempt to envision a world where you happily get to continue your relationship with your sister/wife.
The cop’s daughter, who is dying from cancer, then becomes a stand-in for how he sees your sister/wife. See, in the mind palace, the cop is coming to kill your wife for revenge and to steal your father’s pocket watch in order to sell it for his daughter’s cancer treatment. Killing you, your wife, and stealing the pocket watch, thus becomes the metaphorical representation of ending your relationship. To save his daughter, he has to get you to give up on the idea that you two can be together.
All of this Psych 101 writing could be fine if it were delivered with grace, or tact, or care. But it isn’t. It feels pretentious and exhausting, like trauma porn for the sake of itself.
There is a more generous reading to this game. That its depiction of your fucked-up mind palace is a way of centering the fact that the power dynamics inherent in a secret incestuous relationship will always lead to its demise, and to the people therein getting hurt. That the only way to maintain this lie is to be an abusive, violent shitheel. That leaving someone you love will always be hard, regardless of the context. And that good choices rooted in a care for other people are always possible, even for someone preoccupied with violent ideations. The game could earn this reading if it weren’t trying so fucking hard to be smart, from its psychosexual mind palace to its convoluted puzzle design that at one point asks you to show a baby shirt to the man you’re torturing.
This attempt to present itself as smart, and serious, and worthy of intellectual rigour, has seeped into Twelve Minutes’ every pore, including its marketing rollout. Of course it opens with an orchestra tuning, that’s how you know it’s smart. Of course they secured major actors for its voice cast, that’s how you know it’s serious. Of course terrible things happen over and over and over again, how else would you know it is worthy of intellectual rigour? I have heard people call the game’s twist edgy, and I think they’re wrong. Twelve Minutes isn’t edgy, it is desperate.
It seems to have emerged from a previous era. One where the medium had yet to prove itself as art to a wider world, and so instead tried to spin itself into being a shadow of film. It is a David Cage game in miniature, all the way down to its star-studded voice cast, and I wish it had the confidence or capacity to be more.