If a video game is going to make you repeatedly drug your wife in order to progress, it should at least have the good grace to not make doing so a massive pain in the arse.
That’s the crux — several of the cruxes — the cruces of what’s wrong with Annapurna Interactive’s new “guy stuck in a time loop” game Twelve Minutes. It’s not just that its story, operating in a genre ideally built on letting players do whatever the hell they want, is so tightly constrained that it resembles a rather mean-spirited spin on old-school adventure game design. It’s that it makes performing all these acts of minor-to-heinous evil such a stiff, click-heavy, and above all else repetitive chore to perform. As someone who’s done some awful (virtual) things in video games — shout-out, with a shudder, to the Dark Side path in the original Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic — I don’t necessarily have a problem with a game requiring me to do twisted shit to move forward. (Even if making a time loop game with one correct path does feel like something of a waste.) But as something of a connoisseur of this particular thriving little sub-genre, I can promise you that there are ways to make going through the loop feel less punishing and dull than Twelve Minutes ultimately does.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dispense first with the premise of the game, which stars high-powered, weirdly anonymous voice talent James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley, and Willem Dafoe, and was created by Luis Antonio, who I talked to for a preview of the game a few months back. The story concerns an unnamed man who comes home to his unnamed wife, only for an unnamed cop to barge in after a few minutes of domestic bliss, insist the wife is a murderer, and then beat or kill the man into unnamed submission. At which point, time rewinds to the moment the man first entered his apartment, and you get to do it all again, searching for a way out of the mess.
There are compelling ideas here — obviously, which is why there’s been an uptick in Groundhog Day riffs in gaming in recent years, from the various games by The Sexy Brutale’s Tequila Works, to the Shakespearean Elsinore, to recent delight The Forgotten City. Time loops are a natural fit for video games, since, in some way, every non-procedurally generated game operates in one: Mario might die, but the player’s knowledge of the world he exists in, and the consequences of possible actions, all persist. The idea of repeating a sequence of events, trying to figure out the perfect solution, is baked right into the medium. What, then, makes Twelve Minutes one of the worst time loop games we’ve ever played?
First: It’s hard to over-emphasise how unpleasant it is to navigate the game’s exceptionally small world. Viewed from a top-down perspective that feels design-built for an eventual mobile release, the game lets you move the man around the room by listlessly clicking, tapping on named hotspots to try to interact with a cup or a knife or a bottle of sleeping pills or whatever. All of these little movements (only made even more fiddly when there’s another character also moving in the environment) have been calculated to eat some of your ticking time, and none of it has been calculated to feel good in the hands.
Ditto the conversation system, which sometimes allows you to skip through dialogue, but often forces you to sit through the same conversations over, and over again — especially when you’re prodding at the edges of the game’s strictly dictated decision trees, looking for differences in each loop to find the next step forward. Other games in this space quickly work out that repetition isn’t the fun part of the timeloop fantasy — Elsinore lets you institute a sort of fast travel, while The Forgotten City gifts you a helpful NPC who you can assign to complete any chores you finished on a previous task. Twelve Minutes does very little of this lifting of inconveniences; it’s like if Groundhog Day made you watch Phil fully brush his teeth before starting every single version of February 2. For a game where you’re obviously interested in running as many loops as you can to see how it all plays out? It’s utter death.
And what do you get for all this struggle with the base act of playing the game? A story that compares poorly to pretty much every other game I’ve mentioned. I’m not going to go into spoilers — here’s a takedown of many of the more tawdry elements of the game’s plot, including an ending that is perversely easy to see coming because it’s so “shocking” and “unpredictable” — but Antonio’s stated desire to make a game about the power of remembering has created a narrative that’s strangely forgettable. The game tries to wrestle with the gravity of the depraved acts that being trapped in a loop like this can (and, if you’re trying to move the game forward, will) force your protagonist to perform, but even here, it all feels like lip service. And it doesn’t help that every single character in the game is some flavour of massively unsympathetic; it might be kind of clever, in a meta sort of way, to make the woman you’re ostensibly trying to save a massive obstacle to your forward progression, but it doesn’t make the plot of “Man” or “Wife” any easier to relate to.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good: You don’t have to play it, even if you love time loops! Go try Elsinore or The Forgotten City; they both outpace this higher-budget offering in pretty much every regard. That’s the great thing about time loops, right? You can always undo a mistake.