12 Minutes is an upcoming Xbox console exclusive about a murder mystery at the center of a time loop.
Not gonna lie--I leapt at the chance to get hands-on with 12 Minutes, an upcoming time loop-based adventure game published by Annapurna Interactive that I've had my eye on for a while. I didn't get much time with 12 Minutes but even in the short preview I had, the game managed to get its hooks deep in me. 12 Minutes opens with an intriguing mystery to solve, and to even begin solving it, you have to first overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It tickles the logic-based part of my brain that finds enjoyment in figuring out puzzles.
If you're unfamiliar, 12 Minutes sees you play as a husband who comes home to his apartment, where his wife reveals they're going to have a baby. Suddenly, a man claiming to be a cop knocks on the door, which your wife answers. However, the cop then accuses the wife of murder, insisting that the wife killed her father years prior. The cop then ties the couple up so that he can interrogate them. When the husband tries to resist, the cop strangles and kills him. Suddenly, the husband wakes up back at the moment when he first walked through the door. From there, you become trapped in a 12-minute time loop, where you know the cop is going to come in and murder you just over three minutes into the loop.
So, if you're going to figure out why a cop thinks your wife killed her father--she claims he died of a heart attack if you press her about it--and whether she actually did, you'll first have to prevent your own murder. And that's just the first problem you have to overcome in the loop.
"What you're seeing is just the opening of the game," Antonio told me. "Eventually, you're able to overcome the cop and you can actually live until the end of the 12 minutes. So it's like if Bill Murray was dying at the start of Groundhog Day over and over again and never managed to figure out that he had 24 hours before each reset. So the loop is 12 minutes long, you're just being killed before the loop wraps up."
Antonio confirmed that the entire game takes place in the apartment. Not believing him, I did try to leave--just to see the loop reset. To overcome the cop, I was going to have to figure out how to either stop him from coming into the apartment or deal with him when he did. Hiding in the closet didn't save me. Trying to convince my wife that I was stuck in a time loop and that we shouldn't open the door for the cop didn't work. Directly attacking the cop with a kitchen knife really didn't work. But with every attempt, I found new ways to try and save myself--and I probably would have sat there for hours continuing to experiment if I hadn't been stopped. Similar to other adventure games, 12 Minutes is a lot of finding the right item for the right job, but those first few minutes didn't feel overwhelming. There's actually not all that much you can do; the trick is figuring out what you should do and in what order.
"All of the interactive objects in the apartment--you know what they do," Antonio said. "You can pick up the mug, go to the sink, drag the sleeping pills to the mug, and know what will happen. Once you know everything in the apartment--which is not that much, it's very clean in terms of the items you can use--in theory, everything you can plan should work out. So, like, you cannot drag the couch to block the door because you cannot pick up the couch. But once you know your element, everything you plan should always work out."
Antonio added that 12 Minutes is designed for you to figure out how to overcome the cop relatively quickly. And I did feel like, had I been given an hour as opposed to 20 minutes, I could have figured it out. But, again, the cop comes in and kills you only within the first third of the 12 minute loop--there's a good eight to nine minutes of stuff to see after surviving your murder, with more mysteries to uncover and problems to solve.
"The beginning of the game is designed to make you move--there's a guy coming in every three to four minutes that you have to overcome," Antonio said. "But that's just the start. After a while you'll be able to control this guy; he's no longer an issue because you know how to handle him. And that's when things open up a lot more--that's when things get interesting. 'Cause at that point, the play space is bigger--you don't have an immediate goal. So you have to ask, 'Oh what should I do in this situation?' And then you have your own interpretation of your actions and what everyone is saying. 12 Minutes reaches a really interesting play space once you overcome its first initial puzzle."
It's not just the joy in solving the puzzle that kept me wanting to play more 12 Minutes. As mentioned earlier, there's a mystery beyond the puzzle: Did your wife kill her father--and if so, why? And if not, why does someone think she did? You never see the faces of the husband, wife, or cop--the game is portrayed via a top-down perspective. But even without really knowing what these characters look like, you end up caring about them, encouraging you to get to the bottom of the mystery and better understand everyones' respective pasts and what's going on.
"We're trying to go for more of a character piece, similar to a theater play, where it's three characters in a room the whole time," Antonio siad. "It's always top-down, you never see their faces. There's this focus on getting information through the voice acting--we wanted players to believe these characters are alive and that they react to what you do."
He continued: "The whole goal is that the player has to care about these characters--that's the only way a game like this works. Having the actors perform really helps bring that extra layer--like when your wife is humming or lovingly talking to you, stuff like that."
Of what I saw and heard, the writing and vocal performances behind 12 Minutes are so strong. The husband you play as is voiced by James McAvoy (The Sandman, X-Men: First Class). The wife is portrayed by Daisy Ridley (Ophilia, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and the cop is voiced by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man, Aquaman). It's quite the cast and they bring so much nuance to their characters. Without any exposition, I felt that there was a palpable sense of tension and mistrust between the husband and wife even before he began questioning her about her father. And there's such a sense of deranged obsession to the way the cop speaks; it feels like he has a personal stake in this, and his quest for answers has ruined most aspects of his life.
"Early on, I had dialogue balloons over their heads that would show the text," Antonio said. "And then I changed them to subtitles so that it would feel like a more cinematic experience. And then we changed the character's animations to match the voice acting when that was added."
That's been the fundamental transformation for 12 Minutes over the past few years: It's grown increasingly cinematic. "The core itself is the same," Antonio clarified. "But like when we brought in voice acting, it brought a whole new layer to the characters and suddenly, you see them differently, so we said, 'Let's take advantage of that.' For example, when we were doing a recording session, certain movements [from the actors] opened up ideas of how we could explore certain parts of the story a little bit more--let's pull all we can out of it. So we just kept expanding in that sense. So yes, the heart is still the same, but I think the game is much more refined than the experience you would have played two years ago."
But at the end of the day, this is a game and not a movie, so the player has more agency than a movie viewer would. Antonio said that not only are there "a couple ways to overcome the cop," but that the ending to 12 Minutes is very open to interpretation--it's what you make of it.
"The ending is something that I thought about a lot," Antonio said. "Because in a movie, it's very linear. After two hours, three hours, you get to an ending--it just ends. But here, we can play with that formula. The concept of 'ending' in 12 Minutes is slightly different from what you probably expect--this is not a game that you just finish and there's a definitive close. After maybe eight hours of gameplay, you will reach a satisfactory conclusion or something that you could call an ending for you."
When I pressed him about what he meant by that, Antonio clarified by saying, "There isn't any 'finished, complete' ending. There's no objective, there are no goals. The game never really tells you what to do."
To this, I responded that surely this game must have credits of some sort, though. And wouldn't credits traditionally signal the end of something? This got a laugh out of him, as well as a fairly cryptic answer: "Yeah, yeah--but there's more after the credits."
We'll have to wait a little bit longer to know what he meant by that, but not too much longer. 12 Minutes is scheduled to launch for Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and PC in 2021. It's one of the 50 indie games we're most looking forward to playing this year.