Bringing on big name actors to a game is a bigger risk than you might first think. Whilst their star power is certain to draw attention from a wider audience there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to bring the same kinds of performance that they give on the big (or small) screen. This is due to voice acting and motion capture being a vastly different set of skills from what actors typically have. To be sure they’re streets ahead of many people in the business, but there’s been enough terrible performances to show that working in this genre requires skills and patience that often need to be developed. That’s why I was cautiously optimistic about 12 Minutes as it starred Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley and James McAvoy as the latter 2 really don’t have a lot of experience in this genre. Thankfully though they all deliver terrific performances but what lets down the experience is its repetitive nature, something which I think could be very easily addressed through the inclusion of certain mechanics that other games have used.
You return home from work and are greeted by your loving wife. She tells you she’s made desert, your favourite, and has another surprise for you. Sitting down at the table she gives you a gift, a baby’s jumpsuit with the name Dahlia written on the front. She’s pregnant and over the moon about it. Before you have enough time to process it though a cop appears at the door and swiftly handcuffs you both. You have no idea what’s going on, only that the cop seems fixated on a pocket watch. Before your wife can say much in return though he strangles you to death and, suddenly, you’re back where you were only minutes before, your wife standing in front of you asking you when you want desert.
12 Minutes graphics and art style are very simple, likely owing to the fact that this game has been in development for quite some time (2015 or so). For a point and click adventure though this is perfectly acceptable, although it does give you the feeling you’re playing something that is a couple generations behind at this point. On the flip side this also means performance will be good across the board with even the most basic gaming setup being able to play it without issues. Of course the simplistic art is a deliberate decision on the developer’s part, wanting to focus more on the timeloop mechanic and emergent storytelling rather than prettying up the graphics for modern day. This has certainly born fruit for them, given how much story they’ve been able to pack into 12 minute time loop, but it is also the source of the game’s downfall: repetition.
At a nuts and bolts level 12 minutes is a pretty standard point and click adventure game, one that pushes you to find creative solutions to the problems presented to you. The challenges it puts forward are all pretty well telegraphed, the characters seemingly offhanded dialogue lines usually giving you clues as to a way in which you’ll be able to progress the story. The time loop mechanic is also pretty straightforward, completely resetting everything except your character’s memory of what has transpired before. Like any time loop mechanic it has its foibles of course, mostly related to how they gate particular parts of the story. It’s something I think non-gamers could readily get into and, for any experienced gamer, the base game is going to make a lot of sense right off the bat.
Your first handful of loops are going to be spent mostly exploring the art of the possible in this world, figuring out the rules of the world and what you can and cannot accomplish. Of course this is a limited world ruled by the developer’s logic, so there are some things which you’ll think will work which ultimately won’t. However, at least for the first hour or so, even these failures will often result in you gleaning an additional piece of information that will guide you in a particular direction, ensuring that the plot points reveal at a relatively steady pace. From there though things start to slow down a bit and it’s unfortunately due to being forced to replay the same sections over and over again.
You see some of the (for want of a better term) dialogue trees you’ll pursue require a bit of setup in order to get to. Quite often the ends of these threads are binary in nature, either ending your current loop or giving you the chance to continue. This can mean that if you think there’s more to dig up in a thread you’ll have to go through the same loop preparation again to get to it before you make your choice differently. Worse still there are many, seemingly innocuous decisions you can make which will end a loop prematurely, forcing you to yet again spin back to the start.
This repetition doesn’t do wonders for the story’s pacing and towards the latter parts, where you’re trying out various different things to get the outcome you know you need but can’t seem to quite get, it really starts to drag. The solution to this is something that Detroit: Become Human did extremely well with their decision tree, showing the branches of various decisions you could make and, crucially, jump to that point. 12 Minutes could really, really use this as it would save repeating all the boring stuff and make the idea of exploring other dialogue options fun rather than a chore. Heck even gate the tree behind certain plot points if you’re that worried about people finishing the game “too quickly”, it’d still be better than replaying the first 4 minutes over and over again.
Which brings us to the narrative itself. Let me first say that the performances from all the actors are top notch, and the dialogue between the characters feels genuine, impactful and emotional. However with the narrative relying heavily on macguffins and deliberately misleading plot points in order to keep things moving along I became vastly less interested in the story over time, even though I liked many of the characters. SPOILER AHEAD Worst still is the ultimate twist at the end which honestly didn’t make a lot of sense to me but, if I’m honest, after the initial reveal I thought the whole premise was just so utterly ridiculous that I just didn’t bother playing on. SPOILERS OVER
12 Minutes then is one of those indie games that, despite its brilliance in certain areas, unfortunately let the core mechanics get in the way of telling the story. To be sure there’s a lot to love here with the first half of the game paced well along with the brilliant performances from all the actors. From there though it starts to fall down, the repetitive nature making story progression slow, making the game’s final moments a chore rather than the emotional climax that the developers were seeking. Still for what it achieves it does it well and I think that with a few small improvements 12 minutes could very well be the game that it aspires to be.
12 minutes is available right now on PC, Xbox One and Xbox Series X/S right now for $35.95. Total play time was 4.3 hours with 33% of the achievements unlocked.