Twelve Minutes Review: Time After Time (After Time…)
In the abstract, this looping mystery is fascinating and occasionally beautiful, but in practice it’s aggravating and obtuse.
Twelve Minutes is like one of those brain teaser puzzles where a metal ring is strung along a length of rope that’s been looped through a piece of wood. The objective of the puzzle is to free the ring from the rope, which appears to be impossible but is really accomplished quite easily if you know a counterintuitive trick that leads to the solution. The way these puzzles are simultaneously complex and simple gives them a certain beauty when they’re simply an object sitting on a table, but the experience of playing with one — of actually trying to solve it when you don’t know the trick — will leave most people infuriated, forcing them to either shrug and give up or look up the solution.
That description fits Twelve Minutes to a T. When viewed as an object, this game is intriguing and some of its elements are beautiful, like Neil Bones’ score and, occasionally, the performances from Hollywood powerhouses James McAvoy, Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe. But when viewed as an experience, this game is aggravating, difficult to manipulate, and overly obtuse. I predict that many players will point to this game while it’s sitting on the table and praise it. But those who actually pick it up and start fiddling around with it will have a very different experience
The game begins when your character, a nameless man, arrives home from work to spend a calm evening with his wife in their very small apartment, only to be interrupted about 5 minutes later when a man knocks on the apartment door claiming that your wife is under arrest for murder. If you protest, the man will begin to choke you, which suddenly causes time to loop, sending you back to the moment you walked in the door. Throughout the rest of the game, you relive that same loop over and over while using a simple drag and drop interface to manipulate certain elements of the world and finagle your way into learning new information that might help change something during the next loop or, perhaps eventually, extract you from the loop all together.
Like many of the adventure games that inspired Twelve Minutes’ interface, this game’s biggest gameplay issue is that it’s often difficult to discern how or when to use the different elements in the game world. Dragging a mug to a sink to fill it with water is intuitive enough, but what do you drag onto a vent cover to shimmy it off? (Hint: it’s not a screwdriver, although I spent a couple of loops searching for one.) Similarly, I spent a couple of loops trying to make use of an important item, only to discover that the item isn’t “activated” until you click on it and force your character to verbally explain a logical connection that you’ve likely already made yourself.
Perhaps seasoned adventure game players will be able to navigate this system more adroitly than I did, but as someone whose gaming foundation was built on more linear games from the late aughts, I found myself quickly resorting to a guide and discovering that many of the intended paths were complex Rube Goldberg-ian processes that I likely never would have thought to try. Maybe I would’ve discovered them after hours of experimentation, but it’s equally likely I would’ve never gotten there and simply shelved this game for the rest of eternity.
Perhaps that wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world though as the story this game tells gets pretty…interesting…toward the end. I won’t spoil things any more than I already have, but I will say that if someone says they didn’t like the end of this game, there are multiple reasons why that might be.
Ultimately, I’m fascinated by Twelve Minutes, but only because guides and YouTube videos have shown me what’s possible in it. The process of accessing those moments myself, even after reaching the ending and even when knowing exactly what to do, varies between inconvenient and impossible based on how much progress you’ve made.
To return to my earlier analogy, videogames are both objects and experiences, and there’s no reason to pigeonhole them into just one category. Games like Twelve Minutes move the medium forward, and it’s wrong to say that this game shouldn’t be a brain teaser puzzle that’s beautiful on the table and frustrating in your hands. But it’s also worth acknowledging that many games are great because of their ability to gently, subtly guide you toward solutions, then make you feel like you thought of them all by yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with being an obtuse brain teaser puzzle, but what if that puzzle also successfully guided you toward the solution? What if it gave you just enough information or guidance to deduce the solution and keep the experience moving without checking an external guide?
That game would be beautiful both on the table and in your hands.
PS: I’ve seen people compare this game to the recently released Overboard and my dearly beloved Outer Wilds, but those are merely surface-level allusions that only pertain to the looping time travel elements. At its core, this game is much more similar to Undertale, another game that’s a fascinating object with myriad secrets that can also be a frustrating experience for those without any sort of external guide.