First Look: Twelve Minutes

By John Walker on August 13th, 2014 at 1:00 pm.

This is likely the first time you’ll have heard of Twelve Minutes. It definitely won’t be the last. A twelve-minute-long time loop, set in a three-room apartment, in a game that’s remarkable for its tiniest details as well as its grand ideas. In its prototype, pre-alpha form, it’s already one of the most intriguing projects we’ve seen a long while. I’ve been playing for twelve minutes, and twelve minutes, and twelve minutes, and…

Twelve Minutes is a game I had no idea I was waiting for. But wow, have I been waiting for this. From developer Luis Antonio, currently working with Jonathan Blow on The Witness, this is the Groundhog Day concept gaming has always needed. Even at a prototype stage, with placeholder graphics and dialogue, I’m already completely enamoured by this domestic mystery, utterly stumped, and determinedly looping my way through Twelve Minutes.

You arrive home to your apartment. That’s the set-up for the story. From that point on, you have a surprisingly significant ability to influence the events that will occur over those twelve minutes. Although the chances are, the first time you play you’ll find your wife is in the bathroom, there’s soup on the hob, and a storm brewing outside. You’ll chat with your wife, Sarah, talk about your days, perhaps sit down to dinner then, or perhaps wait a bit. Sitting down for food, you chat some more, and eventually your wife reveals a surprise: she’s pregnant!

You react how you choose to react, and then in the throes of this, the doorbell rings. It’s a policeman. When you let him, in he roughly throws you both to the ground, handcuffs you, and accuses your wife of murdering her father. He demands some evidence, a pocket watch he claims your Sarah has. She denies any knowledge, but each time she protests, the cop kicks you in the head. As things begin to fade you hear her admit it: yes, she has the pocket watch. It’s hidden… and you black out.

And arrive back in your apartment, twelve minutes ago.

The apartment has three rooms – kitchen/lounge, bedroom and bathroom. And that’s the entire location of the game. Leave the apartment and the loop instantly resets. Knock yourself out (which is a thing you can do) and the loop resets. You’re trapped here, and presumably you need to figure out what really happened with your wife and her father, and the secrets behind this pocket watch. But you’ve got to do that in a world that consistently resets everything but your memory.

This means, of course, you can dedicate a twelve minute stint to whatever you want. And the game – and I stress that what I’ve been given to play is a super-early pre-alpha prototype – is incredibly adaptable. From the tiniest minutiae like being able to pick up bread and dip it in soup, or offer your wife a glass of water, to hugely significant changes like desperately trying to figure out a way to convince Sarah you’re not crazy, and that the time loop is happening. Each time. If you think it will help.

There’s so much detail here that really surprises me. Tiny things, things that don’t really matter, that the game already manages. If you ask her to, Sarah will prepare the special dinner she’s cooked for you and lay it on the table. Doing this, she’ll pick up bowls, fill them with soup, put them down, grab glasses, fill them with water, and so on. And you can interfere with this process and the game copes. It’s extraordinary stuff, so nonchalantly done. So, in one loop, I figured I’d put the soup in the bowls and fill the glasses with water, and put it all out on the table, as she would have. Rather than her play through her animations with full bowls, as I think every other game in the history of time would have done, she notices, and thanks you. Only go so far in the process and she’ll complete it. Like I say, this stuff doesn’t matter, but if you’ve played enough games, you’ll understand what a surprising novelty this is. Sit in her seat, and she’ll just sit in the other seat. Games don’t ever get this right!

It all adds up to making this feel real enough for the looping to work. You’re not stuck in the loop of the game’s script – you’re stuck in the loop of a moment of a person’s life. That’s a really thrilling sensation. What’s holding it back currently is the limited nature of the dialogue options that’s all placeholder just now, presumably to be elaborated on and fleshed out. But what’s in there already works well. Clearly in later loops you’re going to be demanding questions of Sarah, what’s going on with the pocket watch, what happened with her father? And that’s all in there now, although not perhaps quite offering the complexity of responses from your own character that I hope will be in the final game. With information that can be gained, I’d definitely want to see that acknowledged in what I can say to her next time. Not least that you hear her confess that the watch is somewhere in the apartment in that first instance.

Knowing what’s going to happen, and when (you can look at clocks in your apartment, and see how long until the policeman will show up), you can start to prepare plans. What if you lock the front door and convince Sarah not to open it? What if you hide in the closet? What if you drive Sarah crazy by repeatedly turning the lights off when she’s trying to read? If it doesn’t work out, doesn’t go anywhere, it’s not going to be long until you’re starting over.

The game is already enormously impressive even with its clunky graphics and near silence. I’m genuinely thrilled to think that it’s only going to get more complex, have more detail added (the character’s phone is not yet working in this build and of course that opens up all sorts of possibilities), and become more intriguing to play. And that’s how this concept can work – how looping such a tiny stretch of time, in such a tiny space can be a compelling experience. And frankly, it’s already there. That need to keep going, to try to do something else that might change something, to poke and fiddle with all the possibilities. This is one to watch, hard.

Twelve Minutes is currently a prototype. You can follow its development here, and we will be keeping a very close eye on it.

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37 Comments »

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    Lars Westergren says:

    Oh, this looks lovely. So this why you were talking about Groundhog Day on Twitter, John.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Actually, that’s because he’s stuck in a time loop himself. It will only end if he does a 100% completion Let’s Play of Myst, so tomorrow will never come to be.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      RIP Robin Williams

  2. jikavak says:

    cool

  3. Eight Rooks says:

    Well, games don’t normally get this stuff right because of the ridiculous attention to detail that’d be needed to do it everywhere! But still, this does look fantastic. A simple enough idea, but it seems like it’s being done with enough attention to detail to sell it and then some; I just hope the ultimate resolution holds up. (EDIT: I mean, I’ve seen some great timeloop stories, some awful, and some stuck uncomfortably in the middle – the Colombian movie Wake Up And Die starts out brilliantly but sadly gets trashier and trashier until the finale just ends up laughable. It’s about the destination as much as the journey, I think.)

    And I’ve often wished a game would take one, tiny environment and really go to town on fleshing it out, but AAA studios just can’t do something that (relatively) weird, I guess.

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    Bluerps says:

    This sounds very impressive, but I wonder how the game will deal with the inevitable repetition. For example, how does the game prevent the player going insanse when they click through the “convince Sarah that time loop is real” dialogue choices for the twentieth time?

    • John Walker says:

      First of all, there are shortcuts. There are certain things you can do to speed it up, if you figure them out. Plus, I understand from the dev that the conversations will change over time in later versions of the game. There’s more on that in an interview coming up soon.

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        Bluerps says:

        Interesting!

        • ninjapirate says:

          I would imagine that the dialogue options adapt to the information you’ve gathered in the previous cycles.

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      Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

      That is the unspoken horror of Groundhog Day. Does Bill Murray finally go insane after subjective aeons?

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        phlebas says:

        Click on pack of cards in inventory.
        Click on hat.
        Click on pack of cards in inventory.
        Click on hat.
        Click on pack of cards in inventory.
        Click on hat.
        Click on pack of cards in inventory.
        Click on hat.
        etc

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Well the film’s pretty clear he’s been driven to attempting suicide many more times than we actually see, so it’s hardly that far off. I know it’s a, uh, “cuddly”, Hollywood take on it but I always assumed he’d been doing it forever, gone mad and come back out the other side.

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          DrScuttles says:

          There’s a good breakdown of the film that suggests he spent about 34 years in the loop. So yeah. Definitely through madness and out the other side I reckon.

      • Dances to Podcasts says:

        I guess I’ll be the one to mention Endless Eight and its effect on Yuki Nagato…

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      phlebas says:

      I’m guessing you don’t have the option of talking about the time loop, but that’s a point – does the character learn from previous iterations (and thus maybe gain dialogue options or be willing to try actions he wouldn’t previously) or is that all down to the player? I rather like the idea that the game could be completed first time if only you knew what to do. Potentially no game saving and an amusing response to walkthrough culture?

      Presumably some of the useful actions (either useful in themselves or as means of revelation) will only be possible at particular points during the period, but others could be followed up independently – getting the balance will be an important part of the design. I’m excited to see where this goes.

      • Eight Rooks says:

        Given John specifically says

        to hugely significant changes like desperately trying to figure out a way to convince Sarah you’re not crazy, and that the time loop is happening.

        I’m assuming that yes, you do have the option to explain it to her at some point, or attempt to. Again, Groundhog Day did it, and I’m pretty sure a bunch of other loop stories have had it, so it’d be weird to leave it out.

  5. xaphoo says:

    Wow I really, really want to play this.

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    keithzg says:

    Like Manderly chewing you out for inexplicably going into the women’s washroom, it’s the moments where the game world just seamlessly reacts like an actual, consistent world that I’ve long thought would be the future of games (since Deus Ex, really). Really neat to see someone finally trying for a game fully predicated on that. Even the sequels to Deus Ex didn’t get the parts of that right that the original did, much less many other games. When ‘normal’ interactions are actually complex and acknowledged by the games, then we can call things “next gen”. Until then, everything is still the same gen as the original Deus Ex ;)

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      basilisk says:

      I find it remarkable that Deus Ex is still the go-to example of this, even though even Deus Ex itself barely did anything like it. Only a handful of times, most of them very early in the game, but those early moments fired up the imagination of players immensely. Very clever of them.

      This sounds really intriguing, though. I always preferred more focused and highly detailed to very expansive game worlds, and this seems to be pushing that particular envelope in a very interesting direction.

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        keithzg says:

        Well, it’s less “clever of them” and more “well hey we should go and—aww, crap, we don’t have the time, eh?” Play around in the editor enough and without knowing what the devs have since said or even noticing the still-existing hints in the released game it’s blazingly obvious that, for example, an entire Washington section was cut well into development. You were originally supposed to be able to choose your gender, too, which never managed to make it in. A lot of the cool interactivity that was scripted rather than systemic was frontloaded in the game because those are the portions of the game they had working the longest, honestly, especially with locations like UNATCO headquarters which are reused throughout the game.

        And of course the other reason it’s the go-to example, despite barely implementing a fraction of the ideal of this, is that nearly every single game since hasn’t even managed what Deus Ex did—most depressingly, this is painfully true of the sequels.

  7. Viroso says:

    It’d be neat if it responded to typing like Façade but also it’d probably end up too goofy too.

    • Luis Antonio says:

      Twelve minutes developer here! I would love to have something like Facade’s dialog system for this game but that would have been a whole new challenge.

  8. LionsPhil says:

    This reminds me of the oft-discussed “one aparatment” game concept, where the design goes deep into a small number of elements rather than wide and city-spanning.

    Or, I guess, masterful farces like Noises Off or, perhaps most fittingly, Sleuth.

  9. bill says:

    Majora’s mask with a shorter time loop and smaller area?

  10. Fenix says:

    *watches, hard*

  11. Wytefang says:

    So it’s basically an Indie version of Source Code, minus the interesting setting and more dramatic time constraints. Interesting, but not THAT interesting, I’m afraid.

  12. RagingLion says:

    I actually HAVE been waiting actively for this game for a long time. Maybe with a longer than 12 minute time limit but maybe that this time length is also a sweet spot. There’s so much that you could with this concept. People need to be making ‘Source Code’ the game (I reference that because it’s a shorter timescale than Groundhog Day) and the drama of deactivating and finding a bomb would be great. A train would actually be a great confined space too.

  13. InfamousPotato says:

    I’ve never heard of this game. It sounds fantastic. Thanks for bringing it to my attention (the article was delightful too).

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Colour me intrigued.

  15. Caiman says:

    There is the theory of the Möbius — a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop. time becomes a loop. time becomes a loop. time becomes a loop. time becomes a loop. time becomes a loop.