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First Look: Twelve Minutes

Groundhog Night

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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