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Twelve Minutes: A Groundhog Day-Style Mystery From The Witness Artist, Luis Antonio

Turn back time

Earlier this year I had the chance to play a prototype of Luis Antonio's Twelve Minutes [official site]. If you like going into puzzle games as a total blank slate, stop reading here and just know that I was absolutely intrigued, wishing I could take the build away with me to play more. If you want to know more about the game and what Antonio has been working on in snatched hours of the evening in addition to his work as an artist on Jonathan Blow's The Witness, read on (I'll try to keep it light on specifics for puzzle fans):

Booting into Twelve Minutes I walked the corridor to my character Aaron's apartment and fished the door key out of a potted plant in order to let myself in. Sarah, my wife greeted me from the shower and I took the opportunity to have a look around. A sofa faced a kitchen area where soup was waiting to be served. The table on the far right was half set. A bathroom door ahead was locked as Sarah showered but the one leading to the bedroom was open.

The version I played used placeholder art (as do most of these screenshots) but here's the first piece of concept art which was created by Luis Melo so you can get an idea for where it's aiming and the prototype comparison of the same room:

I started to potter, picking up objects and looking around. My wife soon exited the bathroom and we had one of those casual conversations about how my day had been and to let her know when I wanted dinner. I pottered more, finding sleeping pills in the now-unlocked bathroom, a wrapped gift in the bedroom, picking up a piece of bread. The evening seemed kind of mundane and I can't remember exactly what I decided to focus on next, but as we went about our evening a visitor arrived at the door. A cop. A cop with a hair-trigger temper accusing my wife of murder. As we lay on the floor, both under arrest, he lost his temper with my struggling and kicked me in the head as the screen faded to black. Then I was back, almost at the start, having just entered the apartment. Sarah was back in the shower and both Aaron and I were confused.

Twelve Minutes is this Groundhog Day style of game where you're given this strange and terrifying turn of events which plays out in a tiny space over the span of the titular length of time and you start digging deeper, trying to find out what's happened. Why is your wife being arrested? Why is the cop accusing her of having another name? What happens if you hide in the cupboard next time...?

As the game loops I discover more about my wife and her life as it is separate from mine. I check her texts, I scoop things out of bins, I go through drawers. We have new branches of dialogue. I tell her about the day repeating and she asks for some proof so I start wracking my brains for what I have to hand which might constitute proof without seeming creepy or like I'm just a shit husband. I get in the bed and nap, speeding up time, but the cop comes again and I don't manage to avert the bad ending.

At one point I try to put sleeping pills in her drink of water to see what happens (I am a shit husband) and how it might help change the outcome but I do it while she's looking at me. She is not impressed. This plan needs some refining. I decide to pick up the soup in a bowl, ready to hurl into the eyes of the cop. I'm not sure how that will improve the situation but maybe if you've got burnt soupy eyes you get distracted from murder charges.

Antonio reminds me that the soup is gazpacho and therefore cold. I feel like Red Dwarf's Arnold Rimmer at the Officer's Club dinner.

Too soon my time with the game is over. We sit back to talk about the game but I'm also mulling other object interactions. How can I drug Sarah? Can we escape somehow? Perhaps she's really guilty and I should help the cop arrest my wife? Can we fit our nice soup dinner in before the cop arrives?

Twelve Minutes has been slowly brought to life by Antonio in his spare time thanks to him learning to program while he was also working on the Witness. It started life as an idea almost a decade ago.

"I always liked the concept of cause and consequence so I wrote The Document" he says. Initially the idea was to have a full city and a 24 hour cycle – you'd be trying to get into your boss's office for a document so you'd set situations up like maybe orchestrating a traffic accident so he was late for work or broke his leg or something. "But realising that cause and effect is super complicated and by slowly reducing to such a small space and amount of time I realised your possibilities are expanded."

The result is Twelve Minutes where, within the smaller framework of the game, there's huge scope for these little interactions and changes to be meaningful and manageable.

I do keep catching myself trying to think of "correct" ways to combine objects and items which is a hangover from older point and click games. I'm wondering if there's a solution – some perfect sequence where you complete the game. But Antonio tells me it's far more open-ended.

"The game never tells you what to do, it never gives you any objectives so everything you're doing is what you think is the right way to solve and the idea is that the game will never acknowledge whether you're right or wrong. It will just give you results to your solutions. It's about what you think you should be doing in order to solve what you think is the problem with the situation. The more you dig, the more you learn about your character and your wife and this cop."

That's not to say it doesn't give guidance. The dialogue is not final but my character still says things that give me an idea of the possibility space of the game. I've just been watching another person's playthrough to see what happened to them and they've run through several interactions I never triggered. As a result of one, Aaron returns to the beginning of the time loop after one such escapade with a remark about the cop being too strong. So there's not a stated purpose, but there is guidance, and the implication from the game's setup is that you want to unravel the mystery of the arrest and your wife's potential other identity (I mean, if you were particularly uncurious I suppose you could just dust your hands off after that first loop and say "Well, I'm glad they caught my terrible wife, I'm off to get pizza").

The whole game takes about eight hours to play through according to Antonio but there isn't exactly an end state. "The end game needs to be refined, the advanced part of the game, even though it's there," he says, "but I hope you arrive at a moment where you're like 'I'm satisfied with what I know and the results of my actions.' That will be the conclusion for you."

This reminds me of Her Story, and how even though I saw nearly every video clip in that game I didn't have a "solution", it was more that I had a version of events that made sense to me and I felt happy to be finished with the game and my conclusion. Antonio tells me the difference for him is that with Her Story you're watching it unfold through clips and although your character influences the order of them they're not changing the events themselves. Here the game is more about player control of the unfurling mystery.

"You really decide how everyone will behave based on your actions," he says. "There's a knife on the table, maybe you could stab [the cop] or you could stab [your wife]. How does it affect him, stabbing her? or things you say? It almost becomes like, imagine if you cheat on someone. Would you tell him you cheated on him or would you not? Hiding information changes the outcomes of things. I think it creates interesting spaces where maybe saying less – pretending you don't know something – makes you have outcomes you're happier with even though you're not being 'yourself'. The game is about the knowledge you have and how you use it to arrive at certain moments you think are right and hopefully using who you are to express yourself in the game and arrive at those conclusions."

Something which is also of interest to me given how I was initially thinking of the objects in the game is that Antonio is a fan of Monkey island and other games in the genre but talks about Twelve Minutes almost as a rehab for people used to those more arcane puzzle game traditions of combining everything with everything just to find a way forward. The one which always sticks in my mind is from Simon The Sorceror: use watermelon with sousaphone.

"For me a good game is a game where you can formulate a plan, you can execute it, and if you fail at that plan you understand why," he says. "The Witness does that extremely well. You know that you interact with the panels. You don't think 'I'm going to grab a rock from the ground and break this panel' or 'I'm going to take the panel away'. The game very naturally tells you what are the rules of this world. Adventure games have this problem where in this room you can go through the window and in the next room I can't open the window."

I mention sousaphones, watermelons and the desperate last resort of "use every object with every other object.."

"Yeah, and that moment it's over, it's not a game," he says. "You're just brute-forcing your way or you're like, 'What did the designer want me to figure out?' I wanted to fix that problem. What I hopefully do with this UI – and this was why I need a lot of playtesting - is to, as you saw the soup but you understand he cannot pick it up [without the bowl]. So you understand the rules of the world and the objects you have with you. Hopefully there's no ambiguity."

You see a glass and you think you can probably fill it with water. You see a phone and you figure you can make a call or check the messages. You're not desperately trying to jam bread into the toilet or use soup on the sofa just because videogames. There are obviously some limits and I was playing a prototype so I don't have an exact feeling for how that will play out in the long term – how closely the game's concept of reasonable expectation and mine will mesh, or whether I'll ever be able to fully let go of the watermelon/sousaphone approach of feeling a bit lost and starting to combine objects to find a foothold.

We talk more about the challenges of making the game, of finding time when already working on something else and having a young family, about how the problem-solving Luis does with his art work has aided him in game design. As we talk he explains the game's top-down approach and why you only use one mouse button instead of the common WASD-and-mouse navigation of spaces.

"My wife, she doesn't play games. She hates videogames and I want a game she could play. That's why it's top down. If it was first person just being able to look around is super hard for most people. I wanted to take [out] that barrier but still have the depth of gameplay. Top-down allows you to do that. There's still depth and intimacy, but you're only using the mouse, one button."

He adds, "You can close the game and think 'Oh maybe I could use the pills to drug her and what happens if she's drugged and the guy comes and no-one opens the door. Is he going to break down the door?' You can play the game without playing the game."

Over the next few months he and the team he has assembled will make the game a full-time project. The first order of business it to clean up the prototype. After that the focus will switch to the other core aspects which Antonio says will "make or break Twelve Minutes": animation, writing and character design.

He explains in a blog entry, "I want the characters to express their emotions through the ways they move and behave, with believable dialogue that doesn’t just read like an exposition dump, but actually expands on the game’s dramatic narrative and reveals each character’s nuanced personality."

What I've seen of Twelve Minutes is really promising, although I think a lot will obviously depend on how the game ultimately pans out as you dig deeper as well as the strength of the finished dialogue. I think what appeals to me the most is the intimacy of the space. It's a small game in terms of its physical space and in terms of each loop, but by spending this time in that small space and exploring emotions and frustrations which your character experiences as the events repeat you should, I hope, get an intense, human-scale drama. Something almost theatrical which zeroes in on this intimate, single set stage.

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