12 Minutes I Wish I Had Back
12 Minutes hooked me from the moment it took the stage at Microsoft’s E3 2019 conference. A brief teaser trailer set up the premise: You play as a man, stuck in a time loop. After your wife reveals she’s pregnant, you drop a bombshell of your own—a cop is about to knock on the door. He’s out for blood, claiming the wife murdered her own father. The wife professes her innocence, saying her father died of a heart attack. According to the protagonist, the only way out of their predicament is for him to get some answers.
It’s a thrilling premise, and a wonderful trailer. Too bad the game itself is a cacophony of half-baked ideas and bungled story threads. 12 Minutes had potential to be something special. Some of that potential still manages to shine through, thanks to a cast of capable A-list actors. But no amount of acting prowess can save a bad narrative—and a terrible game.
Long-story short? 12 Minutes is a spectacular failure, and a rare miss for publisher Annapurna Interactive.
It’s Groundhog Day, But in Hell
12 Minutes sets itself up as a harrowing thriller that’s part mystery novel, part action flick, part puzzle game. The loop plays out the same each time: You arrive home from work while your wife is in the bathroom. After a few seconds, she exits the bathroom, gives you a hug, and tells you dessert is in the fridge.
For the next 10 minutes, what you do is up to you. You can set the table, have dessert, and dance along to the radio. You can sit on the couch as your wife reads a book. Or, you can head to the bedroom and fall asleep. Eventually, though, you’ll end up with a knock at the door, a heated encounter, and death by strangulation.
On paper, this sounds like a compelling concept. As you make sense of your surroundings, you’ll likely start asking yourself questions and devising thoughtful plans of action. What information can I glean from my wife? Can I negotiate with the cop? There’s a knife on the counter! Maybe I can hide in the closet and get the drop on our assailant.
Here’s the thing: 12 Minutes doesn’t care what you think. You can come up with a clever scheme, only for the game to reject it in humiliating fashion (usually asphyxiation, but occasionally a knee to the face). Some “routes” make enough sense—you’ll eat dessert, learn of your baby for the first time, die, and use the newfound information to convince your wife you’re stuck in a loop. Once you do manage to convince her, however, good luck getting her to help you out.
Want to hand her the knife? The game will have you stab her. Want her to hide in the closet? The bathroom? There are no dialogue options for either.
If you’re designing a game based entirely around logic, that logic better make sense. Unfortunately, 12 Minutes throws logic out the window, forcing you to brute force your way to solutions, rather than discover them organically. It’s far less a creative sandbox, and far more an obtuse trick puzzle you keep on the coffee table for your in-laws at Thanksgiving.
It’s Also Glass, But in Hell
I could write another 300 words complaining about the faulty design of 12 Minutes. Instead, I’ll dedicate that real estate to the double-edged narrative at the core of the experience.
One of the game’s biggest strengths is its cast. It’s a lean crew—there are only three voiced characters—but it’s a mean one. James McAvoy stars as the husband, Daisy Ridley as the wife, and Willem Dafoe as the cop. Combined with a top-down camera view and an intimate setting (all the action takes place in that one bed, one bath apartment), 12 Minutes plays out like a dramatic stage play. Say what you will about the game, but the aesthetic is killer.
Annapurna is no stranger to Hollywood (it doubles as a film and television studio), so the casting isn’t necessarily surprising. It’s nonetheless impressive, however. I found myself smiling at Dafoe’s raspy delivery, and awe-struck at how McAvoy and Ridley can pull off American accents with such ease.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the star of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split and Glass lends his efforts to a narrative with little thrust, and one hell of a bad ending. Yes, the premise of 12 Minutes is solid, if not downright impressive. But what you see in that E3 2019 trailer is 99% of what you get. The characters don’t develop. There’s no emotional investment in their fates. The only moment of note is a late-game twist that serves not to satisfy, but to shock. It’s lazy writing, and not even Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins could save it.
It’s Hell (If You Haven’t Guessed Yet)
12 Minutes is the car crash you wince at, but can’t help but crane your neck to stare at. The game’s premise was brilliant, the concept trailer was masterful, and the cast couldn’t have been better. But none of those components make up for what is, ultimately, a game founded on contrived mechanics and underwhelming storytelling.
It’s not lost on me that this game was a labor of love from an incredibly small studio. If anything, I applaud their ideas, commend their efforts, and celebrate the interest they’ve built for this game over the past five years.
For those who have access to Xbox Game Pass (as of release, the game’s available on the service), or those who simply want to support small developers, I still recommend you give 12 Minutes a try. It’s a five-hour experience, and while I can’t say I enjoyed those hours, I certainly won’t forget them.