There are spoilers for Twelve Minutes below.
In its earliest conception, the time loop of Twelve Minutes played out in a gigantic open world rather than a tiny apartment. Its director, Luis Antonio, working as an artist at Rockstar London in 2008, had just wrapped up production on the ultra-violent Manhunt 2 while Rockstar North, a few hundred miles up the road in Scotland, put the finishing touches to Grand Theft Auto IV. Studio executives were looking for pitches so Antonio tried his luck.
“I knew we had the tech so I was like, ‘what if we do a full-blown city simulation?’ We’d write what every single person does, and then put the player into that environment as well as a time loop. “They were like, 'no, no, it's too complicated.' But the idea never left my head.”
Fast forward to 2021 and Twelve Minutes is now a harrowing, Nolan-esque interactive thriller, released a few weeks ago for PC and Xbox consoles. Its set-up is simple: A husband and wife’s idyllic night at home is violently interrupted by a cop, and you, playing as the husband, are stuck inside this very space and the game’s twelve minute loop. The maddening spiral can only be broken by completing a series of logic puzzles to uncover information about the characters, their motivations, and relationships with one another. Its cast includes popular Hollywood talent, with James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley starring as the husband and wife, Willem Dafoe as the police officer. If the game seduces with sharp, cinematic production values, its story and action pushes into stranger, darker territory than even its home-invasion premise suggests.
While I found much to like, others such as Kotaku’s Renata Price, were emphatically negative, highlighting, among many other well-argued criticisms, its relentless, graphic violence. Price also refers to the “quiet storm” brewing over its ending, an almighty twist which, depending on your fondness for the game, either evokes the most stunning revelations of a Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan movie, or those directors' most wince-inducing "gotchas" (we’ll get to the exact details later). Reddit is rife with theorizing about what it all means. The game has divided critics and players alike.
Despite its top-down perspective and point-and-click-style system of interaction, Rockstar’s cinema-but-games DNA courses through Twelve Minutes. Having completed a design degree in Lisbon in the mid-aughts, the closest Antonio could find to a video game course in Portugal at the time, he applied to work at the newly formed Rockstar London. The first project he was involved with, Manhunt 2, ditched the snuff movie set-up of the first game for a bleak city romp starring the amnesiac protagonist, Daniel Lamb. But its gameplay continued to focus on extreme “stealth executions,” rendered in uncanny, hard-nosed style. The company’s tough approach, both creatively and in terms of work culture, left a big impression on the young artist.
“Rockstar has a very clear vision of their cinematic approach to video games, and they don't compromise on that,” Antonio told me. “Until the games worked the way they wanted them to work, we weren’t done. Screw the schedule, screw the budget. We're just gonna get this right. I loved that.”
After Rockstar, he did a stint at Ubisoft Quebec which, like many other Ubisoft studios, has found itself having to answer tough questions about bullying and abusive behavior. For Antonio, the company offered a valuable lesson in the pitfalls of commercial development. “You're making games for profit,” he said matter-of-factly. “It also clarified aspects of game production that aren’t ideal, like the separation between designers and programmers. There’s no merging of the two.”
So Antonio made the move to the more collaborative realm of independent games, landing an art job on Jonathan Blow's first-person puzzle game, The Witness. When he arrived, the game was meant to be entering the final six months of development but Antonio thought its realistic visuals jarred with the sleek puzzles. Blow agreed and they overhauled the game’s look, development rolling on for another three and a half years. Antonio refers fondly to Blow’s principle of “no-noise,” everywhere in the final game from the literally quiet sound design to minimalist puzzles and clean art direction. It was, he said, a markedly different philosophy to that of his previous employer. “Rockstar goes for the explosion,” he explains, “and Jonathan has that explosion but it’s got to be meaningful. It has to hit just right.”
In a way, Twelve Minutes is a synthesis of these two almost diametrically opposed approaches. Visually, the game is pristine, almost entirely avoiding the classic adventure game pitfall of failing to make clear what can and can’t be interacted with. But more than that, like The Witness, it appears to revel in a rationalist worldview—the idea that logic is the answer to life’s big problems. Something strange happens in the combination of this nearly computational way of thinking and Antonio’s Rockstar-esque fondness for intense violence. As you carry out each action with surgical precision (at various points, committing heinous acts of violence over and over again), you start to feel less like the husband stuck in a time loop and more like a psychopath. It’s an undeniably queasy sensation.
“It’s raw,” Antonio said. “In most games, you kill a ton of people. We have a desensitized understanding of these actions. They’re just accepted in our culture. In 90 percent of movies, there’s a hero and a villain, and you blow this guy up because you believe what he did is incorrect according to your values. I think someone invading your house and hurting you is pretty hardcore. I wanted that to be something people were aware of.”
But unlike so many video games which only allow you to kill your enemies, in Twelve Minutes you can harm everybody—the cop, your wife, even yourself, using either a kitchen knife or gun. Indeed, you’re almost encouraged to do so because experimentation is crucial to making progress. These moments, at least initially, are grim to watch, precisely because everyone moves and speaks so realistically. I watched the husband tremble with fear, his voice quivering as he held a kitchen knife in front of his stomach. I saw his wife’s horrified reaction—the way she rushed over as life seeped out of his bloodied body. For Antonio, these moments help “ground” Twelve Minutes. “They help you feel that these people are alive,” he said “That they have feelings, and that they’re not objects like in most games.”
But as you repeat these actions ad nauseum, at various stages drugging your wife, torturing the cop, they do become objects, lumps of virtual matter that fit into Antonio’s grand puzzle narrative. The further you make it into the loop, the more they become one of the worst things a life can be—an inconvenience. And you treat them frivolously as such.
Then there's the bombshell that arrives in its final stretch, the one that has ignited fierce debate on Reddit and Twitter. I’m not referring to the reveal that your wife killed her father, or that she actually failed to kill him and it was you, the husband, who did so. No, I’m talking about the fact that you are your wife’s brother. Did I mention that she is also pregnant? Well, this too. It bears repeating one more time: Husband and wife are actually brother and pregnant sister. Through this latter development, any sympathy and pathos that was established for the husband evaporates in an instant. So does the coherence of the plot, and the game becomes an altogether weirder, bleaker affair, if, for lots of people (and I count myself in this camp), not entirely unenjoyable.
Twelve Minutes, Antonio said, isn’t just about a time loop, or even the cause and consequence of actions, but how your perspective on the characters changes. He seeks to remind players that the husband is an unreliable narrator and that we play almost as his subconscious.
While some critics have compared Twelve Minutes to Alfred Hitchcock's films, Antonio mentions two further movies when we discuss cinematic influences. One is Park Chan-wook’s 2003 neo-noir thriller Oldboy, another infamously violent work that involves a nauseous incest twist. The other is Michael Haneke’s 1997 movie Funny Games, described by Roger Ebert as a “torture-comedy experiment,” one which inspired a third of its Cannes audience to walk out.
Funny Games, despite its grim spectacle, is a genuinely interesting critique of a movie audience’s complicity in images of extreme violence. In one pivotal scene, a character delivers a fourth wall-breaking wink directly to the camera just after an act of gruesome cruelty. It’s uncomfortable, but works precisely because it yanks the viewer from their passive lull. Twelve Minutes, like Antonio himself, isn’t nearly so explicit, and this begs the question, what lies beneath the game’s blunt shock tactics? Ultimately, the incestuous twist makes this difficult to answer because it overwhelms the rest of the game—and in a manner that falls short of the the filmmakers Antonio aspires to.