Describing Luis Antonio's Twelve Minutes in traditional terms — "point-and-click," "adventure game," "top-down perspective" — may tell you about the kind of video game it is, but it does a poor job of explaining what it is.
"Groundhog Day + family mystery" is useful shorthand that comes closer. As in the beloved Harold Ramis film, the protagonist of Twelve Minutes is stuck in a time loop, except this one lasts 12 minutes instead of 24 hours. Like many indie games, Antonio's project has a limited scope but dives deep into its clever concept, making for the most interesting game I played at PAX East 2015.
Our protagonist, Aaron, comes home to his small one-bedroom apartment at 7:55 p.m., and the moment he steps inside, he's on the clock. His wife, Sarah, is in the bathroom, humming to herself; bread is sitting on the dinner table, ready for the gazpacho on the stove; and of course, not everything is as it seems. Aaron's world is about to get rocked, in multiple ways.
Antonio noted that Twelve Minutes contains placeholder art, animation, audio and dialogue at this point, since the game is currently in the prototype stage; in fact, the bedroom in the build I played doesn't look like the one in the screenshot below. But while Aaron's three-room apartment (living room/kitchen, bathroom and bedroom) is sparsely decorated, the space feels lived-in enough to impart the sense of being a real place. The entire game takes place within the apartment, and it helps that you can interact with so much of the items within; I looped a few times and kept saying to myself, Cool, I didn't know I could do that.
Everything you can interact with has a purpose, said Antonio, and everything is a clue. As you explore the apartment, finding hidden items like a pregnancy test, a gift-wrapped box and a smartphone, it becomes clear that your wife is hiding things from you — some of them more shameful than others. Then it all goes to hell when a police officer starts banging on the door and demands to be let in, and accuses Sarah of a heinous crime. The cop handcuffs you both, and when I tried to wriggle toward my wife, who was being physically assaulted by the cop, he knocked me out.
That's a fail state, so the world flipped back to 7:55 p.m. at that point. Aaron realizes just like you do that time has looped backward by a few minutes, and he'll be stuck in that repeating block of time forever unless you can figure out what's going on. The clock moves in real time, so if you decide to fast-forward through conversations with Sarah, time will elapse accordingly. (There's no timer ticking down in a corner of the screen, mind you; Antonio told me he wanted Twelve Minutes to be as immersive and distraction-free as possible, so there are analog clocks in the apartment that you can glance at.)
The neat thing about Twelve Minutes is that with every clue, with every loop, Aaron learns more and more about the situation. Just like a real person in his situation would, he gets tired of repeating the same small talk with Sarah, so you'll notice that over time, he finds quicker ways to get his points across. And Sarah reacts like a real person, too; if you cut her off, it'll upset her. The dialogue options are crucial here, and Antonio acknowledged that they're still a work in progress at this point. But in my brief time with the game, I was impressed by the ways in which my actions affected the dialogue options on offer. Eventually, said Antonio, you'll have to convince Sarah that you're reliving the same 12 minutes over and over, and that's when things will presumably get really interesting.
As in a typical point-and-click adventure game, you can pick up certain items and put them in your inventory, and can combine some of those objects together. A fun way to end your playthrough prematurely is to pour yourself a bowl of gazpacho, drop some sleeping pills from the medicine cabinet into the soup and knock yourself out by eating it. Maybe you want to take the knife on the table and attempt to stab the cop. Or perhaps you'll try to hide in the closet and see what happens when the cop only deals with Sarah. These are all choices you can make based on the knowledge you glean from exploring the apartment and playing around with what you find.
Antonio estimates that there are "six hours of gameplay" in Twelve Minutes — that is, it'll take players six hours of time loops to figure out how to make it all the way through. But that's not necessarily all there is.
"There is a final outcome to the loop that you could call an ending," Antonio told me. But he clarified that "surviving" to that point doesn't mean you've seen it all.
Either way, we’ll have to wait a while to find out. Antonio has been working for the past few years as an artist on Jonathan Blow’s The Witness and developing Twelve Minutes in his spare time. He expects to finish working on The Witness by this summer, and then hopes to attract funding for full-time development over the subsequent year.
Right now, the plan is to launch Twelve Minutes on PC in summer 2016. I don't know if I'll be able to get the game out of my head between now and then.