Time only ever flows in one direction, so far as we know: forward. This immutable law of nature puts all kinds of constraints on our existence. Perhaps the most obvious practical limitation imposed by time’s arrow is the principle of cause and effect — or, to put it another way, our understanding that actions have consequences.
This truth of the universe ties closely with the human faculty of memory. Once we’ve become aware of something — learned of its existence, experienced it with our senses — it’s difficult to forget it (or, at least, to actively forget it). If you’ve spent any significant amount of time on the internet, you know that what one has seen, one cannot unsee.
These are the kinds of thought-provoking concepts that Twelve Minutes, the long-anticipated game from indie developer Luis Antonio, seeks to probe. And in that respect, it succeeds: I spent a lot of time pondering these ideas as I prepared to write this review. I do wish the game didn’t have to put me through its particular wringer to get there — but maybe that’s part of the point.
Twelve Minutes draws on the format of point-and-click adventure games to tell a twisted story about a man who keeps reliving the worst night of his life: He comes home to his wife, who has planned a special evening for the two of them, which gets interrupted when an intruder assaults them. Things end poorly, but the man wakes up right back where he started, having just walked into his apartment. He quickly realizes that time is repeating itself, and his objective becomes clear — find a way to stop the cycle.
Knowledge is power in this quest. The only way to acquire it is to try making different choices in each loop, experimenting with actions and dialogue choices so you can see how your decisions affect the way things play out. In some cases, that means refraining from speaking. In others, it means removing yourself from the situation to watch how other people act in your absence.
This is where Twelve Minutes excels: It gives you a sandbox and the tools to play in it, and doesn’t hold your hand. I never tired of the joy of discovery in this game, of coming up with a hypothesis and then testing it. In most cases, a failed outcome — and there will be dozens of them before you reach one of the game’s endings — will teach you something. That nugget of information will then nudge you down another path.
Despite the limited instructions, you’ll grasp the fundamentals quickly. Whenever you move the cursor over something you can interact with, the name of that person or object pops up; if it’s an item you can pick up, you’ll see a little upward arrow as well. Where appropriate, you can also combine items from your inventory with objects or people in the environment. For instance, if you pick up a mug and then drag it from the inventory to a sink, the man will fill the cup with water; if you drag the cup of water from the inventory to the man’s wife, he will hand it to her. Finally, you have the ability to examine inventory items to reveal more information about them.
These are the only real mechanics at play in Twelve Minutes, aside from the dialogue choices. Yet the game gets an impressive amount of mileage out of them. For one thing, I rarely encountered a situation where I wanted to try something that the developers hadn’t accounted for. More importantly — and appropriately, for this game — time is always of the essence. The dialogue trees change in real time to reflect events that have occurred and information that the man has learned, so doing or saying something just a few seconds earlier or later can open up new paths or foreclose them.
That’s something I learned the hard way. One of the game’s early obstacles is convincing the man’s wife that he’s stuck in a time loop. I had been able to come up with two different pieces of proof, but she needed more. I was banging my head against a wall, trying everything I could think of, to no avail. I had to ask for help from another Polygon staffer who had been playing the game. The possibility space in Twelve Minutes is massive, and it’s natural that it narrows as you approach the later stages. But at turning points that unlock major developments, the game can be incredibly restrictive in the sequences of events that you need to pull off.
While certain lines of dialogue serve as clues — if the wife “didn’t hear you come in,” what happens if she doesn’t see you, either? — I hadn’t been able to put two and two together in this specific case, and it became immensely frustrating. I don’t think Twelve Minutes would be better with a built-in hint system, à la old-school adventure games. But I would’ve appreciated it if the game could’ve dropped a more heavy-handed clue or two after noticing my lack of meaningful progress.
The more progress I made, the more ominous the proceedings began to feel. The story in Twelve Minutes is oppressively dark. And it only becomes more grim as you get further into the game. Even describing it as “not for the faint of heart” feels inadequate.
There’s the violence that the intruder visits upon the man and his wife, some of which you must watch over and over again, due to the nature of the game. The top-down perspective obscures the characters’ faces, but it doesn’t make the violence feel any less real. At the same time, that’s a credit to the animation and voice acting, which effectively convey the brutality of the events.
The first time the man woke up after being strangled by the intruder, and his blissfully unaware wife told him about the dessert she had prepared, he responded, “Yeah, that sounds great ... in a sec.” James McAvoy, the actor voicing the protagonist, sounded appropriately flustered and shell-shocked in that bewildering moment. The other main cast members — Daisy Ridley as the wife, and Willem Dafoe as the intruder — also turn in terrific, expressive performances. The American accents from McAvoy (who is Scottish) and Ridley (who is English) occasionally falter, but not nearly enough to detract from the experience.
Even so, all of this is in service of a story that worked for me only in individual moments, not overall. A late-game twist certainly landed with a gut punch — I think I literally said, “Oh no,” out loud when I realized what it meant — but that’s partly because I was so sickened by the development. I’m not sure I want to relive the experience just to unlock some more Steam achievements. (On that note, I and other members of the Polygon team thought it was surprising that there’s no content warning within the game. Suffice it to say that many players will find the themes of the story off-putting.)
This also made me realize the inherent conflict between Twelve Minutes’ video game-y mission and the mature story it’s trying to tell. The writing, animation, and voice acting are all superb. But the loop-based nature of the game led me to objectify the characters regardless. Because I felt encouraged to experiment, I began to throw everything at the wall to see what would help me solve the larger puzzle. Instead of considering these characters as human beings, I came to think of them (and what I put them through) only as methods to obtain information — as if I were grinding for enough experience points to reach the next level.
As far as I can tell, I made it to the true ending of Twelve Minutes. However, in conversations with co-workers who have also reached that point, we haven’t been able to decipher what it all means or what the game is trying to say. It aspires to grapple with Big Life Questions, and I imagine that many players will find it to be a text ripe for that kind of discussion. For me, Twelve Minutes is more about the journey than the destination — but maybe I’d feel differently if I could wipe my memory and experience it fresh, exploring undiscovered paths to new conclusions.
Twelve Minutes will be released Aug. 19 on Windows PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release Steam download code provided by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.