In ‘Twelve Minutes,’ former Ubisoft and Rockstar developer plays with the concept of time

Shannon Liao

THE WASHINGTON POST – Twelve Minutes, an indie thriller adventure game published by Annapurna Interactive, is about a man stuck in a time loop. Each night is the same. He’s having a romantic meal with his wife. Then, a cop knocks on his door to arrest her.

I played 30 minutes of Twelve Minutes in late April and chatted with Creative Director Luis Antonio about my experience. Antonio guided me through the game that he had conceptualised and brought to life, introducing me to different items that can be used in the game and choices in dialogue that I wouldn’t be able to explore in my short time with the title.

Twelve Minutes, coming soon this year to Windows and Xbox, quickly hooks the player. After 30 minutes, I wanted to know more. What happens if I don’t try to attack the cop for arresting the man’s wife? What if I start dessert with the wife earlier so we talk for longer at the table? What if I successfully prove to her that I am stuck in a time loop? (Not to mention the primary mystery of the time loop: what triggered it.)

Players move their character around the rooms of the apartment, adorned with various paintings for atmosphere, by point and click, or by using the controller if you’re on Xbox. A core feature of the gameplay is being able to retain items outside of the time loop to “progress” the character forward, even when the day resets. I found a mug that I had nervously chucked into my character’s inventory was still on him after the loop reset. It wasn’t the most useful item when the cop was arresting my character’s wife, but it made me curious about what other items I could try to store next time around.

The character you play also grows more competent over time. When I had him attack the cop after multiple attempts, he was more agile, and able to avoid the cop’s counterattack successfully.

Twelve Minutes is a very compact game, running about eight hours, according to Antonio. It plays in real-time, so each time loop is about – you guessed it – 12 minutes long.

‘Twelve Minutes’ is an indie thriller about a man stuck in a time loop. PHOTO: ANNAPURNA INTERACTIVE

Antonio said he’s worked in the games industry for about 10 years, with stints at Rockstar Games and Ubisoft before he went independent and learned to code and created this game. He estimated he worked on Twelve Minutes for two to three years before partnering with Annapurna. Everything from the apartment to the characters to the story was designed by Antonio, he said, and character artists, sound designers and more helped build out the game. The game features a star-studded cast of voice actors, including Willem Dafoe, James McAvoy and Daisy Ridley.

Going from working for a large triple-A games company where developers felt the pressure of shareholders’ expectations to working for himself, Antonio said he was able to control more of the vision on his own.

“There’s no objective, there’s no goals, there’s no winning or losing, there’s no telling you what to do. I really want to make something that’s more organic,” Antonio said. He added that in popular, successful games, “you’re used to killing 500 people in a few hours and someone getting into your house and attacking (as they do in Twelve Minutes)” isn’t something that’s typically portrayed.

With an indie game, Antonio was able to make his own decisions.

For instance, friends told him not to make the game “top-down” or portrayed from a bird’s eye view, with the characters’ faces obscured from view because it hides their emotions. But Antonio insisted because he believes top-down makes a game more accessible for someone with little experience playing video games.

“In other studios, this would not have been possible, but since there’s no one telling me ‘no’, there’s this room to experiment and see what works or not and without any pressure other than working towards the theme,” he said.

The concept of the game is: What would happen if a character in-game knew that they would die and come back, Antonio said. “Games themselves are already a bit like this, you know. You die, you start the level again. But there’s just no (in-game) awareness of what just happened. So, I started to explore that idea.”

At first, he imagined this as a locked door and the player learning the key code. But later he realised the more compelling part of this idea was about people around you and those the protagonist (and player) cares about.

“It became this exploration of the knowledge of the people around you,” said Antonio. He also narrowed down the scope of the game from 24 hours to a much smaller time frame to make it clear for players exactly what would happen next and what each action they took could lead to. If it was 24 hours, a player could spend three hours solving a puzzle, then make a mistake and not want to start over. He then considered what would happen if they faked 24 hours and made it go by quickly.

“But then I realised I’m exploring the passage of time and the knowledge of time and I’m already faking time. So I was like ‘no, let’s make it real time.’” Antonio said. “Hopefully, as you dig deeper into the story, there’s this depth to it that’s worth your time of playing it.”