'Twelve Minutes': Annapurna's Interactive Time Loop Thriller Is Not Your Typical Video Game [Interview]

For Luis Antonio, the creator of Annapurna Interactive's intriguing new thriller Twelve Minutes, the idea for a game with a built-in time loop narrative began with a basic question. "Most games already have an aspect of repetition: you keep dying and repeating a level. But what if the character was actually aware of this? What would be the repercussions?"

Twelve Minutes is a top down point-and-click experience about a man (voiced by James McAvoy) who comes home to have a romantic evening with his wife (voiced by Daisy Ridley), only for a police detective (voiced by Willem Dafoe) to suddenly burst through the front door, accuse the wife of murder, and beat the man to death. But death is not final: instead, the man ends up right back at his own front door at the start of the evening, with only a few minutes to figure out a way to prevent this horrible situation from unfolding the same way over and over again.

I had a chance to play a preview build demo of the game and chat with Antonio about the project's origins, evolutions, and his hopes that its inherent accessibility (all you need is a mouse) might convince non-gamers to give it a shot.

Twelve Minutes Trailer

Time Marches On

The gameplay of Twelve Minutes reminded me a little of the types of games I used to play on my family's PC when I was a kid. As the player, when the experience begins and you walk in the front door of your apartment, you're free to roam around from room to room, interact with various objects (that knife on the counter seems like it might come in handy), and talk to your wife, who has planned a special evening for the two of you. After just a few minutes of discussion, you realize the characters are at a very particular point in their relationship, and the edges of the story slowly begin to come into focus.

I played for about twenty minutes, which is only scratching the surface. Antonio says it takes "around eight hours" to complete the narrative, depending on how comfortable you are with adventure games. But hardcore gamers beware: tactics from other games might actually hinder your experience here. "I've seen people that are good at video games, they go in and grab all the items and start combining them, which doesn't quite work for this game," he said. "It's a bit more intuitive – it's more about thinking about the idea, and then applying it."

Simplicity is the Design's Secret Weapon

So, how did this game come to be? "I always liked the idea of time loops, mostly from movies. Could we do that as a game mechanic? I just started exploring the idea," Antonio told me. He's spent years working in the video game industry, recently for Rockstar Games, the company behind mammoth hits like the Grand Theft Auto franchise. When he first cooked up the idea for this experience about ten years ago, he envisioned it as more of a GTA-style game.

"Early on, [the setting] was a city," he told me. "It was 24 hours. But I realized it's very hard for players to understand the consequences of their actions. So I started shrinking and shrinking and reducing the play space, and things became more clear. So the lack of complexity actually made the game more interesting."

Narrowing the focus allowed Antonio to cut away all of the extraneous stuff and hone in on what was essential to the story he wanted to tell. "Making a very small space, a very small time loop, and giving you very clear objects means that you have this breadcrumb experience. Every loop, you have one or two clues you can follow, and they open more clues."

What Makes the Game Unique

Part of what makes Twelve Minutes unique is the way it embraces the "fail state," which is a video game term for what happens when you're set back to an earlier point in the game after doing something wrong. "In this game, there's no 'losing.' If you let the cop interrogate the wife, you learn what he wants. If you try to get out, you also learn that he tries to put you back on the ground. So everything you do is opening opportunities. Keeping this flow working, that was the key, I think, for the experience to grow in an organic way as you play rather than getting frustrated."

Another part of this game's evolution came when Antonio found himself questioning tropes often found in video games – things like energy bars, health bars. "I asked myself, 'If I'm doing this from scratch, what are the things I would remove or bring back?' One thing that, early on, that I realized, was keeping the game top down allows everyone to play it. You don't have to deal with a gamepad and 3D movement, looking up and down and trying to orient yourself." If you've ever tried to play a video game with someone older than 50 on a modern console, you probably know what Antonio means here.

One of his eureka moments came when he realized "there's actually room to redesign some choices we've been doing for many years as game developers in games. That, I think, opens up the experience for more people. I hope that this is more like an interactive thriller than a game itself. There's no goals. There's no winning. There's no losing. It's also very trimmed down. You don't have to play 100 hours and unlock stuff – it's not about that at all. It's a narrative that you're going through, that you're actively participating in, and your interpretation of it will change how you see it."

Will Twelve Minutes help bridge the gap between games and films? Will it lure in non-gamers who are intrigued by the presence of big-name actors and the game's mysteries and simple mechanics? It's too early to tell, but Antonio hopes that playing it will result in a satisfying experience – and maybe even some lofty reflection. "By the end of this, you maybe ask some questions about yourself and how you see the knowledge you have about other people and relationships."

Here's the official synopsis of the game from its Steam page:

Twelve Minutes is a real-time top-down interactive thriller with an accessible click and drag interface.

What should be a romantic evening with your wife turns into a nightmare when a police detective breaks into your home, accuses your wife of murder and beats you to death...

Only for you to find yourself immediately returned to the exact moment you opened the front door, stuck in a twelve-minute time loop, doomed to relive the same terror again and again...

Unless you can find a way to use the knowledge of what's coming to change the outcome and break the loop.

Twelve Minutes blends the dream-like tension of The Shining with the claustrophobia of Rear Window and the fragmented structure of Memento.

Twelve Minutes will be released sometime in 2021.