Time loop stories are power fantasies addressing a powerlessness we all share: The inability to make the past better than it was. “If I’d just done this one thing different,” we tell ourselves when the sleep won’t come. “If I’d only known better.” Paired with that other great “Wouldn’t it be nice” hypothetical—a freedom from all consequences, up to and including death itself—these stories, increasingly present in the art of a generation raised on Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, revel in, and rage against, a reality in which nothing, blissfully, matters.
Twelve Minutes, the new time loop game from Annapurna Interactive (release date TBD, but soon, we’ve been assured) pushes back, hard, against one of those basic tenets. In a recent conversation with creator and director Luis Antonio, he emphasized the theme of “retained information” in his game—of building a steadily widening picture of the immensely complicated situation the game’s nameless characters find themselves trapped within, and which somehow keeps forcing the protagonist (voiced by James McAvoy) to repeat and re-live the game’s titular span of time. And yet, no matter what we tried in the half-hour we spent with it—with Antonio watching, and commenting on, our choices (quite possibly the most nerve-racking way to play a game imaginable)—our increased access to information rarely made things better. Directly confront our wife (voiced by Daisy Ridley) about the accusations levied against her by the man (Willem Dafoe) who’s about to violently barge into our home? Nothing achieved there but denial and anger. Phone the cops (after first hiding in the closet to ensure our spouse doesn’t think we’re crazy)? They’ll be there in 15 minutes, long after we’ve already gotten knocked out, and knocked back in time. Notice the sleeping pills in our bathroom—and that the wife fills a glass of water for herself a few minutes into the loop? That suggests a plan, certainly… but to what end? And who will we end up becoming to see it through?
In talking to Antonio for this preview, he noted that the original design plans for Twelve Minutes were far more mechanical in their use of future knowledge, heavy on the sorts of puzzles in which you unlock a door using a code discovered in a different iteration of the loop. The game clicked into place for him, though, when the social component was added. It’s easy enough to overcome a keypad with future knowledge; far harder when you’re dealing with a human being who has preconceived notions about what you’ll say and do. (And, yes, you can try to convince the wife that you’re getting flashes of the future—although we never figured out how to overcome her understandable skepticism.) From what we saw, the game’s modeling of the man’s knowledge base was robust and interesting, something that other games about this subject matter have struggled with. (That is, it never felt like he was being dumb about something he should have known thanks to his extra-causal knowledge.) But increasing knowledge includes the knowledge that your wife will only lie to you when you ask her a question; that help isn’t coming; that you might, in fact, be doomed.
The moral ethos of Groundhog Day—one that’s been repeated in media ranging from Happy Death Day, to Russian Doll, to the original film’s bizarre virtual reality video game sequel—is that increased knowledge begets increased empathy begets becoming a better person. But sometimes the only knowledge you’re acquiring as you travel through this kind of loop is an ever-clearer picture of a tightening noose. See also 2019’s Hamlet-as-Groundhog-Day title Elsinore, essentially a long-form exploration of all the ways you, and everyone you love, are trapped. And trapped people rarely do the smartest, or most empathetic thing. It’s not clear yet into which category Twelve Minutes will fall; even as the cards seemed stacked against the protagonist, the game continues to suggest new ways to try to wriggle loose—even if some of those involve drugging a spouse to give you a little more breathing room to develop your next half-improvised plan. Which is, admittedly, a pretty grim thought. But the past is a grim place to be trapped. We’re excited to see whether Twelve Minutes offers its players the knowledge they need to potentially break free.