12 Minutes Review: Groundhog Slay
A man comes home from work and is greeted by his wife. She made dessert. They sit and eat their cakes cold out of the fridge while a thunderstorm rattles the windows and their capital-S song plays on the radio by the sink of their studio apartment. While eating, the woman surprises her husband with news: They're having a baby.
The couple discusses how their lives will soon change dramatically before a knock at the door interrupts them. The visitor says he's a cop, zip-ties the couple, demands information they don't seem to have, and kills the husband out of frustration.
Just as he takes his last breaths, the man suddenly reappears back at the door he'd entered moments before. His wife comes out to greet him, talking about dessert, none the wiser that he's fallen into a time loop and if he can't figure out why, he may be doomed to die on repeat forever. As he falls into madness, so too will players find themselves deep down the rabbit hole of one of 2021's greatest games.
12 Minutes Review: Groundhog Slay
The premise of 12 Minutes is a popular one in games right now. From Outer Wilds to Returnal and beyond, video game designers have found the narrative device of a time loop is a natural fit for the medium. None have impressed me more than 12 Minutes.
Publisher Annapurna once more put its Hollywood contact book to work, nailing down a small, focused, stellar cast of Daisy Ridley, James McAvoy, and Willem Dafoe who does a remarkable job as the intruder, delivering one of my favorite performances of the year. Really though, there's no slacker among the trio.
These excellent performances make the frantic story all the more riveting. Delivered in traditional point-and-click fashion with the added twist of an overhead perspective, players will relive the same few minutes over and over again ad nauseum, gleaning breadcrumbs of information each time that help them advance through the hellish evening to the tempo of two steps forward, one step back.
The game was co-written and developed by Luis Antonio, who displays a stunning understanding of the medium from both a story and gameplay perspective, which makes sense once you know his prior credits include time on Rockstar titles and The Witness. More than just a completely intoxicating story that begs to be played in one to few sittings, 12 Minutes is an incredible achievement in puzzle design.
There are no colored blocks to match, no birds to fling at wooden and stone structures. The puzzles in 12 Minutes are interpersonal and have most impressively accounted for seemingly every possible permutation players may attempt to break themselves free from the loop. Early on, it's made clear that players must discover the location of a particular item, one that only the wife seems to know even exists. Armed with this information, how might a player stuck in a loop get them to give it up?
Direct confrontation only has her shut down completely. Asking politely only ruins the candlelit dinner when the subject proves too touchy in a subsequent loop. Perhaps you can find it yourself, but your erratic behavior drives her up the wall as a result. Maybe doing nothing at all will somehow resolve your issue.
That's the brilliance of 12 Minutes. There is always a right answer, sometimes more than one way to get there, but in its design is a stunning clairvoyance for every possible avenue players will go down desperate for the next clue. When the game does give them out, typically in new dialogue options, they feel like genuine breaks in the case of a murder mystery, only you're the one who keeps dying, if not your wife too.
Some moments will brush up against the line of obtuseness in a classic adventure game way where players must combine items to solve problems, but once you get over the hump, you realize the answers were all there for the detail-oriented player. In a suddenly green garden of time loop video games, none have ever given me such an authentic feeling of living in a time loop myself. 12 Minutes broke my brain, and I loved every second of it.
Beating the game over two days, my mind raced in between sessions. What if I gave him what he wanted? What if I had her do it? What if she wasn't there at all? How would he react? What if I kill him? What do I do?! All the while, the clock is freely viewable in a pause menu, with its perpetual and taunting tick-tocking.
Each loop is a new opportunity to toy with the world, turn over more stones, and eventually, hopefully, save your life. The failures are abundant and it can feel like all hope is lost when you're really stuck, but those moments of finally going down the right path and making measurable progress will go down as one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year. I dropped out of my chair — literally — more than once while playing 12 Minutes. Sometimes because a revelation leveled me. Sometimes because I was losing my mind in a loop with no apparent next step.
I'm writing this review in a vacuum, unaware of what my peers thought of it. I expect other critics to talk about this feeling, some more negatively than I am. They'll be right to do so. Hitting those roadblocks is sometimes annoying to the point you want to pull your hair out, but it's also authentic and vital to the experience. So much so that I hope no one jumps to YouTube for answers before slamming their head against a few walls across the five to 10-hour game.
12 Minutes Review — The Bottom Line
- Brilliant, unpredictable story
- Detail-oriented problem-solving
- Stellar performances from everyone
- Occasional pacing problems
12 Minutes is one of the finest games of the year, of that I am sure. Its twisting story unfolds solely due to the hard work of the player, which can mean some pacing issues once in a while, but for the most part, the game teaches players how to intuit its instructions without ever holding their hands.
Few games are as expertly crafted as this one on both story and gameplay levels and gripping music and a superb cast bring it all together. The irony of it all is that 12 Minutes, a game about a man trapped in a time loop, is very much a game I wish I could play again for the first time, even as I just finished it this week. I envy people playing it for the first time in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
[Note: Annapurna Interactive provided the copy of 12 Minutes used for this review.]