What caught me off guard was the extent to which I began to revel in pushing the limits of behavior. At one point, I realized that I could use the cell phone to contact a loved one of the cop, and the devil in me smiled. At another, I began to torture him as a way of extracting information, wincing as Dafoe spat out that I was a “monster”—honestly, it was difficult to argue with him. But I built up to these heinous crimes as I felt the game whittling down my options. I became, in other words, desperate like the husband I was role-playing, albeit safe in the knowledge that, if my course of actions didn’t work out, I’d simply start the loop afresh. It was a strange feeling, one in which I felt both powerful and powerless.
Twelve Minutes never treats such depraved behavior frivolously. Rather, the uniformly strong performances imbue it with a gravity rarely felt in video games. Ridley and McAvoy, unrecognizable with US accents, are excellent. Dafoe is precisely as you’d imagine, flipping from demonic to fatherly as quickly as the game’s whiplash script (to its detriment, at times) demands. This is only one side of it, though. The animations, motion captured by Mocap Now and brought to life by animators Alex Yao, CJ Markham, and Addison DeBolt, are fluid, realistic, and convincing. The fact that you barely see the faces of these characters because of the top-down view makes the achievement all the more remarkable.
I haven’t talked about the specifics of the plot beyond the premise and a few moments because it relies so heavily on the element of surprise. What I will say is that each of the three characters, the husband, wife, and cop, are more interesting than they first appear, and if the game’s script appears underwritten in the opening exchanges, this is resolved somewhat (although, never totally, I should stress) as you make it further into the loop. One particularly resonant detail illustrates the extremes people can be pushed to by America’s inadequate and expensive healthcare system. While Twelve Minutes often feels timeless like a Hitchock film—staccato violins, artful lighting, art deco interiors—this subplot brings it bang up to date.
Still, the puzzle element of the game is not quite as naturalistic as the drama itself. It can be a touch finickity, requiring the careful, systematic lining up of actions. At one point, I was at a loss as to what to do but it turned out I had simply forgotten to make a crucial phone call. In my frustration, I tried numerous other approaches including, perhaps a little ludicrously, flushing the stopwatch down the toilet. At such impasses, for all the humanity of the script and animations, not to mention the Hollywood talent involved, I was reminded that Twelve Minutes is still a computer program—a set of code functioning according to its own predetermined logic.
But when Twelve Minutes hits, it really hits—none more than one sequence which had me convinced I was about to see the credits roll. I won’t divulge exactly what happens, but if time is the central device around which the game is structured then this is the moment various threads fall into thrilling lock-and-groove synchronization. There’s a light touch to the choreography of conversations and actions that occur alongside one another, each one filled with heartfelt emotion. As a whole, it reminds me of Nolan’s films, Interstellar and Dunkirk, when various planes of time coalesce to wonderful, clarifying effect.