Time loops are all the rage right now. From Happy Death Day to Russian Doll, it seems like storytellers are having their own Groundhog Day of sorts by repeating the same narrative device over and over again. But, in this sense, video games have long been ahead of the curve. The act of repeating the same moment - time after time - following every death, learning and developing new skills through each loss and fatality in the process, has been a part of the medium ever since Pong hit the arcades in 1958. It's the same thing, just with less Bill Murray.
Few games, however, with the exception of titles like Braid and The Sexy Brutale, have ever really front-loaded this concept as the central question of their design. Luis Antonio, on the other hand, came up with the idea for his upcoming indie game 12 Minutes around six years ago, during his days helping Jonathan Blow design the art of The Witness, and long after his time in the triple-A space with Rockstar and Ubisoft. "I remember thinking that video games are essentially a time loop", he explains, "but what if the main character could actually remember that he just did this 'level' over and over again? And as I dug into this concept, the more I found I could work with for a full experience."
Inspired by the classics
12 Minutes describes itself succinctly as "an interactive thriller about a man stuck in a time loop", but there's far more to it than that. Said "man" is our main character, an everyday urbanite who returns to his apartment one night to find his wife celebrating some unexpected news. To give away any more details would undermine what the game is trying to achieve with its unfolding story of player discovery, but let's just say the celebrations don't last long, and - after the titular 12 minutes (or less, if you manage to get yourself killed before that threshold) - our quotidian hero is back at the front door of his apartment, ready to repeat the same tragedy all over again.
There is a distinct filmic lens to 12 Minutes' geometric design, and everything, from the brassy klaxon-led score to the instantly recognisable carpet of the apartment block, owes a debt to Stanley Kubrick, who Antonio cites as an inspiration alongside other time-twisting movies such as Christopher Nolan's Memento. "I always wanted to bring this cinematic knowledge to video games," says Antonio. "It really helps to feel the weight of the emotions involved with each action. The richer this experience is, the more you care about it, and hopefully that's something that resonates with people."
We got to try out three separate "loops" during our E3 2019 hands on with 12 Minutes, which essentially plays like a top-down adventure game with simple point-and-click controls. In the allotted time, you have the option to either talk to your wife (each new loop will often open more dialogue options), interact with objects in the apartment, and stash items into your inventory that could come in handy later. Antonio describes wanting to make 12 Minutes "accessible to everyone," which perhaps partly explains why the game had such a large presence at the Xbox E3 2019 press briefing, given Microsoft's recent push towards widening the parameters of play.
"When I originally pitched the idea to ID@Xbox, they loved it," says Antonio, "and then as we worked together, the ID@Xbox program itself kept getting bigger and better, and they eventually approached me to bring it to E3. 12 Minutes is designed to be a very cinematic experience, and I think Xbox likes that kind of thing too. They've always been very supportive since day one, and it was quite a moment to see it on the E3 stage! I feel very humbled and surprised to see people relate to this so well."
12 Minutes is set to release sometime in 2020, with full production now in operation as Antonio's small development team looks to polish up the character's janky animations, nail down the control scheme, and add full voice acting for its small cast of characters. Annapurna Interactive, a subsidiary of the movie production company of the same name, is working with Xbox to bring 12 Minutes to PC and console. When asked whether that connection could help bring in some Hollywood talent to play the central couple, Antonio smiles, but says nothing. Perhaps he managed to have a little chat with Mr. Reeves backstage at the Xbox briefing…