You walk out of the elevator of your apartment building, the green and red carpets and brown doors a familiar sight. You’re tired from work, and you are ready to see your wife and relax. When you enter the apartment, you are surprised to find that she has a secret to reveal to you–you’re going to be a father! Before you can enjoy the news, a knock at the door. A police officer. You let him in. He grabs your wife. You try to fight him off. He kills you.
You wake up. You just walked into your apartment.
Twelve Minutes is a game from the mind of Luis Antonio, an independent developer, published by Annapurna Interactive, a subsidiary studio of Annapurna Studios. Development for the game began in 2014, and the game would get announced at PAX East 2015. Six years after its reveal, the game would finally be released with some fanfare on XBOX and PC.
The game features a simple point-and-click gameplay loop (literally) where the player can move around with their mouse in the crowded apartment, exploring the different rooms looking for items to use to uncover more information. The game depends on a time loop that activates whenever your character is killed or about 10 in-real-life minutes pass. The time loop is the integral gameplay element, allowing your character to remember events in previous time loops, trying to incrementally solve the puzzles of the game and figure out what is happening.
The Point-and-Click Adventure Game
The adventure game genre is one of the largest genres of videogames, stemming all the way from the game ADVENT(URE) also known as Colossal Cave Adventure released in 1976 for PDP-10 mainframe computer. Since than, the burgeoning genre has come to create many exciting iterations and ideas, including the genre of the “point-and-click adventure.” In the 1980’s, the legendary King’s Quest series, described as one of the greatest series in the golden era of videogames, would put adventure games on the map.
The point-and-click adventure genre was also extremely popular in the early and late 1990’s, with many famous point-and-click adventure games appearing in this time including The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) and Grim Fandango (1998). These games would become known for their narratives, plot, and puzzles. Having played both the remasters myself, I found that they were an extremely engaging medium for storytelling, thought-provoking gameplay (though at times frustrating, we will get to that later), with a cast of interesting and compelling characters.
These games would peak in the 1990’s, as newer more exciting game genres started to appear over the horizon, such as the first-person-shooter, such as Quake (1996) and Doom (1993). It seems like the era of the point-and-click adventure game would end soon, not being able to compete with the fast-paced action, quicker narratives, and replayabiltiy of the newer titles coming out. Soon, the point-and-click adventure game, known for their slower gameplay and “once-and-done” style would soon become a distant memory.
The Problem with The Genre
Critics of the traditional point-and-click adventure game, such as Grim Fandango all seem to have one thing to say in common: some of the puzzles suck. And I mean really suck. The kind of suck that causes a player to sweat walking around the map looking for the thing they missed. The kind of suck that has a player deciding that maybe the best course of action is to reach for a guidebook or search online for a tutorial. And when that happens in a puzzle game, you’ve already lost the sauce. Puzzle games need to be difficult in some regard, it’s part of the fun. But yet there was something much more lethal about the way these point-and-click adventure games were creating this difficulty. No, it wasn’t that the puzzles were designed brilliantly in such a way that they were difficult due to the mental processes required, but rather they were seemingly being designed in such a way that these mental processes did not in fact matter. And this is where the idea of moon logic arises.
Moon logic is what it seems like, logic that would only make sense on the moon. It basically means that the logic required to solve the puzzles in these games required backwards or unintuitive thinking. And honestly, is there no bigger sin than a puzzle game that feels less like a puzzle and more like a gotcha from the developer to make you feel stupid?
I played both the remastered versions of The Secret of Monkey Island and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge when I was 10 years old. At the time, I was having a blast with the game. It was the perfect combination of thoughtful puzzles, fun characters, and witty dialogue that a 10 year old would like. But there was one caveat, I had the internet. And with the internet, it meant I had guides. And oh boy did I use guides. I mean, to be fair, I was 10, and I really tried my best, but in a game where the game itself is locked behind difficult puzzles, of course I am going to look at guides if that means I get to play longer. And remember, it isn’t just about difficulty, but rather that the difficulty is artificially created by unintuitive design choices.
Difficulty in Games
Difficult videogames have had somewhat of a resurgence in the 2010’s. I mean, an entire genre of difficult videogames was spawned by the release of Dark Souls (2011), known as “soulslike” games (Note: Demon Souls (2009) was technically the first in the series to have the gameplay described by a “soulslike” game, but Dark Souls is when the series really took off and became the phenomenon that we know today.) And these games are difficult, but the difficulty is part of the draw of the game. Yes, the people who play these games want the difficulty, and the developers know this, so with every subsequent game, they stick to the formula of course, but they try to add incremental features to spice up the gameplay. And due to the nature of the difficulty, players find themselves engaged not just with the narrative of the game, but with the fundamental nature of the game itself. And yes, the game can get frustrating, but some of that frustrating adds to the excitement when the player finally gets the achievement of beating that hard boss, or getting that cool upgrade.
Even older genres, such as the “roguelike,” which is almost as old as the adventure game genre, have become extremely popular. Games such as The Binding of Isaac, Dead Cells, Risk of Rain, and Enter the Gungeon have all found great success with players and a large and excited community. Roguelikes, including all these games, are known for their difficulty, with permanent death mechanics, ever increasing difficult stages, and more and more things to keep track of being common in all these games. For example, Risk of Rain keeps track of how long you have been playing on a run, and increases the difficulty the longer the game goes. That means that you could stay on level 1 theoretically forever, but expect it not to feel like level 1 after sometime. And every year, new Roguelikes are being made, like Hades, which became a hit quickly.
Satisfaction and Innovation
The things that make roguelikes and soullikes succeed while the point-and-click adventure game fail is simple. Both the roguelike and the soullike game bring innovation with each game, and satisfaction for the player who plays it. A game’s design is more than just the ideas and thoughts of the developer, but rather how it is implemented and understood by the audience. With each roguelike that comes out, each new game relies on some new gimmick or idea to try to stay fresh, and with a genre as saturated as the roguelike is, developers are pushed to innovate for that next great idea. The Binding of Isaac took the roguelike and turned it into a bullet-hell game, where your character has to constantly be dodging enemy projectiles. Slay the Spire took the roguelike into a deck-building dungeon-crawling card game. Darkest Dungeon turned the roguelike into a classic turn-based RPG. These games are known for their innovating–for pushing the genre to its limits. I mean, a card-game roguelike really? Who would want to play that?
I’ve bought it on both PC and on my phone.
The Soulslike genre has a much harder time innovating than the roguelike; the genre isn’t as open-ended. So what do the developers do? They focus on what the games are good at: difficult but satisfying gameplay. A player feels accomplished when they win, because the game feels like it is a game of skill. Even if they looked up a guide on how to beat a boss, the boss is still difficult. See where I am going?
With the point-and-click puzzle, looking up the guide is game-over. You have basically beat the game on someone else’s back. The game being to difficult means that a player either risks disliking the game, quitting the game, or cheating the game (and maybe some combination of all three).
What Twelve Minutes Does Right
Twelve Minutes is a thoughtful creation over many years, and it shows. It tries to push the genre to its limits just as much as the roguelikes do. The creation of a time-loop keeps the game fresh and entertaining. This innovation brings the entire game together, from the narrative, to the puzzles, to the dialogue, all hinge on the time-loop being satisfying and interesting.
And in my opinion, it delivers.
The game does a great job of just keeping the player so close to solving the mystery, without ever getting them there till the end of the game. Many times I found myself thinking, “Oh, I see where this is going, I have to do this the next loop.” And you want that in a puzzle game. You want the puzzle to be intuitive and interesting. I loved stealing the intruder’s phone and reading his text messages from his daughter to get more information. I loved being able to kill the intruder for no reason (and knowing that the game doesn’t end for me here, I’ll just go to the next loop!) I loved (now this sounds grotesque) being able to grab the kitchen knife and just stab my wife for no reason (I mean hey, we all wanted to try it right?). When a game’s mechanics are as simple as a point-and-click games are, the puzzles need to be intuitive.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Even this game has a little bit of moon logic here and there. Like, why did I have to drug my wife to get her to go to the bedroom? Can’t I just convince her to go to the bedroom? Why does the light switch knock out the intruder–is it really that powerful of a shock? That seems like a crazy safety hazard–you’re telling me they never got that fixed?
By locking the game into a small space, the player becomes intimately familiar with the location of the game, a pleasant and interesting idea compared to the sprawling worlds and maps of the 90’s predecessors. In some ways, the game innovates a dying genre in just enough ways to make it fresh and exciting again.
But is it enough?
SteamSpy shows that DeathLoop, a first-person shooter game made by Arkane Studios and published by Bethesda Games, that came out the same year as Twelve Minutes in 2021 has blown Twelve Minutes sales out of the water. It is important to realize that the main innovation of both games is the time-loop mechanic. Is the point-and-click adventure game just dead on arrival if an innovative and thoughtful game such as Twelve Minutes can’t sell anywhere close to more main stream genres. Maybe, but I think that the genre still has some juice in it, if developers are willing to try to find it on Earth rather than the moon.