Complete Story spoilers, if you want to avoid them check out my spoiler-free review.
If you’ve read my review for 12 Minutes, you’d understand that I have mixed feelings on the game; on the one hand, it is an interesting, thought-provoking, kind-of-unique game with great moments and ideas; on the other, it suffers from a poor console port, needs to be engaged with a very specific way to have the intended experience, and delivers a story that should have been way better. I hope both sides were expressed in that review, but this is intended for people who’ve finished the game and want to “discuss” their thoughts on this game; more accurately, it is intended for me to do exactly that but hopefully you’ll join along. I’ll start with some mechanical/design discussions and hopefully that will not completely spoil the fun of the game so that any undecided will stop before the complete story spoilers and discussion; however, if you haven’t played 12 Minutes yet and wish to, stop reading this and go ahead and play it.
One of my major complains of the game’s design was something that I best described as “dev logic”, which accounts for the known meaning of that term (puzzles so obscure that only the devs who design them could logically figure them out) but also for the dev’s failing to realize possible solutions to problems the game puts forward and dealing/reacting to them. Obtuse puzzles can be subjective, even in the worst cases, but 12 Minutes seems to have a lot of complaints about the solutions from other people; in my experience, I’ve likened it to Her Story, where a big part of the puzzle was figured out by accident and where lots of people have had similarly “unearned” breakthroughs. Taking other experiences out of the equation, the reason why I recommend Her Story to anyone is that, even if you are lead to the “solution” by logic that doesn’t fit what the game wanted you to think, five videos are not enough to hand you a satisfying answer (which is the limit of videos popping up when searching for keywords) and you’d still need to figure out the rest of the keywords on your own; also, despite Her Story being kind of difficult to fully complete and to get that core story all together, it feels less intimidating knowing that you have to pick up the right words and nothing more; it gives you a starting point, but the path you take is irrelevant to whether you solve the mystery or pick up the clues needed. 12 Minutes was a much harder experience for me, because during the first loop, I did not complete the set up; in fact, I learned that the wife is pregnant about 2 hours into the game, which made me feel bad for all the pills I gave her up to that point. I never knew the name depicted on the baby clothes, because I couldn’t figure out how to open the present (more on that in a bit). Having said that, I think some of the more “important” solutions are too easy to stumble upon; I found the watch within the first 3 hours due to sheer luck and pixel hunting. I was stuck on how to progress the loop (which is perfectly fine) and I spent a couple of loops just searching the house and every scene I could interact with until something stuck out and ‘inspired’ me to a new clue, which is when I saw that the medication cabinet pointer switched to ventilation grid on the bottom; it had nothing to do with the clock ticking in the bathroom (figured that one out later) or with the wife being in there at the start or how it was the intended way (the wife giving it to you). In Her Story, figuring out a part of the mystery out of the intended order was fine, because it gave you a taster of what’s to come; figuring out that the wife did not kill her father, but having not made any progress with the cop’s story was a confusing mess that made me skip out on sections that would have been more engaging. For example, the most disturbing loop for me was the one I outright murdered the cop, however what could have been a close contender was the one where you watch the cop kill your wife from the closet; I only did that because I thought that was the way to get the “Coward” ending, which surprisingly it is not and by that point, I already saw her die a dozen times and knew she wasn’t “real”. When you watch a scene of a pregnant wife being executed in cold-blood and all the player feels is frustration that the achievement sound didn’t pop, then there’s something wrong with the design of your game.
I know this can sound nit-picking and kind of is, because of how ambitious this game is; each player is allowed their own path with faults and all, which is why when the game works it almost makes up for everything. Just as I won’t forget the lack of impact of the previous example, I won’t forget how smart I felt when my wife mentioned that the polaroid on the fridge was taken on New Year’s Eve and I knew I had evidence the cop could not deny, proving my wife’s innocence; that unfortunately leads me to my second big grievance with the game: Failure states and the lack of reactivity. Usually, when you attempt a solution that is simply not going to work the game kills or stuns you; for example, trying to outpower the cop and stab him is simply not an option regardless of what or how you do it. So, the game kills you over and over (and in my case, the protagonist even says it out loud that it won’t happen) until you realize that’s not something you can effectively get away with, unless he is restrained. So, when the game keeps killing me or denying me the opportunity to show to the cop that polaroid, then I assume that it is not part of the intended solution; only when I accidentally figure out how to use the cell phone, do I finally figure out how to make the cop look at the polaroid. Obviously, this is mostly my fault – the game does show you how to use objects intended for the protagonist in the tutorial by having you use the fake rock in your inventory. However, that happens once in the first minutes of the game and never needs to be done again until you figure out where the wife has her phone (you don’t have one and I suspect that is something to do with the narrative context) or get the cop’s phone, so I forgot; that kept me from opening the present, using the phones, and advancing the plot. But even if I hadn’t forgotten and I just needed more time to figure it out, I still felt like the game was clearly showing me that I needed to look somewhere else instead of needing to change how I used the current clues; to me, I wanted the game to have more clear-cut ways of showing when I was looking at the wrong place or when I needed to shift the way of looking at the stuff I was already looking at. A great example of this is already in the game – the now infamous “what the fuck am I supposed to do?” Groundhog Day end of the “last” loop. The game clearly sets up a sequence of events and solutions that are there for you to follow (for example, you are supposed to notice the lighting as something your wife does not expect and think that it’s a way to prove you are in a time-loop) and take some solutions away while keeping the right ones and building on those; so, when most players thought they figured the loop out and got everything “correct”, they would mirror Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and be utterly hopeless and try everything out, before realizing which items/info they haven’t used yet like the present and the name on the clothes to finally break the cycle. However, when you try to show the cop the polaroid and he simply refuses, it becomes a process of elimination to figure out that the polaroid is actually part of the solution but the problem is that it has to be used after a specific sequence of events – in a very specific way nonetheless, which brings me nicely to my last critique of the gameplay.
Dragging items from your inventory to your character and not using them is actually one of the perfect examples of how reactionless the game actually is and how it will only accept and acknowledge the game’s solutions and not your own; this is such an ‘armchair dev’ critique, but in a game about figuring out your own way to break a time-loop, unfortunately it is an important part of the experience. For me, the one that got me extremely frustrated and gave me my moment of disillusionment with the game was when I realized where the clock is hidden; my thought process was since the cop just wants the clock, I’ll drug my wife with the pills, get the clock, leave it on the table, and hide in the closet while shutting the door of the bedroom – that way he sees the clock, grabs it, and leaves with both of us still alive. What happens is that the cop simply ignores the clock and goes his usual route of finding the wife and searching for me and killing me; just to add salt to the wound, he asks me where the clock is and my character can deny knowledge or tell him where it is (in the bathroom apparently and not where he left it minutes ago). Or, how about the time I finally figured out how to show him the polaroid and I grabbed it to show it and he kills me anyway because he will only agree to see it on the fridge, not showing it to him; again, I understand that with an ambitious (almost) solo project like this, there are going to be oversights and flaws but some (like the awkward controls for the console port) can be forgiven or even ignored, while others hurt the experience and simply cannot be waved away. Even the achievement for the “true” ending didn’t trigger, because I noticed the book the wife was reading too soon and clicked on that too soon for the achievement to pop; as I understand it now, you’re supposed to wait for the father to run out of dialogue before clicking on it to trigger the achievement.
Now comes the part where I discuss the story in full spoiler mode, so this is the last warning for those still reading that haven’t played the game; there are still many surprises left, so don’t read any further if you want to play the game and still find some surprises.
A few paragraphs ago (and too many words to count), I said that there is a point most players would have mirrored Bill Murray in Groundhog Day in their utter hopelessness for thinking they had the loop figured out, only to be brought back to the beginning again; that was not my experience. Oldboy being one of my favorite movies of all time, as soon as I had heard of a bastard child that’s gone missing, I immediately joked about it being the protagonist, since it was (at the time I had heard it) the only clue that didn’t seem to stick anywhere else; once the wife called that child the “monster” I was sure about the reveal. This is not going to be a discussion on whether movie references are good or not (as I am not even sure it is intentional), however this is going to be a “digestion” of sorts, regarding how the reveal works in the context of this game compared to other similar media and, more specifically, how does that experience translate to video games. Let’s set the stage first. The game begins with a husband coming home to his wife, where she awaits him with dinner and surprise news of her pregnancy which she reveals by gifting the husband with baby clothes that have his mother’s name on them – that name being Daisy. The night is abruptly stopped by a man claiming to be a cop knocking on their door, arresting the wife for the murder of her father 8 years ago, and demanding to know where she hid his watch; when she denies knowledge, the cop chokes the husband as a means to get her to cooperate, at which point the loop restarts with the husband inside his apartment. After several loops of violent endings, unanswered questions, and a lot of disturbing stuff, the true nature of the story is revealed: The husband is hallucinating after the cop/father tells him some terrible news; the woman he knocked up and wants to marry is actually his biological sister. The loops were how his brain went through all the scenarios and how they would end eventually. When having this context, I think the game makes a lot of rational sense; the uncalled hostility of the cop towards the husband, the wife hating her brother and blaming him for everything, the cop having a daughter that has cancer; I could do this all day, but most (if not all) details are wrapped nicely in this narrative bow. So, why do I dislike it so vividly?
A lot of it has to do with Oldboy and what the movie prioritizes as the focus of the experience. Some of it is the benefits of cinema as a medium; I am overwhelmingly against the notion that cinema is a passive medium, as any movie that is passive is a boring and worthless movie – it simply asks the audience to engage and interact with it in a metaphorical way rather than through a controller or mouse & keyboard. Oldboy’s reveal and finale is not about whether Oh-Dae-Su has successfully forgotten the true nature of his relationship with Mi-do; it is about what your reaction is to the initial happy expression and the eventual painful expression on Choi-Min-sik’s legendary face. He chose to attempt to forget, and whether he succeeded or not is irrelevant; by all humane accounts he is a monster, but do you as a viewer, after 2 hours of watching his character change and grow, regret wanting that happy expression but couldn’t help it but feel sad when the painful one emerged? After watching these two fall in love, fight for each other, slowly grow to be better people, and through no fault of their own be subjected to a horrific truth, what is the happy ending in that situation? As a narrative, Oldboy may not be as rational or as logically satisfying as 12 Minutes, but emotionally it engages the viewer and makes them ask questions and seek answers that are hard and meaningful to seek. In Oldboy, I watched Oh-Dae-Su try and let go of the “monster” he had in him – the one seeking revenge, the one wanting to kill and fight to repay for all his suffering – but, in 12 Minutes I drugged my pregnant wife so I can shoot a cop in the foot and make him see a polaroid.
This is what I’m referring to when I talked about translating this experience to a video game; in Oldboy, I was convinced that I saw two people falling in love, which made me want them to be together, until I found out the horrible truth alongside Oh-Dae-Su and engaged with the logically inescapable conclusion (that he shouldn’t be with Mi-Do) on an emotional level. In 12 Minutes, despite being 4 times longer than Oldboy, I engaged with it emotionally only for the first couple of hours and even then, it was reacting to disturbing and sudden violence done to the characters, caused by my decisions (willingly or unwillingly). The only scene where I felt a connection between the characters came after the hard reset and I was only chasing achievements; it’s the ending where on the very first loop, you (ironically, given my critique that’s about to come) touch nothing and allow the scene to play out. The wife hints at some of the events, then takes the husband and they leave the apartment; even if you try to get the ending immediately by making all the right moves, you’d still not end up spending enough time with these characters and you’d still go numb to seeing them suffer. As a game, 12 Minutes suffers from obtuse puzzles and not being reactive enough to the player’s whims; as a story, having three quarters of it be about violent or disturbing ends makes the eventual reveal toothless. I cared about Od-Dae-Su and Mi-Do, because I believed they were in love; I drugged the wife and caused/allowed her death more times than I care to admit, because I wanted to progress the story, I wanted to get an achievement, or I wanted to get more info from a specific loop that ended with her death. As all players would have done (presumably), I even gave up on her; I hid in the closet and watch her get disturbingly executed or I allowed the cop to kill her in order for the husband to attempt to end the loop. Not once was he happy to be back in the loop, where his wife was still alive after he (me) caused her death; thus, the logical inescapable conclusion to their dilemma had no emotional baggage for me. No, they shouldn’t be together; it was an awful sleight of hand they were dealt, but they cannot be together.
In the end, this is what it comes down to: Logically, you can poke holes at Oldboy if you really wanted to, but emotionally it engages with the audience in a poignant way that is still to be matched; 12 Minutes has a context for the time-loops that only gets better the more you think about it, but because of its medium and how it chose to tell this specific story, it feels emotionless. Heck, Oldboy makes you sympathize with two cases of incest and some may argue that the reveal of Oh-Dae-Su and Mi-Do’s true relationship is a subversion of the nature of the movie (from a revenge-mystery about a man trying to find out who imprisoned him and why, to a revenge-thriller about an anti-hero delivering a sick “eye for an eye” retribution to a man who wronged him); alternatively, you have a game where the audience is split between people disgusted by the shocking reveal that has no substance (according to them at least), and with people appreciating the uniqueness and ambitiousness of the story. That last take isn’t the worst reaction your game can have, but it’s neither the one I would want about a story that aims to provoke something more impactful than that.
Personally, I found 12 Minutes to be a fascinating game (who would have thought after 5000+ words, huh?), because it is a rare case of something that has severe and impactful flaws, which outweigh and outnumber any positives, yet I’d still recommend it; it’s a fascinating game to think and discuss, even if you have to go through a lot of flaws to see the positives that don’t make up for the issues anyway. They are worth seeing and experiencing. As a final note, I’ll leave you with this: In Oldboy, Mi-Do demands of Oh-Dae-Su to drop his thirst for revenge and for their love to be enough for him, which he is ready to do, only for the antagonist to press his buttons in the right way and bring the “monster” back kicking and screaming; In 12 Minutes, even the daughter’s name being Bumblebee makes logical sense (since the husband’s mother is called Daisy and she was sucked dry and left empty by the cop’s family), yet the most loud I got while playing the game was when the achievement for one of the endings didn’t pop, because I did the right thing too soon.