I’ve already discussed the technical and gameplay elements of 12 Minutes, the latest Annapurna Interactive published title by Luis Antonio, but now it’s time to really take a step back and explore the story as a whole, it’s ins and outs, to perhaps figure out what it all means. So, let’s start from the top…
The first scene in 12 Minutes sees the husband, a blurred image in the reflection of the elevator door, waiting to get out. From here you glimpse the outside hallway of the apartment complex, complete with carpet directly referencing Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Finally, you enter the apartment itself, greeted by your wife who is very happy to see you, with the promise of something special to celebrate an important moment.
The opening scene is telling, not in its content specifically, but its context. There’s no indication of something going wrong, of impending disaster, just a simple interaction between wife and husband and the dialogue of two people clearly in love. The intention from here is to shock and confuse, as a police officer barges his way in and arrests the wife under suspicion of murder, before choking out the husband violently. The time loop begins from here.
Your character, shaken by the idea that he’d ‘died’, awakes to find himself caught in a seemingly never-ending loop of 12 minutes. The first few cycles will have you figuring out what the wife is trying to hide, if anything and the true intention of the police officer and his intent to discover a pocket watch. You soon discover that the pocket watch belonged to the wife’s father, whom she thought had died following a freak accident some years prior. The police officer explains that the father survived, but someone had come back to ‘finish the job’. With a little investigation, it becomes clear that the wife had nothing to do with her father’s death at all, that someone else had committed the crime and the officer was in the wrong.
Here’s where things start to get a little weird. Before the police officer knocks down your door once more, you have the chance to intervene via the wife and the officer’s own daughter (via mobile phone) in order for the three main characters to talk it out instead of resorting to violence. Under the right conditions and with the right items in your inventory, you’re able to reveal the ultimate story thread, and where the loop can eventually break.
Unbeknownst to the police officer, the wife had a brother. She never really met him, only knew of him from her father’s affair with the nanny, but the suspicion begins to fall on him, that he may have been the killer all along. The bastard son, out for revenge … but it’s so much more than that, far more complex than the game allows time to really explain. Because, as he questions the police officer about the nanny and her name, a flood of memories suddenly come back to the husband. The nanny’s name, the same name that appears on the baby clothing the wife had stashed away for the birth of their own child, is the same name as his own mother.
The penny drops. He is the brother, the bastard, and murderer of her father.
These last few moments are both heart wrenching and confronting, this idea that the husband, our own player character, was the antagonist all along. Let along the fact that he had willingly ignored the bloodline to build a relationship with her, that a child was on the way too. Though the game never explains it, it is implied the husband forgot everything about his all too real altercation with the father and his connection to the wife, though that certainly seems all too convenient for the plot. But is there something else at play.
Cast your mind back to the hallway. If you had looked to the left and right of the elevator, you would have seen two pieces of art on the wall, one depicting a red book within a bookshelf and the other a small budding flower. These play an important role within the puzzle element of the game itself, referencing not only the book the wife is reading on the couch during certain loops but also the plant within the bedroom that you can water and grow across multiple loops. Two other paintings also hang within the apartment itself that can also change depending on the events of certain time skips, and as much as they can just be for fun or to solve a puzzle, there’s a darker hidden meaning potentially within them.
The red book plays into the final confrontation between the husband and the father, following the realisation that you’re indeed the lost brother and your mother was the nanny all along. This final scene allows you to choose a few different paths, either to continue your relationship with the wife or to leave her and let her live without you. Both can be considered endings of sorts, one even goes to a credit sequence, but the ‘real’ ending can be considered the third choice. The red book appears on the bookshelf behind you and, if you had correctly questioned the wife about it previously, you can quote a line from it.
With the quote read, the father understands you which leads to him seemingly hypnotising the husband into forgetting that anything ever happened. The game then ends, focusing on a clock on the wall, and you can choose to click continue if you so wish. There are other endings, some designed solely to focus on the relationship between husband and wife, others a reflection of the husband’s disconnection with reality, but the red book ending seems to have the biggest impact overall in terms of understanding what 12 Minutes is all about.
And what is that? Well, take the following as more of an interpretation, but it seems that the events within the apartment and the relationship between the husband and wife aren’t at all real. Moreover, everything that stems from the sequences between the father and the husband (or brother, in this case) during the red book ending are the actual current events, and that everything else we see in the game is a fictional tale narrated by the player character’s imagination (including the accident with the father). That would explain the paintings changing or referencing key items, the fact that the plant can grow between loops, the fact that there are even loops in the first place.
There-in lays the biggest clue within this potential theory. No-where in 12 Minutes do we get a reason, a hint or an explanation as to why the husband is reliving the events over and over. There’s no tell, no clear pointer of ‘oh, it’s just Groundhog Day’ or ‘oh, he was attacked by some alien goo’, it just … happens. Walking in through the front door triggered that moment in his imagination and trying to walk back out again just restarts the loop instead of letting him go.
There are a few other clues that could suggest why this is the most logical explanation. For example, a storm suddenly blows outside, something the wife is surprised about given the weather reports suggested no storms at all, which could be foreshadowing the repressed memories hiding in the corners of his mind. The fact that William Dafoe, the classy actor that he is, plays the voice of both the police officer AND the father, another creation of his subconsciousness that could perhaps be born out of a need to break out of his hallucinations. There’s also the pocket watch, which very closely resembles the clock on the wall during the red book ending and fades into the same clock during the time skips.
There are several ways you can go about explaining 12 Minutes beyond what I’ve put into theory here, and each of the many endings to the game provide a different way to do so, meaning that there’s no real meaning except whatever you want it to be. It’s a completely open book to interpret, an apartment that can be explored and questioned as many times as you want, a story born out of a classic Twilight Zone episode that doesn’t have to tie everything together by the end. A good story can always leave you hanging, not just happy, that’s more likely to be talked about afterwards. No matter the technical shortcomings around the game itself, the story of 12 Minutes certainly had me thinking for some time after the loop was broken. What about you?