The Myriad Challenges of Designing 12 Minutes’ Time Loop

Creative director Luis Antonio details the design difficulties he faced while making the game.

Annapurna Interactive’s 12 Minutes presents a peculiar premise: Every 12 minutes, the scene resets. An intruder breaks into your home and your wife is murdered. Stuck in a time loop, you have to find ways to save her by replaying that night over and over in real time.

The game takes a lot of influence from film (with big-name movie stars in its voice cast, including Willem Dafoe, James McAvoy, and Daisy Ridley), as well as theater. Its theatrical tone came “naturally,” creative director Luis Antonio tells Fanbyte, particularly due to the tiny apartment space the game occupies and the inability to see characters’ faces. With its top-down camera angle, voice actors had to exaggerate a lot of unseen emotion. And while that all came organically, one challenge was building the adventure game within the context of a time loop — a mechanic most adventure games don’t employ.

Antonio, who grew up playing LucasArts classics like Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle, hoped to evolve concepts from older adventure games into something altogether new. He explains that obtuse puzzle design, along with in-game objectives, were two elements he wanted to keep out of 12 Minutes. Instead, he wanted to give the player an unconventional freedom that the genre doesn’t normally offer.

“Because you’re stuck in a time loop, and because things repeat, you’re not paying for your mistakes,” he says. “In most video games where you get killed, you go back to the level or you don’t achieve a certain score. So here, there’s this freedom for making mistakes.” 

Antonio noticed during playtests for 12 Minutes that adventure game veterans tend to have more trouble with the game than other players. They go into the experience with a specific mindset, hoping to exhaust all options to eventually find the correct path.

“People who play a lot of adventure games, they pick up everything, and they combine everything,” he says. “And then the loop resets and you have nothing again, and they’re like, ‘what?’ So that doesn’t quite work. Don’t think that way. You have to think about the space itself that you’re in and use that as a tool.”

Antonio describes 12 Minutes as a game about accumulating information. You gain breadcrumbs of knowledge through a level of experimentation that “makes sense,” Antonio says. For example, you can pick up a mug, drag it to the sink, and fill it with water. He wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t have to combine items in illogical ways to solve puzzles — a tactic common in most older adventure games. In 12 Minutes, every possible action is available from the start.

“If you can’t open the window in the first loop, you won’t be able to open it in loop 50,” he says. “Everything you can do in the first loop, you can do in the last loop. And the interactions that you can do, they never ever change.”

To keep the overall experience compact (it can be completed in 8 to 10 hours), Antonio spent a lot of time stripping the game of excess actions or mechanics. At one point, for example, it was possible to drag bodies of people you killed, and you could place items on the floor — but these features were eventually cut. 

“I kept removing things,” he says. “And what I realized is that the more I removed, what stayed there became much more meaningful and allows you to actually keep these things in your head as tools to use.”

The more he removed, the better the game flowed. But there was still a conundrum: How do you build a sense of progression in a game where time continuously resets? Antonio calls the protagonist an “anchor,” who learns things simultaneously with the player, and eventually he evolves and takes shortcuts in later loops so that you aren’t experiencing events the same way each time.

“He reacts to everything you do, all the time,“ Antonio says. “You can see him trying to adapt and rephrase and deal with things, hopefully mirroring what you are trying to do as a player, and that progress becomes visible through his behavior.”

More on Fanbyte:

Difficulties Antonio faced revolved not just around player progression, but also story progression. When Fanbyte asked if there was a moment where the credits roll, Antonio laughed, saying, “There are many points where the credits roll.”

“The story revolves around this theme of repeating, which brought the question of, how do you end something that repeats?” he says. “The ending, or what you’d call a conclusion, is not the same way you perceive conclusions in linear mediums. It’s slightly different. It’s kind of hard to explain without spoiling it.”

Players likely won’t have a clear answer to this until the game releases. Luckily, that’s just around the corner.
12 Minutes comes to PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S on August 19.