Psycho thriller: looking ahead to 12 Minutes

Sometimes, a game concept doesn’t truly coalesce until its scope is reduced and all the extraneous parts are carved away. Such is the process that Portuguese developer Luis Antonio went through in the early development of 12 Minutes, a time-loop adventure laced with the suspense of a Hitchcock thriller. At first, 12 Minutes was a 3D open-world game, in which the player had a full 24 hours to explore a city and talk to its inhabitants; gradually, however, Antonio began to scale down the scope of the game, from multiple locations to just one cramped apartment, and from a day-long loop to one lasting less than a quarter of an hour.

“It started with the desire to explore the time-loop concept without any preconceived ideas of what it would be,” Antonio tells us of the game’s initial prototypes. “I knew I wanted to stay away from a ‘video gaming’ experience in the classic context, and make something more serious that would require a clear emotional investment from the player, and so the further I went into the concept, the more it naturally became an interactive thriller.”

Antonio describes 12 Minutes’ early stages of development as “extremely slow, but rewarding”, partly because he was teaching himself to program, and partly because he was still working as an artist on Jonathan Blow’s indie gem, The Witness. “Prototyping was very free-form, and a lot of the work was more thinking than producing, so it was actually useful that I didn’t have that much time to be sitting to work on it,” Antonio adds. “It allowed me to go from the original (concept) to the more constrained but complex version we have now.”

Although it began as a solo project, Antonio’s amassed a small team of collaborators, including What Remains of Edith Finch story consultant, Stephen Bell.

The resulting game is disturbingly stark. A married couple’s quiet evening is interrupted by the arrival of a man claiming to be a police officer, who violently attacks the pair; in the struggle, the attacker murders the wife and knocks the husband unconscious. When the husband comes to, he finds himself back at the start of the time loop twelve minutes earlier, the sound of the police officer accusing his wife of murder still ringing in his ears. Cast in the role of the husband, it’s the player’s task to use those twelve minutes carefully, picking up clues around the apartment and talking to the protagonist’s wife in the hope of altering their dismal fate.

Antonio willingly cites Hitchcock’s Rear Window as an inspiration for 12 Minutes’ thriller plot, but there’s also hints of director Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Kubrick’s The Shining, and, of course, Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day woven into its fabric, too. Even the top-down perspective adds to the game’s cinematic overtones, with the unsettling god’s eye view recalling a similarly grisly murder scene from the classic Psycho; for Antonio, though, his choice of viewpoint was also made for practical reasons.

“The main reason for the top-down perspective was accessibility,” he says. “The characters are always moving on a single plane, and that allows the player to avoid having to deal with camera controls and 3D navigation. It also has the added benefit of hiding the character faces, so we don’t have to deal with facial animation and expressions, and allows the player to mentally visualise the character faces, making it more personal in an eerie way.”

“The two main aspects left to do are motion capture and voice-acting,” Antonio says of the game’s last few months’ development.

The sense of eeriness has only grown since publisher Annapurna Interactive arrived on the scene midway through development. With the help of their financing, the game’s earlier builds have visibly flourished: backgrounds and character models are more detailed, the use of light and long shadows is more dramatic and noir-ish. “They helped remove the two biggest obstacles that were causing me a lot of stress: time and money,” Antonio says of his publisher’s backing. “I can now focus 100 percent on the creative side of things. They also have a lot of knowledge on the film side of things, which helps a lot for this specific project. The last year was focused on the characters’ emotional journey and how that is expressed through voice acting and animation, and they have provided a lot of support to make it the best it can be.”

From its beginnings six years ago, 12 Minutes has therefore reduced in scope but steadily increased in detail; ahead of its planned launch next year, the game still has motion-captured performances to complete, as well as an evolving script to record with voice actors.

“When I started, I never expected it would become so movie-like,” Antonio says. “I tried to avoid having dialogues for as long as possible since I don’t like deciding what the player is allowed or not allowed to say. In the early versions, the interactions between characters were only in service of the time-loop requirements, but as those got figured out, I realised there was a lot more room to delve into the characters, and the drama side of it emerged naturally.”

One of Antonio and Annapurna’s masterstrokes was the game’s reveal trailer, which emerged in June. Succinctly distilling the game’s setting and premise into a lean two minutes, it also leaves us hankering for the answers to its mysteries. Is the wife really a murderer? Is the cop really a cop? Just how can the protagonist escape his cycle of terror? Agonisingly, we’ll have to wait until next year to see how Antonio’s thriller plays out.

Although mostly viewed from above, the perspective will shift at key moments.

Finding time

Like so many aspects of 12 Minutes’ design, the duration of its time loop came about through a process of experimentation and refinement. “I just kept cutting out all the unnecessary clutter and noise in order to find the shortest amount required for the loop to work with what I wanted it to do for the characters and themes,” Antonio tells us. “That ended up being around twelve minutes, and since there’s quite a bit of meaning to that number, I kept it.”

Genre: Adventure
Format: PC / XBO
Developer: Luis Antonio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release: 2020

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