There’s nothing wrong with repetition. In fact, it can be pretty amazing. Some of the best music ever made relies on it. (Hell, one of my favorite bands is The Fall.) It’s a powerful rhetorical device, works well in poetry and comedy, and can make an indelible impact when used in film or the visual arts. The videogame, in particular, depends on repetition, from repeating the same button sequences throughout a game’s core loop, to revisiting the same areas and levels again and again. I write a semi-regular column here about old-school shoot ‘em ups, one of the most repetitive game genres you’ll ever find. I’ve got no beef with repetition—at least when it’s done well.
Twelve Minutes is a perfect example of how not to do repetition in a videogame.
The much-buzzed about new point-and-click mystery game from designer Luis Antonio is a time loop whose loops don’t have enough time. By most accounts it takes about six hours to reach a conclusion, and you’ll replay the same few minutes dozens of times to reach that point. You’re stuck in the same three room apartment, having the same conversation with your wife and the mysterious cop impostor who breaks down your door to murder you, reliving the same brief slice of terror every few minutes. Why is this man threatening your wife? Why is he accusing her of murder? If you play it right, you’ll learn a little bit more every time through the loop. That progress is so minimal, though, and requires such deadening repetition of mundane actions that it never feels worth the investment. Too much of Twelve Minutes is repeating busy work in hopes of a breakthrough, which will inevitably just lead to more busy work before the next breakthrough.
Here’s what a standard loop is like in Twelve Minutes. Your character, who’s voiced by James McAvoy, gets home from work. His wife, played by Daisy Ridley, greets you. You’ll repeat a few basic actions (always by pointing and clicking—this is basically an ‘80s adventure game laser-focused on one bite-sized story) in order to get the scenario where you need it to be before Willem Defoe’s supposed cop invades your home; you’ll pick up a knife, grab some sleeping pills, drug your wife (yeah, you drug your wife a lot), all to open up a dialogue tree that, if played right, will give you a new step to add to the chain the next time your loop restarts. Once it does, you do all of this again, over and over. It’s stultifying.
You’re never locked into any single path, so there’s freedom to experiment and change up your actions every turn. And to the game’s credit, occasionally after hitting a certain revelation you don’t necessarily have to repeat the steps it took you to get there anymore. You can use that knowledge to basically jump past the series of actions it took to learn it. That will just open up a new repetitive sequence, though, where you’ll have another narrative Goldberg machine to construct over and over while fishing for the next slight bit of progress.
I have not yet finished Twelve Minutes (hence this not being an official review), so perhaps the story twists back into a more agreeable form. Right now, though, that story seems to be trying to humanize the home invader who has murdered me or my wife over a dozen times now. Meanwhile, it’s turning me against my wife, who I’ve seen beaten and victimized in a variety of ways already. I’m at the point where I’m not sure if any amount of third act surprises can move this towards a satisfying conclusion—much less make the extreme amount of repetition ultimately feel worth it.
There are ways Twelve Minutes could’ve made its repetition less alienating. A longer time frame would have created more distance between repeating the same actions. Some sort of checkpoint system would obviously undercut the time loop a bit, but it would make the game far more playable. Either would reduce the game’s sense of tension—its most notable and, perhaps, best quality—but as is that tension already devolves to tedium too quickly.
If you’re going to make repetition the focus of your work, it’s crucial to do it in a way that isn’t boring. And that’s where Twelve Minutes fails. It’s not repetitive in a way that’s exciting or entrancing. Its repetition doesn’t deepen the emotional resonance or thematic power of its story. It just feels like a waste of time—and far more than 12 minutes worth of it.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.