12 Minutes and Theme
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering 12 Minutes (Annapurna Interactive, 2021), the time-loop driven adventure game set in a three-room apartment. This essay will cover the entire storyline, including the various endings. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
Content Warning: This essay contains discussion of significant spoilers that involve sexual trauma, which may be upsetting to some. Those who wish to avoid this content may want to set this article aside. For those looking for an alternative study of theme, check out our Disco Elysium breakdown or our general essay on theme.
12 Minutes, an adventure game developed by Luís António and published Annapurna Interactive, has been raising eyebrows since its release. The initial intrigue built from the premise, escaping a twelve-minute time-loop, has given way to discomfort around the game’s more questionable plot twists. The multiple endings also left some players uncertain what the story ultimately meant. Screenrant reviewer Rob Gordon summarized his issues with the game in his review, stating: “Twelve Minutes is atmospheric and hugely ambitious within its tight time limits, [but] is held back by unsatisfying narrative payoffs.”1
While there is merit to Gordon’s argument, as well as the pushback against certain plot twists, the narrative of 12 Minutes does a few important things right. Its plot, characters, and setting are all connected to the theme of mindfulness and the struggle to exist in the present. Using the recurring motif of clocks, including a symbolic pocket watch, 12 Minutes keeps its theme front and center, which gives even the most benign interactions multiple layers of meaning. This commitment to theme helps the narrative overcome its deficits in pacing and setup, resulting in a unique experience that may not leave players entirely satisfied but is guaranteed to keep them thinking.
Theme and Plot
Describing the plot of 12 Minutes is a larger undertaking than it would seem at first glance. On the surface, the player is in control of a young man known only as Husband (voiced by James McAvoy), who is repeatedly reliving a pivotal twelve minutes of his life. The player’s actions dictate the particulars of each loop, but almost all the loops share two consistent elements: the protagonist’s wife (Daisy Ridley) and a man who claims to be a police officer (Willem Dafoe). In the earliest loops, the husband is helpless when the officer breaks into the apartment, accuses the wife of murdering her father, and then beats the husband to death. Once the husband wakes up, it’s the player’s job to guide him through each successive loop, picking up clues about both the wife and the officer. These clues lead to a series of revelations about the characters’ pasts: not only did the wife shoot her father, but she did so in part because he was having an affair. The result of that affair was the player character, Husband, who is now married to his sister—if that part of the story is to be believed.
Successive loops come with more revelations about the past and present, leading to a series of potential endings that recontextualize everything that came before. The final ending, dubbed “Mindfulness” by the in-game achievement system, shows the husband in a book-filled office with a character identical to Dafoe’s officer. After the husband and the officer-double have a brief conversation about mindfulness—the struggle to let go of the past and live in the present—the player can focus on a nearby wall clock until the hour is up. If the player successfully waits out the clock, Dafoe’s character is heard saying:
“You do have a remarkable imagination. The stories you’ve created. But believing them so strongly, so deeply is unhealthy. You have to let her go. You can’t keep obsessing over her. Sometimes things just are what they are. It’s time for you to wake up.”
From a plot standpoint, this closing monologue acts as a final curveball, forcing players to wonder which aspects of the story actually happened. From a thematic standpoint, the monologue turns the hunt for truth on its head, encouraging the protagonist to shift his focus from the past to the present. Whether his wife was actually his sister, or if she was pregnant, or if they were even married is not the point. The point is that whether those things happened or not, dwelling on them keeps the protagonist from existing in the present. The time loop reinforces this concept by showing the result of ruminating on things that cannot be changed: a lack of forward progress. It is only by embracing mindfulness and living in the present that the protagonist can break the loop and live his life again.
Theme and Character
The story of 12 Minutes has a tenuous relationship with reality, which makes it difficult to describe characters in objective terms. Some may be composites of the protagonist’s memories; others may be complete fabrications. Nevertheless, these characters are given complete backstories that inform their decisions while also reinforcing the theme. The wife is running from a crime she committed eight years ago: murdering her father. According to her, she was fighting with her father when he struck her, and she retaliated by shooting him with his own gun. Afterward, she fled the scene and made a new life in a new town, but she was always looking over her shoulder for people who knew what she had done. Meanwhile, the officer who breaks into the apartment has a complex past of his own: he, too, knew the wife’s father, and he swore he would get revenge after the father died. To that end, he’s spent the last eight years tracking the killer, and he’s finally found the information he needs to prove it was the wife. Real or imagined, the characters of both the wife and the officer share a common flaw: they’re both incapable of letting go of their pasts.
Unlike the wife and the officer, the protagonist is undeniably real (within the confines of the fictional world), yet he shares their thematic struggle to exist in the present. Each of the time loops—his differing visions of reality—are unified around the idea of past trauma. He dislikes acknowledging the mother he lost, and he struggles to remember his falling out with his father. When he finally does, his conflicting memories are violent and shocking, leaving him arguably worse off than he was before. The “Continue” ending acknowledges this, giving the protagonist the option to forget everything he’s learned and start over, deleting the player’s progress in the process. It’s an extreme move, but it’s also thematically important, as it shows what happens if the protagonist obliterates his own past instead of accepting it. Should the player choose this ending, they’ll be forced to start from scratch, which places the protagonist back in the time loop. The result is that he hasn’t escaped his past at all; he’s just delayed accepting it.
Theme and Setting
The setting of 12 Minutes is rich with symbols that reinforce the theme of mindfulness. While most of the game takes place in just three rooms—a living room, a bedroom, and a bathroom—each section of the decidedly small space is packed with meaning. Both the bedroom and the living room have elements that change with repeated loops. The bedroom has a dahlia that wilts more with every twelve-minute cycle: a nod to the protagonist’s mother, Dahlia, who plays an essential role in the protagonist’s past. The paintings in both the bedroom and living room change, as well. The summer becomes winter in the landscape; the lovers part ways in the portrait; the egg hatches into an ouroboros, a snake devouring its tail. Successive loops imbue each image with a darker meaning, hinting at the damage the protagonist is doing to himself by dwelling in the past.
While the bathroom does not show the same noticeable changes as the bedroom or the living room, it has its own connection to the theme: the pocket watch in the vent. This pocket watch symbolizes the theme, acting as both a visual reminder of the time and a metaphorical reminder of the past. According to the wife, the pocket watch belonged to her father, and she inherited it after he died. The officer also has a connection to the watch, as he believes he can sell it to cover his daughter’s past-due medical bills. The watch appears again and again until the protagonist uses it to break the cycle and escape the apartment. When he does, he appears in a different space: an office decorated with books (including his wife’s book on mindfulness) and a wall clock. That clock, so similar to the pocket watch, is what allows him to finally focus on the present, bringing the story to its conclusion. The setting itself reinforces the theme: the practice of mindfulness.
12 Minutes is not a perfect game, but it integrates the theme of mindfulness into the story in a compelling way. By tying the theme to the plot, the characters, and the setting, players have multiple opportunities to explore what it means to let go of the past and live in the present. Writers who wish to emphasize the theme of their own works can look to 12 Minutes as an example of how to weave theme into the other narrative elements and create a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.
1 Gordon, Rob. Twelve Minutes Review: A Star-Studded, Intense Mindbender. Screenrant, August 18th, 2021.
* Reference Footage: MKIceandFire. TWELVE MINUTES Gameplay Walkthrough FULL GAME ALL ENDINGS [4K 60FPS PC] – No Commentary. YouTube, 2021.
** Additional Reference Footage: TrophyGamers. Twelve Minutes – Full Game Walkthrough – All Collectibles – Faun + Seasons + Ouroboros Locations. YouTube, 2021.