Get an exclusive look at how the actors, including The Lighthouse star Willem Dafoe, recorded video game roles during a pandemic.

By Nick Romano
August 27, 2020 at 03:00 PM EDT
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To start a time-loop story is to become stuck inside one yourself.

For the past seven years, that's been the life of indie video game developer Luis Antonio. His interactive thriller Twelve Minutes was in its conceptual infancy back in 2013, and he has since revisited the same narrative premise over and over and over again, adding slightly different variations each time, to ultimately create something fully operational, engaging, and empathic.

The way Antonio sees it, "most games are time loops." Meaning, if you die in a game, you start over from the last checkpoint and repeat the scenario until you're able to figure out how to beat the level. "It's constant repetition," he tells EW. "I just dug slowly into, 'What does that mean?'"

With the audio recordings from his voice cast — who were officially revealed Thursday during a Gamescom presentation — finally logged, Antonio is nearly finished cracking his own personal loop.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker's Daisy Ridley, It Chapter Two's James McAvoy, and The Lighthouse's Willem Dafoe lead the voice cast for Twelve Minutes, which begins with one man's attempt to have a romantic evening at home with his wife (Ridley). The man (McAvoy) — all names are withheld from the player at the start to maintain mystery — witnesses a violent home invasion when an intruder (Dafoe) storms their apartment and knocks him out. The man then wakes up 12 minutes earlier, an experience that will repeat itself until he's able to figure out the truth behind this tragic event and, hopefully, prevent it from happening altogether.

Rich Fury/Getty Images; Mike Marsland/WireImage; Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Not even Ridley knows quite what the ending holds. She may have recorded her lines, but the script, at least to a novice, can be a maze. It looks more like a flowchart, which makes it hard for Ridley to remember all the different dialogue she recorded for what seems, after weeks of four-hour afternoon sessions, like an infinite amount of loops.

In her final recording, in August, Ridley sits in a recording booth in London's Soho neighborhood as sound technicians idle behind her in masks and Antonio directs her remotely over Zoom from his San Francisco home. "There's just a lot of story," she says after one particularly grueling voice-over session performing a series of physical responses (grunts, screams, pants). "It's pretty dark," she adds. "It goes from being this very joyous, immediate thing to this pretty dark warren of various options. It's cool because you as the player are learning more, so you're trying to figure out more."

Antonio, who directs the game and co-wrote the script with Steve Lerner, seems to be the only one who knows where the story is going at any given time. But he doesn't want to reveal much, mainly because he found as he was creating the game that "the less information I gave the player, the more [they] put into it."

"It straddles a line between game and film — and almost novel, as well," McAvoy muses. "It feels like you're reading what's happening at times, even though you're not. You are truly active, and you have way more choice than even in most games where it's a linear path. Yes, you have choices and you make everything happen, but really your choices are so limited and you're on an avenue and you can't really branch off. In this one, you have a very small field of play, but the options within that field of play are almost infinite."

One thing Antonio clarifies off the bat is this game isn't meant to be a part of The Shining universe. That may sound like a strange asterisk to note, but as seen in the latest trailer (below), Dafoe's intruder bursts into the couple's home and the geometric carpet in the hallway is the same design used for Stanley Kubrick's Stephen King adaptation. Twelve Minutes was certainly inspired by Kubrick's films, in part, but the carpet is "just an Easter egg," Antonio says. "I might even remove it eventually as we release the game if it becomes too much of a thing."

Antonio previously served as a lead artist for Ubisoft, the makers of Assassin's Creed and Far Cry, in Quebec, until he realized the creative constraints on developing games. "Because they are such big companies, there are these financial requirements that need to happen, otherwise it just shuts down," he says. "Creativity becomes much more of a group thing." So he segued into the indie gaming space, taking a job in San Fransisco to work on The Witness in 2012.

"That's when I realized there's so much room for creativity in these smaller projects where the financial goals aren't the main thing you're looking at," he recalls. "And that's when I thought maybe there's an opportunity to explore [Twelve Minutes]."

His spare time was spent working up a prototype to see how people would react to the concept. Antonio never thought he'd actually be able to turn it into a full-fledged game. "I always assumed that I would need to be in a big studio," he says. "I never thought maybe I could do it myself and grow it organically as it expands." Technology progressed so much that everything he needed could be accessed from his home. "Twenty years ago, I would need someone to write a game engine," he says. "Now, it's more accessible."

The entire game was developed remotely, well before the coronavirus pandemic prompted global lockdowns in February and March. So when it came time to cast actors and record voice parts, there weren't many hiccups. Annapurna Interactive found a studio in London for Ridley and McAvoy, and recording space in Rome, where Dafoe was hunkering down.

Face masks were required of everyone besides the actors once they got into the voice-over booths, and daily temperature checks were implemented along with lots of sanitizing. Ridley and McAvoy would record their parts together from opposite ends of the room, while Dafoe would pop in over Zoom. The bigger challenge was maintaining stamina throughout the sessions while bobbing in and out of dialogue for different loop iterations.

"It was definitely a different thing for James because he's the only one with knowledge," Ridley says. "Me and Willem are playing pretty spontaneously, in a reactive way. James had to really mix up what he was doing because it could've been loop 1, loop 5, loop 15. That adds a layer of complexity. So the first [session], we were really feeling our way through it. But once we got our heads around it, it flowed a lot easier."

"There are multiple options that are present, but also the looping element," McAvoy says. "You find yourself in the exact same scenario that you did previously, but I have to act differently because the character's done it 20 times by now."

As a sibling branch of Annapurna Pictures, which has released films like Booksmart and Hustlers, Annapurna Interactive seems interested in compiling a portfolio of cinema-like games. Its past releases include acclaimed titles like Ashen, Outer Wilds, Journey, and Florence. Logan Marshall-Green and Alexandra Shipp also previously starred in Telling Lies, one of the label's investigative thriller projects. Annapurna's involvement on Twelve Minutes felt natural to Antonio, since he too is developing a "movie-like experience."

"Nowadays a lot of people say, 'I don't play games, it's a waste of my time,' but you wouldn't say that about a book or a film," he notes. "I would like to see what we can do with the interactive medium to get closer to bridging that gap and finding all this granularity in the interaction. It's the only [medium] where there's a dialogue between you and the experience."

Antonio hopes Twelve Minutes will be ready by the end of the year for Xbox and PC. Afterward, maybe there will be opportunities to release the game on other platforms, like mobile and Nintendo Switch. "I would wait and see how everyone reacts to the game," he says.

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