A digital memento mori: how Minit celebrates life every 60 seconds

Minit is a digital memento mori – the medieval practice of reflection on our mortality and the transience of earthly life. In more prosaic terms, it’s an adventure game played against the clock where every 60 seconds delivers your instant death.

You can’t avoid it. You can’t delay it. But you can plan around it. Because, despite the constant tick of the clock that leads to your death, Minit is a relaxing experience, with each 60-second loop feeling like just enough time to see something new or solve a challenging puzzle.

Uniquely, while death here is certain, Minit instead feels like a tiny celebration with each life. We talk to Jan Willem Nijman, one quarter of the indie collective that created Minit (alongside Kitty Calis, Dominik Johann and Jukio Kallio) to find out where the idea came from.

“Kitty and I were in Austin at Fantastic Arcade and there was an Adventure Time game jam,” says Nijman. “We both love Adventure Time, and what we like the most about the show is the way that every cartoon is completely different. They go on unique adventures every time, always moving in new and interesting ways. So we tried to make a game about that.”

The result was Adventure Minute, a game where you played as the cartoon’s protagonist Finn. Each minute would tell a unique narrative, opening up like an episode of the cartoon. Nijman and Calis won the game jam, and were presented with a crossbow by Ultima designer Richard Garriott. The crossbow remained a physical reminder of the concept’s promise, but the pair sat on the idea for four more years, while Calis went off to make Horizon Zero Dawn and Nijman worked on Nuclear Throne.

Then, the pair discussed the idea again. “We were like: ‘Hey why don’t we make that adventure into something bigger, something that does the concept justice’ and Minit was born,” says Nijman.

He adds that the decision to make a game with 60 second segments was an arbitrary choice and that, surprisingly, the team all dislike the idea of in-game timers. Really.

Gone in 60 seconds

“Timers are very stressful and the idea that you might mess up early and get punished way later is really scary too,” Nijman says. “So we though that making it one minute was kind of the perfect amount: it’s easily understandable, but also short enough to not be stressful.”

Nijman explains that he and Calis wanted to make sure that the player didn’t have the stress of trying to optimise each 60-second run to ensure productivity. Instead, most of the puzzles in the game are designed around a two-minute loop.

“You spend a minute exploring. You plan out your solution, and with your next minute, you execute that,” Nijman explains. “There’s always enough time to get it done in like 40 seconds.”

Minit feels unique among games based around the concept of time, with the curse – which causes the player to die every minute – being a burden that players have to carry and plot around, with the goal of eventually lifting it. Minit isn’t a game about time, it’s a game about limitations, and how the player is going to make the best of the situation until the curse is lifted.

From a design point of view, everything comes from external limitations that the team put on themselves. This was supposed to be a palette cleanser for a team that had all been working on huge and involved projects. These limitations range from the artistic design, which saw Minit’s two colour look, to several parts of the game’s core design.

The time limitation put a framework in place that allowed the team to slowly unfurl a world around the player through a series of vignettes.

The definitive moment, for Nijman, is an early segment at a lighthouse with a slow-spoken lighthouse keeper.

“He’s talking, you’re just standing there, time is ticking down and you’re like: ‘Come on, talk faster, give me the details’,” Nijman says with a laugh. “But to get the reward you have to listen until the very last word, and if you try to mash buttons to speed it up he’ll just start all over again.”

Two Minits to Midnight?

Nijman seems certain there won’t a Minit 2. The development for Minit seems to have existed with a lot of the same limitations as those encountered while playing it. This means there’s no further iteration planned, and Nijman says the team is happy with the work they achieved on it.

“It’s a game about doing one minute things,” he explains. “If we tried to do it again, it would have outstayed its welcome, whereas as it is we’ve used these short, quick, loops to let you experience an advanced adventure in bite-sized chunks.”

Nijman says Minit is a game that balances the duality between trying to accomplish something with every loop but also encourages the player to take the time to smell the flowers and think about the smaller details. When it works, Minit is a game about exploration, guided by the timer that leads to your character’s eventual death.

If Minit truly is a momento mori then, it’s a celebratory one that developers playing with timers should learn from. Life is short. Get out there and explore. 

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