Interactive, point and click narrative video games are one of my favorite types to play, especially when key decisions in a game will shape how your story unfolds and ends. One of the developers who have been doing an impressive job of creating memorable stories and characters is Dontnod Entertainment. When Twin Mirror came out on December 1st I was eager to check out what new adventure the studio behind Life Is Strange and the recent Tell Me Why will be taking players on this time.
Sam Higgs is an investigative journalist who returns to his hometown of Basswood, West Virginia to attend the funeral of his best friend Nick. However, Sam’s homecoming is far from warm and welcome for most of Basswood’s residents. Over the course of the game you learn Sam skipped town to escape the fallout from an article he published that cost many of the local miners their jobs, and a breakup with his girlfriend Anna after a rejected marriage proposal. While Sam is working through the ghosts of his past, he also gets pulled into investigating the death of Nick, suspecting foul play may have been involved instead of a tragic accident everyone is led to believe.
Twin Mirror is a familiar and standard crime/murder story. Being that this is a Dontnod Entertainment video game you can almost always expect your main character to have some kind of unique power or ability to get them through the situation they’re in, and Sam is no different.
This time around Sam relies on the power of deductive reasoning by entering what’s called his Mind Palace, a strange and visually breathtaking mirrorscape to piece together how the scene of the crime happened, based on all the clues he gathers in the area. Aside from the Mind Palace, Sam is also occasionally assisted by his double or “imaginary friend”, a more self-assured and heart-centered version of Sam who appears to him during key dialogue moments or to help Sam focus whenever he finds himself having a panic attack. With all these elements at play, it should culminate towards an incredible gaming experience but it does stumble in parts.
One of my biggest issues with the game came when Sam had his panic attacks. When this happens Sam re-enters his Mind Palace but it’s a much darker and ominous place compared to when his mind is still and at peace. Sam would either be chased by dark phantoms and he has to find his way out by selecting a door to go through, or he’ll have to focus on imaginary twin Sam in order to get out of the mental hellscape he’s stuck in. These sections, while stunning to look at even in its unsettledness, can be extremely confusing and frustrating. I never know what to do here and Sam’s verbal hints on what to do aren’t as obvious. Getting out of these parts of the game have been sheer dumb luck at times.
My next issue is with the controls. For whatever reason pointing and highlighting an object in the game to interact with it is very clumsy and requires moving it just right to get the button press you need to activate it. This surprised me when Dontnod Entertainment should now be seasoned veterans at this kind of video game. Being able to get Sam to pick up a photo or investigate debris left behind from a car crash should not be as difficult as it has been.
Finally, the way the story and characters progress in the game leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike the first and second Life Is Strange and Tell Me Why, Twin Mirror is not an episodic narrative video game. It clocks in at about 6 hours of game time, which means the game has to pack in a lot of development in such a short amount of time. I think making the game this way was a bit of a disservice to the story and its characters, and other reviewers have said the same thing. Very little time is spent on really getting to know the townsfolk Sam has spent his entire life with, barely scratching the surface of who these people are and what their relationship to Sam was like. We get snapshots of them through Sam’s memories but not enough to really form a full attachment to them, or supporting characters who felt like they would play a bigger role in the story are often sidelined to reappear again when it’s convenient to push the story forward.
When Nick’s murderer was finally revealed it didn’t come as much of a surprise when you start ruling out the likely suspects. Some reviewers found the crime story deeply disappointing in its predictability, while it didn’t bother me so much. The way I saw it Twin Mirror was less about “who killed Nick” and more about Sam reevaluating how he has lived his life so far and how willing he is at truly letting people in.
Without spoiling more of the story there’s a reason why Sam has this “mirror twin” following him around and acting as a kind of sensitive and moral compass for Sam. Rather than deal with the messiness and complexity of emotions and social connection, he retreats into his Mind Palace where logic and facts offer something more concrete and tangible to deal with.
At one point his ex-girlfriend Anna mentions how Sam was always disconnected from reality and never mentally present when they were together. It gives some insight as to what went wrong with their relationship, but also indicates that it was one of many things that led to their breakup.
Sam’s life in Basswood and the people he knew in that small town were the parts of the story that interested me the most and kept me playing, despite the shortcomings the game had. It felt like Dontnod Entertainment could have gone so much deeper to make a pivotal decision in the entire game much more satisfying, if more time and space was given to let the story and characters breathe on their own, like they did with the Life Is Strange and Tell Me Why games. Instead, Twin Mirror did feel like it cut out a huge chunk of the story and development in order to condense everything for budget and time.
Twin Mirror is a video game with the potential to be more than what it is. I don’t regret playing it at all. In fact, I’m still thinking about Sam and the characters quite a lot, even after beating it about a week ago. I only wish the game was done better.
Reviewer Rating: 6.5