A Melburnian nerd of 27 years and counting. A podcaster, critic, writer and developer of games. Uncovering the hidden indie gems, and exposing the dark underside of the AAA industry.
DONTNOD as a development studio is one that always sparks interest from yours truly. Best known for the Life is Strange universe, the France-based developers have a keen eye and discerning tastes. With the quality on offer, it’s fair to say I’ve been interested in what’s coming next. Luckily, I’ve had a chance to try out their latest project Twin Mirror.
Naturally, part of the allure is the production quality of a DONTNOD title. Twin Mirror is no exception. There’s an interesting parallel between the stories of Life is Strange when compared to Twin Mirror. Sam Higgs, Twin Mirror’s protagonist, is a more mature character than those of various incarnations of Life is Strange. It makes sense then, that the overall visual style is more mature, opting for a cleaner feel to the aesthetic overall. This doesn’t mean that the vibe moves entirely away from the surreal and abstract. The use of Sam’s “mind palace” very much falls into a “mirror world” full of figures made of glass, a place to reflect on information as it were.
The other part is the audio of course. As a fellow sound designer, I’ve also got to hand out the gold stars. The world is full of all the little audio details you could want. The mind palace strikes a balance of emptiness to contrast with the real world, but with glassy tones that fit the surreal locale. The simple fact is this game looks nice, it’s what got me interested. The music is pretty good. It’s not outstanding like a Life is Strange, but it sets the tone. The presentation overall is very much as good as one should expect. The real question is if the enjoyment runs deeper than surface level.
If I’m being honest, Twin Mirror’s story, at least what I’ve seen so far, leaves something to be desired. The general outline is a bit familiar. Sam Higgs utilises a mind palace, an abstract landscape in which he can review facts and reconstruct events. This skill has led him to great success as an investigative journalist in his hometown of Basswood, at least until an article exposes the safety risks of a local mine. Sam’s work saves many from injury, but the shut down decimates the local economy, making him a martyr. Two years later, Sam returns to attend a friend’s funeral, which stirs back up old resentments. But upon his arrival, strange things start happening to Sam and those around him, so it’s up to Sam to figure things out. It’s a bit of an odd duck especially with the collision of reality and more fantastical elements.
I suppose the weird feeling comes from the fact that the two halves feel a little detached from each other. Take for example Twin Mirror’s other fantastical element: The Double. The Double is a mysterious figure, personifying Sam’s friendly, socially conscious side. He’s a character that will step in and second guess you and sway you to do things. It’s an odd choice for this game. He feels like an evil twin, a sneering reflection. Yet his evil swaying amounts to advise like “don’t interrupt people” or “don’t lie to people”. There is this air of mystery about him. Admittedly this is mainly just because he isn’t talked about, just talked to or yelled at. He seemingly is non-existent in any other character’s perception. They even go as far as to put all the other characters on pause when the Double is on the scene.
It begs the question of why the Double couldn’t just be the “other voice” in the internal monologue. I’m hoping this gets explored. A discussion of what it could mean to have another voice guiding you could be interesting. Hell, with all the talk of panic attacks, I hope this could be a magical realism way of portraying dissociative identity disorder. As it stands with the preview, there isn’t any specific discussion of the topic, so we can only hope.
I think I have to admit that DONTNOD isn’t fantastic at writing. Writing is one of those many elements that fade into the background of reviews. Scant few titles are remarkably good or noticeably bad. For the most part, Twin Mirror falls into the “functional but unremarkable” bucket. Sam’s character is a little too melancholy for my tastes. The other characters, while their dialogue is alright, noticeably lean into certain character traits. The busy body, the wife that isn’t coping, the alcoholic, the no-nonsense cop. It can be a little hokey, but I can let it slide a bit. Some of that can be chalked up to creating a divide in the personalities between Sam and the rest of the town. If you’re being generous, you could even say it tries for a “Twin Peaks” like sense of off-kilter unease.
My patience only extends so far. Consider Walter for example. Walter is an intellectual, a connoisseur of literature. He’s smart but he’s also warm and somewhat of a father figure to Sam. I have a lot of reasons to love him. Although one reason I don’t love him is that his dialogue is ridiculous. At one point he has to leave and says, “I must abscond”. Lines like this take the tropey characters and make them exaggerated caricatures. In truth, Life is Strange is guilty of this too somewhat. Over the course of a typical LiS season, it would usually turn the corner. Maybe it will happen here too, hard to say really.
The other part of any game of course is the gameplay, and Twin Mirror does its job here mostly. The game follows the template set out by Life is Strange. Talk to people, make choices, see how the consequences play out later. It’s an established template at this point. The preview wasn’t long enough to see this spin wildly off access, but the framework is there. I’m interested to see if going from episodic to a standard one-shot will change anything about how things play out.
Twin Mirror does occasionally mix things up with more experimental gameplay. On occasion, Sam will have a panic attack, triggering a minigame to ground himself. Here’s the thing though, with the establishment of a “mind palace”, the game twists that to set the panic attack in this abstract panic attack landscape. Seemingly it is part of this mental health arc of the “mind palace being corrupted”. It’s an interesting concept, and one I hope has some interesting implications further into the game. As it stands, it’s definitely an experiment, albeit an unsuccessful one. It’s surreal, but not in a way that utilises the medium to tell the story. Rather it’s more surreal in that it’s just a kind of confusing little moment in the game as a whole.
The new flavour here is mystery-solving. After entering a crime scene, Sam must find clues, which inform his mind palace reconstructions, to gain insights on the event itself. With many mystery solving games, there is a fine line to tread on difficulty. Too easy, and it isn’t satisfying. Too hard, and it’s just frustrating. Twin Mirror falls on the former category, with reconstructions boiled down to a few multiple-choice questions. This means that you can easily brute force answers. Of course, this is based on only the opening of the game. However, based on the format at least, it seems geared toward it being easily breezed through.
It’s fair to say that Twin Mirror has some room to improve. DONTNOD games tend to be better than they appear at first glance, so there’s definitely more than enough opportunity to impress. Either way, it’s an interesting enough piece that one way or another will be a rather entertaining play. Twin Mirror will available on Epic Game Store for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One on December 1, and is available for pre-order now.