I've always been drawn to the interpersonal conflicts of strangers. Call it a flaw of my character, but I'll take as much of it as I can get. Perhaps that's why I've always been drawn to games out of Dontnod Entertainment, the purveyors of interactive angst in the video game industry. The studio's latest attempt to craft a Choose Your Own Drama arrives in the form of Twin Mirror, a psychological thriller set in the rustbelt of America.
Why, then, am I struggling to connect with it? What sets this game apart from its predecessors – Life Is Strange, Vampyr, Remember Me – isn't its setting or supernaturally-inclined cast of characters, but rather its focus on faux-intellectualism and sadboy trauma. Within minutes of meeting protagonist Sam Higgs, investigative journalist turned habitual whiner, you know his type.
You'd have come across his sort while doom-scrolling Reddit at 2am. He's the guy coming in hot with the type of short-sighted complaints that have helped enshrine r/relationships as one of the last bastions of true joy on the internet for the perpetually nosey. If Sam Higgs weren't attempting to uncover the dark secrets of his hometown, trying to solve one murder whilst being pulled into the centre of another, I'm certain he'd be laying his idiocy out on r/AmITheAsshole for all the world to see. Honestly, I'm conflicted by the thought of spending an entire game trapped inside his head.
Lamenting lost love
It's been two years since we last saw Twin Mirror. The game has been given an impressive visual overhaul in that time, the story has been reworked – with Dontnod reneging on the episodic format for a more traditional structure – while key elements of its core mechanics have been changed following initial feedback. Given the opportunity to see 18 minutes of Twin Mirror in motion, I was eager to compare and contrast my hands-on experience from 2018 with that of the current iteration of the game, particularly with respect to the 'mind palace' investigation system where much of Twin Mirror's unique approach to puzzle solving will take place.
Sadly, Dontnod has decided to keep much of that under wraps until closer to launch. What I saw instead was Sam Higgs killing time at a promontory for nine somber introductory minutes as he lamented a lost love. Twin Mirror takes some time setting this up as a great trauma, as if it's the worst thing to ever have happened to him – let's forget, for a second, that he's begrudgingly returned to his hometown to attend the funeral for his best friend, Nick.
It's here, at "the place where everything finished falling apart" we are able to get a better sense of what drives this character's perspective and, ultimately, what we're in for in this adventure. We're told that Sam's forensically analytical mind is one of the things that makes him truly unique, that everything he sees becomes a new memory to be processed and stored away for later reconstruction. The gamification of his inner-monologue is a nice touch, with Sam commenting on literally everything and anything he sees, regardless of how banal it may seem in the moment.
In the context of what I've seen of the game before, and at Dontnod's insistence that every discovery, decision, and interaction will ultimately help influence the direction of Sam's journey, it would be easy to assume that even the smallest detail could have some impact later down the line. I'm not, however, able to get a clear sense of how that might look or ultimately work in the slice of the game presented on this occasion. What I do see, however, is just how limited Sam's supposed intellectualism is. He might be able to recall the smallest of details and reconstruct past events with precision, but boy does he have a problem understanding them.
Eventually, we are given a brief glimpse at his 'mind palace'. This otherworldly space allows Sam the opportunity to sift through his memories, and relive past events. Our first taste of this is the reconstruction of what is supposedly the painful moment of Sam's life, and it's the type of complaint that would come with the following sign-off on an r/relationships post: TL;DR – I proposed to my girlfriend two years ago, after she told me multiple times that she didn't need a ring to be happy, and I still can't work out why she said no.
Honestly, if the most painful moment of his life is his inability to listen to his girlfriend then we're in for a long ride in Twin Mirror. He spends so long reliving this memory that he actually misses the funeral. For somebody with a forensically analytical mind, he sure has a talent for missing the point.
Am I The Asshole?
After this, the game shifts scenes as Sam arrives at the wake, having missed the funeral of his best friend because he had the baby wah-wahs over getting dumped some years before. Putting Sam's unlikeability to one side for a second, here we get a nice look at Dontnod's ambitions with respect to presentation. Twin Mirror employs long tracking shots, beautiful moody lighting, and dramatic camera cuts to give it a cinematic feel – all of it supported by a really beautiful, melodic soundtrack. If this early look at Twin Mirror is anything to go by, it's going to be a really good looking game – the best Dontnod has put out into the world – undercut by some occasionally stilted performances.
The next nine minutes takes place largely in a car, as Sam has a lengthy conversation with the daughter of the deceased – his god-daughter, whom we learn he abandoned along with his best friend in his rush to leave Basswood to move in with his mom following his break-up with Anna. "If Nick hadn't died I wouldn't have even come back," he tells his grieving god-daughter, in a conversation peppered with occasional choice and consequence.
It's here where we get to see another element of Twin Mirror's original vision that has also been overhauled in the last two years, that of The Double. Think of this character as the physical manifestation of Sam' psyche, arriving to offer different points of view in key moments when impactful decisions need to be made. The one made in this instance has a lasting impact on his grieving goddaughter for the rest of the game – promise to look into the death of his best friend or refuse to help and focus on getting through the night without "pissing anybody off". He chooses the latter and she is understandably upset.
Were other decisions made in that conversation could it have gone another way? Potentially, although it wouldn't help the fact that Sam comes across as a fundamentally unlikeable protagonist. And not in a challenging way, one that will create twists and turns in a story undercut with suspense and mystery, but in a way that makes me feel like spending hours and hours in his company will be exhausting.
Of course, there's so much more for Dontnod to reveal in the months ahead. I'm eager to see more of the mind-palace – turning memory reconstruction into a central tenet of puzzle design is one area the studio absolutely thrives in, after all. My concern for the time being is that it's all going to constantly come back to a protagonist who, it would appear, can't see past his own bullshit. I fear that much of the game's drama hinges off of a premise that is difficult to get behind:
I [M30] was forced to abandon my friends and hometown, and alienate everybody around me, after my girlfriend [30f] refused to marry me. Recalling this memory also caused me to miss my best friend's funeral and make my god-daughter hate me. So, AITA?
Twin Mirror is the Dontnod thriller with a new lease of life: We sit down with game director Florian Desforges to learn how Twin Mirror has transformed since its reveal in 2018.