A car drives down a quiet road, past rows of trees, until you eventually glimpse a town, its long-abandoned factories stretching into the skyline. The images are accompanied by a sombre song by folk artist Sean Rowe. Welcome to Basswood, West Virginia.
It’s an impressive way to start, not least because of how good Twin Mirror looks, and Dontnod knows it – just a few minutes before reaching his destination, protagonist Sam Higgs gets out of his car and glances down at Basswood from a viewpoint awash in the rays of the setting sun. But then Sam opens his mouth – and things inevitably go downhill from there. Sam has returned to his hometown to attend his best friend Nick’s funeral. Trouble is, as Sam puts it, he’s ghosted Nick for two years after leaving Basswood in a hurry, and now Nick’s ghosting him by being dead. This, maybe five minutes into the game, is the first moment I put the controller down and looked into an imaginary camera like I’m on The Office, because this is the type of writing you are in for.
Sam used to be an investigative reporter at the Basswood Jungle, where he uncovered the local mine’s violation of safety protocols. His reporting led to the closure of said mine, and to a lot of angry miners, who greet Sam with the mating call of every fictional bully to his victim of choice: “Well, well, well, look who we have here!” It emerges rather quickly that no one in Basswood is strictly speaking a nice person, not to each other and certainly not to Sam, who most residents have decided was single-handedly responsible for the demise of the town.
Here’s the point at which I would normally find a good bridge to Twin Mirror’s detective gameplay and Sam’s mind palace, an imaginary location he occasionally accesses memories from, but that also works as a crime solving device, or the fact that Sam has an alter ego called “Him” who keeps getting involved. But I can’t, frankly because the game itself can’t find a way to tell you why these elements exist or how they are connected. Anyway, Sam wakes up after a bar brawl gone so bad he has no memory of that part of his evening, which leads to him finding out about, and thus investigating, Nick’s murder.
Sam goes back to the bar to work out what happened, and after finding different pieces of evidence, he enters his mind palace to reconstruct events in a visually quite stunning way, similar to the reconstruction mechanics in games like Detroit: Become Human and The Sinking City.
Before you can connect the dots however, you need to find evidence in a certain order. The order is in no way obvious, which leads you to take several laps around a crime scene to either find things that are clearly there but can’t be interacted with yet, or to you suddenly finding items that have appeared out of nowhere in places you previously searched. Once Sam has found everything, you can listen to his deductions and decide what happened. There’s no penalty for not coming to the right conclusion, you can mix and match different hypotheses before testing them. Once you’ve put events in the right order, Sam will have a eureka moment of sorts, and explain what happened. Twin Mirror has about three such instances of detective gameplay, all of them not only boring excuses for investigations (“find the thing that makes a noise suspiciously like a set of blinds rusting in the wind”) but also completely arbitrary – each time Sam says he’s found out how things definitely happened, the alternative outcomes are actually no less feasible. This form of detective work is nothing you’d need a mind palace for. It’s also not how a mind palace works, which I’m mentioning because a mind palace, used correctly, could have been a very interesting investigative tool in a game.
Twin Mirror clearly isn’t the game it was supposed to be. In development by a smaller team within Dontnod – not related to Life Is Strange – since 2016, it was announced in 2018, then later delayed following lukewarm previews in 2019. It also went from a three-episode game to a single game of roughly six to seven hours. I believe the game was heavily cut – you’ll notice it sometimes in the way dialogue sounds like it’s referring to conversations that should have happened, but didn’t, or the way scenes will follow onto each other in a way that makes me think something was supposed to be happening in-between. The many items you can look at in every location often come without voiced dialogue, probably due to budget constraints. As good as the visuals are, they’re wasted on an industrial town – a game can look as good as it wants to, it will still seem bland if there’s nothing to see. As detailed as the character’s faces are, they have next to no facial expressions, mostly just opening and closing their mouths, which is hard to overlook when everything else is so detailed.
At this point, you could mark Twin Mirror down as unfortunate and call it a day, but you’ll notice I haven’t talked about Him yet. A mind palace, as funky as this one looks, is a memory technique anyone can learn, but Sam doesn’t just have a mind palace, he also talks to an imaginary person and gets lost in his own head to the point he becomes unresponsive. There are also segments in which Sam becomes presumably so stressed and upset (I have to say presumably because like many things in this game it’s just not clear enough) that you have to play a mini-game to calm him down.
Dontnod never commits to giving Sam’s behaviour a name, but it reads like an attempt to depict someone on the autistic spectrum. As a developer with a strong record of tackling mental and socio-political issues in their games, Dontnod does itself no favours with being noncommittal, but it also becomes painfully obvious that this was likely the better choice in Twin Mirror’s case because to me it feels like no research went into the portrayal of a neurodivergent person. After Dontnod finally took steps to actively work with the people it’s portraying by collaborating with GLAAD for Tell Me Why, this is an especially disappointing step backwards.
As someone the game is indirectly portraying, however coyly, I also find Twin Mirror to be quite insulting. Sam is supposedly someone who has trouble with social cues and finding the correct way to talk to people, so he has “Him” as a sort of angel on his shoulder, Sam’s “socially well-adjusted” part, as the game puts it. Trouble is you never actually see Sam having problems. All you know about Sam’s behaviour, and in fact most of his relationships, is delivered second-hand. People will say things to him like, “Don’t be that way you can be” or “Are you doing your, you know, thing right now?” and no one will elaborate.
The tenor of every conversation is that Sam is weird, while the dialogue choices always present you with completely normal, if slight crotchety options, and most importantly, the option to be as pleasant as a peach is also always available. Had Dontnod gone through the effort to actually present some sort of emotional turmoil or, you know, shown his difficulty with social interaction, Sam could have been an example of much-needed representation, but as it is you see a man understandably struggling to deal with everyone being an arse to him. A prominent example of Sam’s “weird behaviour” is disappearing off the map because his hometown just branded him a traitor and his girlfriend abruptly left him. Sure, it’s not stellar behaviour, but it’s not something only a person with mental disabilities would do. Worse, within what’s roughly one day of in-game time Sam will magically cure himself from his weirdness, in a sequence that is as confusing as it is patronising. It’s maddening and actively harmful that Twin Mirror conflates developmental problems with being a dick just because the writers seemingly couldn’t do the research required.
So much of Twin Mirror is left completely up to interpretation because it always refers to situations you as the player didn’t get to see, leaving you with no connection to any of the characters. As a result, the game is just uniformly awkward. From decisions that lead absolutely nowhere, to characters that are paper-thin, the writing veers wildly in tone, and the gameplay wastes all of its potential. I was so excited to see the Dontnod formula applied to a story about adults, but Twin Mirror is simply not that game.