The storytelling focus of Life is Strange meets some of the more interesting investigational mechanics of Remember Me and Vampyr in Dontnod's upcoming adventure title.
Since the release of Remember Me in 2013, it's felt like developer Dontnod has been working to define its identity. With Twin Mirror, a narrative-focused adventure game centering on an investigative journalist, Dontnod is closer than ever to solidifying its style, marrying the inventive mechanics of its games like Remember Me and Vampyr with the storytelling focus of Life Is Strange to make something that plays to all the developer's strengths.
We recently got a look at the first few hours of Twin Mirror, which sets up the story of Sam Higgs, a journalist returning to his West Virginia hometown of Basswood after two years away. Twin Mirror takes a lot from the episodic Life is Strange games, which are mostly about communication, developing characters, and making choices in dialogue and actions that can influence a branching narrative. Dontnod has had a lot of success telling deep, character-driven stories with those games, and Twin Mirror is a clear outgrowth of that success.
In the opening of Twin Mirror, Sam returns to Basswood for the funeral of his best friend, Nick. With a jaunt to an old lookout point, the game quickly puts Sam's return and the baggage he's brought with him into context. Sam had proposed to his girlfriend Anna before leaving, which didn't go well, and in the intervening years, he'd had a falling out with Nick. Naturally, Sam can't wait to bail on this formerly closed chapter of his life. Reminiscing about Nick, Anna, and Basswood triggers one of the major mechanics in Twin Mirror: the Mind Palace. It's the physical representation of Sam's mind and imagination the story occasionally brings you into, where Sam can wander around visiting memories, talk to himself, and generally take a break from a world he struggles to deal with.
From the lookout, Sam heads to a local bar for Nick's wake, where we learn even more backstory and about all strained relationships he left behind in Basswood. Nick's daughter, Joan, is angry with Sam--her godfather--for abandoning her in the suffocating small town. A lot of locals are angry with Sam over an article he published that resulted in the local mine closing. Many people just generally don't really seem to like Sam and aren't afraid to say as much. The feeling's pretty mutual, it seems.
Throughout these scenes, Life is Strange fans will feel right at home. You walk Sam around a location, interacting with people to either trigger internal monologues about how he feels about them, or to engage in conversations. A few key moments come with choices, as well. When Joan mentions that she thinks the circumstances of Nick's death are suspicious, you can choose to promise to look into the event--which could potentially create some harmful false hope for a little girl grieving her father--or lie and leave her out of it, even as Sam's investigative brain starts cataloguing the details. When a group of local miners suggest they want to pick a fight, you can step to them or walk away. Life is Strange is all about branching story choices and unforeseen consequences that reveal themselves late into the tale. Similarly in Twin Mirror, the early hours of the game haven't made any of those consequences apparent yet.
Sam's decisions are yours, but you'll get advice from a strange character known as the Double, who basically functions as Sam's personal Tyler Durden. The Double is a version of Sam who seems more in tune with social cues and the feelings of others, and he'll often appear to talk to Sam and give him an alternative viewpoint, although you don't have to listen to it. Having an imaginary friend wandering around the scene is a bit of a played-out storytelling trope at this point, but Twin Mirror quickly implies that there's more to this character than we know; there's even some indication that he might not be fully imaginary, and that Sam can't seem to get rid of him.
Twin Mirror presents a more cinematic feel than Dontnod's previous works, with a greater emphasis on creative cinematography to help you better understand Sam, all showing how the developer has evolved as a result of the Life is Strange games. One particularly impressive moment shows Sam getting progressively more drunk during the course of Nick's wake, operating at regular speed as fast-forwarded characters move in and out of the scene, interacting with him, sharing a drink, and disappearing into the night. It's moments like these that pull you into Sam's headspace. We get a palpable sense of how he feels about his old town, the people within it, and the way his life has turned out in the intervening two years since leaving.
Dontnod also portrays Sam's emotions through actual gameplay. After the wake, Sam awakens with a painful hangover after having blacked out--only to discover that his shirt from the night before is covered in blood that doesn't belong to him. That kicks off a sensation of panic that takes players into the Mind Palace, where Sam is chased by a shadowy figure. You control Sam as he goes racing down a hallway filled with transparent doors, some of them with messages written on them. The simple goal here is to dodge the doors with messages that increase Sam's panic, and try to run through the ones that will help him calm and steady himself. It's a relatively simple gameplay moment, but these interactive representations of Sam's feelings help to make it easier to relate to him and what he's going through.
What also makes Twin Mirror feel like an evolution for Dontnod is that it draws on Life is Strange as well as on the developer's other, less successful forays--Remember Me and Vampyr. Both games are heavily focused on story, but parts of them also feel like failed experiments. Remember Me spends a lot of its time focused on action, using imperfect riffs on combat mechanics reminiscent of the Batman Arkham games, and climbing mechanics that recall Uncharted. Vampyr has an action-RPG sensibility not unlike something that might come out of a developer like Obsidian Entertainment, but with some cumbersome combat and unclear choice mechanics.
Both Remember Me and Vampyr also have fascinating ideas with untapped potential, however. Remember Me focused on the sci-fi conceit that memories could be recorded, separated from their owners, bought, sold, and revisited in order to discover new information. Vampyr is largely about understanding how characters fit together in a greater social ecosystem, so that you can either solve their problems or discreetly murder them to sustain your undeath.
Twin Mirror contains moments that play off these ideas as you work through its linear story. As Sam tries to figure out what he did the night before, he revisits the bar from the wake and gathers evidence to reconstruct the events. When he's found all the clues, you're returned to the Mind Palace, where Sam's analytical mind can simulate what might have played out. You stitch the clues together to reconstruct an apparent fight, figuring out who was involved and how it happened--and that helps Sam regain his memory and decide what to do next. The investigation mechanics have a very Remember Me feel as Sam reconstructs a scene. It's a bit like playing the role of investigator Will Graham from the excellent TV show Hannibal (which, I must admit, is one of my favorites), as Sam uses a talent for investigation that lets him uncover information from a scene that others missed.
Without spoiling much more, what Sam starts to uncover builds into a greater mystery as he tries to figure out what he did the night before, what else has been going on in Basswood during his absence, and critically, who he can trust. Things get darker and more sinister in a hurry, and it'll be interesting to see how Sam grapples with the people of Basswood, the details of what happened to Nick, his own confusion about himself, and the agendas of others--particularly the Double, who seems like a strange and shadowy addition to the story.
But I'm most interested to see how much more Twin Mirror expands on Dontnod's ideas from other games. It already feels like a step forward from the Life is Strange games, leaning on the developer's ability to develop deep and relatable characters, while making new strides in how it presents its stories. And even a few short hours with the game demonstrate how Twin Mirror is pulling in the experimental ideas that made Remember Me and Vampyr fascinating and fun, finding ways to explore the mindset of its protagonist and to help make you feel like an integral part of solving the mystery. So far, Twin Mirror is building on all the things that have made Dontnod games worthy of attention, and I'm excited to see where else its unfolding mystery will go when the game releases on December 1.