With Twin Mirror, Dontnod abandons the episodic model it has experimented with since 2015's Life is Strange in favor of a six-hour standalone release. The result is a focused crime thriller with some great character work. However, Twin Mirror's exploration of its story and mechanics suffers somewhat from its brevity, relative to Dontnod’s recent work. It's longer than an episode of Dontnod's serialized games but still shorter than what it needed to be to explore characters with depth and tackle the heavier subject matter and themes its narrative alludes to. Twin Mirror comes to a conclusion just as the plot and gameplay are really beginning to gain momentum.
In Twin Mirror, players take on the role of Sam Higgs, a tenacious investigative reporter returning to his hometown of Basswood, West Virginia, after a period of self-imposed exile. Two years prior, Sam published a damning investigative piece on unsafe practices at the Basswood mine, which employed a huge portion of the town. As a result, the mine closed, putting a huge swath of Basswood out of work and pushing the town into an economic depression. In the midst of this firestorm, Sam proposed to his girlfriend Anna, another writer at the paper. She turned him down and, struggling with the personal and professional devastation, Sam left town without a word. In the time since, Anna has started dating Sam’s longtime best friend, Nick.
The pain of all this is still fresh for Sam. But, when Nick dies in a car accident, he finally feels he must return to Basswood. Though the local police have ruled the death an accident, Nick's preteen daughter, Bug, suspects foul play, and Sam agrees to investigate. In classic Dontnod fashion, that investigation mostly plays out via dialogue with the locals--some of whom hate Sam for the problems his reporting caused, and some of whom are old friends. You'll investigate densely packed areas, read documents, and analyze objects to get to know the cast of characters and uncover clues to the cause of Nick’s death. Dontnod is great at this kind of environmental storytelling, and Twin Mirror is no exception. Discovering objects evoke memories of Sam's past, and hearing his thoughts on the people that he once called neighbors is especially enjoyable. There’s even some fun Bandai Namco brand synergy in Sam recalling his and Nick’s childhood Pac Man competitions.
The traits that made Sam a talented journalist are tools in the player's toolbelt, too. Sam's gift for rational thought results in the Mind Palace. It's an ancient technique (also referred to as the Method of Loci), which Cicero discussed in his De Oratore. It allows the practitioner to create a space in their mind that they can imaginatively navigate. Rather than attempting to recall abstract facts, the inhabitant of the Mind Palace simply strolls by the object they need to remember, perusing thoughts as if they’re cereal options at the grocery store. The Mind Palace's purpose, primarily, is to aid memory, though in recent depictions such as the BBC's Sherlock, it has become a method for superhuman feats of detective work.
At several moments, Sam must piece together the events of the past or look ahead to the future to formulate a plan. At first, you need to pace around an area, gather information, and look for clues. Sam doesn't just automatically reach a conclusion once you've examined every object, however. Instead, you need to adjust the variables for each element of the crime scene to make sure it fits with the rest of your conclusions. In an early scene when Sam is attempting to figure out who he got into a barroom brawl with the night before, you may need to replay the scene multiple times to make sure the parts that you have selected are coming together correctly. If Sam was fighting with Dennis by the liquor counter, then why is Dennis’ bracelet across the room instead of by the bar? If Sam was, instead, fighting with the angry miner by the seating area, does that change anything? Getting each element to come together correctly isn’t especially difficult, but the troubleshooting process is really satisfying. It's Detective Vision with a Rube Goldberg machine twist, and it's a great evolution of a familiar mechanic.
Though Sam has a handle on this kind of methodical, rational thought, he's less adept at dealing with people. For this, he needs to rely on his “Inner Voice.” Basically, the Inner Voice is another version of Sam, albeit with floppier hair and dark-rimmed glasses, who pops up to offer advice in social situations. In certain conversations, Sam can stop and talk things over with his Inner Voice, but it may result in him delaying his response for too long. While it often feels like ignoring the Inner Voice is the more expedient thing to do, I found conversations went better when I took the time to pause and listen. Mechanizing this conflict between the rational and the relational is one of Twin Mirror's most interesting ambitions, but this is also one area where its awkward length hurts the experience. Just as this conflict between logic and love felt like it was beginning to come to a head, the game began to wrap up.
Twin Mirror is about solving a mystery, but it's also about Sam picking up the pieces he left behind when he abruptly left town. Sam's relationship with Bug was one of my favorite parts of the game. There's a palpable melancholy to her character, expertly brought to life by 15-year-old actress Ruby Jay. Bug's sadness over her father's death, her anger with Sam for leaving, her irritation with her mother's busyness and emotional distance from her --these all come through in Jay's performance. I similarly enjoyed seeing Sam hash out his unfinished business with Anna and reconnect with his warm and loquacious former boss, Walter. Dontnod’s dialogue is still occasionally corny, but they’ve come a long way since Life Is Strange's “Go f**k your selfie.”
That said, Twin Mirror’s character development is hampered by the game’s awkward length. While the character work that Dontnod does here is good, I felt like the game was just getting started when it came to a conclusion. The character arcs aren't necessarily incomplete; there are beginnings, middles, and ends for all the key players. Nevertheless, it does at times feel like the moments in between--the ones that would really help us get to know each character on a deeper level--are missing or truncated. Similarly, the game gestures at major issues like police corruption and opioid addiction but doesn't really commit to fully exploring them. This, once again, feels like it is the result of not having the room to unpack the issues meaningfully in its six-hour runtime.
Still, Twin Mirror is a good next step from Dontnod, a studio that has stepped up to fill the adventure game-shaped hole left when Telltale went under. Episodic games have struggled to sell well after the first episode and also suffered from protracted release schedules, and Twin Mirror shows that the studio has a willingness to explore new territory. Twin Mirror has interesting new mechanics, well-realized characters, and a good understanding of what makes exploration rewarding. It's just a shame that the pacing undercuts so much of what makes it work.