In Twin Mirror, the latest narrative game from Dontnod Entertainment, you play as a journalist whose mission is to uncover the truth. When it leads to something ugly, your job as the player is to decide how much of the truth to tell.
Dontnod Entertainment has tackled numerous issues in its story-based games, including teen suicide, immigration, racism, transphobia, and alcoholism. With this story, a journalist investigates the death of a best friend at the request of a daughter, who finds the death to be suspicious. And (spoiler alert) it leads us to a discussion about the opiate crisis. The game debuted this month on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Epic Games Store on the PC, and it’s an example of how Dontnod is spreading out beyond the Life Is Strange series.
The themes Dontnod tackles are serious subjects for any video game, and the French game publisher has made its experiences more entertaining with game mechanics such as time rewinding, allowing you to unwind decisions and see what else might happen if you made different choices. Characters also have supernatural powers like telekinesis, mind control, persuasion, or danger sensing. But what makes the games relatable to audiences are the grounded and ordinary characters who populate the games. They suffer from problems like anxiety, poor self-esteem, or societal alienation. The decisions you make have a “butterfly effect,” where small choices lead to big changes that change the fate of characters.
Editor’s note: This story has spoilers.
Going back home again
Twin Mirror capitalizes on that formula with its new psychological thriller. Sam Higgs, the main character, returns to his fictional hometown of Basswood, West Virginia, as a tortured soul. He had left Appalachia two years earlier after he wrote about a dangerous mind that was the economic lifeblood of the town. The mine closed, throwing a lot of the townsfolk out of work. Many people blamed the messenger as if it were all Higgs’ fault, and so he left town. While he though that was for the best, he finds that his departure left ripples in the community. For the player, the game tests the notion of whether you can ever “go back” to who you once were. And Dontnod tells a story where the inward journey is just as important as unraveling the facts in the real world. For me, it feels real that a journalist can be a tortured soul, and it’s also a bit of a relief to view a journalist as a hero, rather than an enemy of the state.
In a flashback in his “mind palace,” Higgs remembers how he had proposed to his girlfriend, Anna, but she turned him down, saying she had already told him that wasn’t something she wanted in life. As Higgs replays his memories upon returning to the town, we see the scene play out in the mind palace, a visualized dream land in his memories and subconscious. He has conversations with an alter ego, a kind of twin, who helps him make decisions. The mind palace is where Higgs works out his feelings and logical problems, a place that helps him notice connections that other people miss. It’s a place he goes to figure things out, and we experience it as a 3D scene in the clouds. This is where the story turns more supernatural.
After Higgs left town, Anna hooked up with Nick, Higgs’ best friend. And two years later, Higgs returns to the town with emotional dread as he has to attend Nick’s funeral. As he arrives at the bar for Nick’s wake, he runs into Nick’s daughter, Joan “Bug” Waldron, who suspects that Nick was murdered. Joan says she was hurt that he abandoned her and had stayed away so long. She asks Higgs to investigate, and he promises to do so. But Higgs finds that no one wants to consider the topic of murder at the wake. Those who don’t want to talk about it are Nick’s ex-wife and his ex-girlfriend Anna. Higgs winds up drinking too much, presumably with one of the former miners who still has a grudge against Higgs. A police officer, Declan, breaks up one of the fights, but Higgs gets into it again later on. The next morning, he wakes up from a nightmare and finds his shirt in his motel bathtub, drenched in blood. He can’t remember anything. That’s where we learn the mind palace can be a place of great emotional fear for Higgs, and his twin has to talk him down into some kind of peace of mind.
Higgs returns to the bar in the morning and sneaks into it. He examines the evidence of a brawl, and it’s a lot of work for the player. You can’t leave the scene until you find all of the right facts and then can use your mind palace to reconstruct what happened in the bar. The mind palace visualizes what happens in the fight until Nick is satisfied he has the right theory that fits the facts. Higgs starts asking questions around town and it leads him to the body of a journalist at the town newspaper’s office — the same place where he worked with Nick and Anna. Higgs begins to sense a cover-up, and finds evidence that Nick was on to a big story.
While this is happening, was learn more about Higgs’ troubles. He feels a lot of guilt about leaving the town and writing the story that brought down the mine. While part of his brain is logical, part is also emotional and we see the emotional distress he is under. It doesn’t help that many people in the town don’t like him and don’t want him asking questions. He convinces Anna that something is wrong and they revisit the scene of Nick’s death, where he presumably lost control of a car on a winding forest road and crashed into a tree. At the scene, as the player, you have to find the facts and unravel what actually happened.
This scene is where the gameplay starts to shine and the stakes start to get more interesting. But Higgs has to conquer his own mental demons in the mind palace and put his mind to work. His task is to find the right perspective so he can view the facts and figure out what actually happened. Higgs ultimately succeeds in uncovering the secrets of Basswood, delivering catharsis to some and pain to others when he unveils what happened. When the final confrontation takes place, we see how the mind palace can help Higgs anticipate what’s going to happen and stay one step ahead. And when he finally solves the case, we learn how this story fits in with Dontnod’s statement about the opioid epidemic. In that respect, the game is another example of how Dontnod is willing to wade into the politics of the real world to deliver an ethical message about our reality, delivered through a work of fiction.
The inward journey
The full game lasts about eight hours, and it is told from a point of view that expresses empathy for Higgs’ mental anguish. If it were simply a murder mystery that he could unravel as dispassionately as Sherlock Holmes does in his tales, it would be quite short and uninteresting. But Higgs has to overcome his emotional turmoil and come to terms with his twin and his mind palace before he solves the crime. I like how Dontnod pushes the emotional boundaries of games and gives us stories that help us cope with our own difficulties in the real world. And I liked how Higgs becomes a different person in his journey to solve the crime.
Not everything is great. There are boring parts where you’ll wonder why you’re searching for that last and final clue. While the environments of West Virginia are beautiful, the human animations aren’t perfect, and the action is pretty slow. Critics of “walking simulator” games should stay away if all you want from a game is action. If you’re a fan of Dontnod games, however, this one is worth picking up. The game will be compatible with the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X/S.
Dontnod provided GamesBeat with a copy of the game on the PC for the purposes of this review.
GamesBeat Gift Guides: