A man walks into a bar. He hasn’t been there for a couple of years, but it’s still familiar. It is for me too. I’ve seen films and TV shows set in small town America, I know the decor. Neon sign on the door, old photos speckling the walls, a jukebox in the corner, baseball-capped rednecks filling a booth by the entrance. I’ve never lived in a decaying mining community in West Virginia, but I’ve seen bars in places like Twin Mirror’s Basswood more times than I can remember.
This narrative-driven mystery adventure game from Dontnod Entertainment (Life Is Strange, Tell Me Why) never really gets beneath these stock images of American life. Whenever it looks like it might break through the surface, it backs off and changes focus. Perhaps it’s significant that the game was originally planned as an episodic release before being amalgamated into this single lump. But whatever the case, it feels like there was meant to be more.
You’re journalist Sam Higgs, returning to town for the funeral of an old friend, Nick, who died in an accident. Or was it? It wasn’t. Else there wouldn’t be much of a game. Soon enough you’re trying to find out what really occurred, picking at the scabs of past relationships and town traumas as you go. Sam is socially awkward but can see the workings of the world by entering his ‘mind palace’. Once you’ve gathered clues in key locations, he envisions a model of the scene constructed from glass fragments and works through the angles to piece them together.
It’s less engaging than it sounds. Investigation is a menial process of combing scenes for highlighted objects, and since things often have to be found in a certain order, you’ll have to do multiple laps just to collect everything you need. The mind palace sequences then ask you to link the clues in ways that are either painfully obvious or simply a case of cycling through limited combinations until you find the one the game wants. The highlight in these imaginary crystal dioramas is watching them shift and cluster to represent different theories.
Dontnod’s productions are rarely taxing, of course, and that’s fine when the narrative delivers. These games succeed when they present us with interesting people, situations and themes that make dialogue choices feel weighty. But Twin Mirror falls short in that respect too. It never grabbed me, it never made me care.
Like Sam’s memories, characters feel like constructs of recalled fragments. A local cop has local cop concerns about rising crime, a teenager with dyed hair wishes she could leave town, the rednecks start trouble by saying, “Well, well, well, look what we have here”. Even key characters, like Sam’s old flame and fellow journalist Anna, are patchworks of off-the-peg traits. Anna plays guitar. She’s into vinyl, trashy action films and human rights – wash-away details in place of personality.
In Life Is Strange, the veneer of superficiality in some characters eventually peels back to reveal hidden complexities. In Twin Mirror, individuals remain as they first appear, often bookmarked for later development only to never return. I ran into a woman called Tara a couple of times early on who was especially mean to Sam for no obvious reason. I assumed I’d find out more about that later, but nope. She’s just a horrible person.
It’s difficult to engage in conversations with characters who say nothing and go nowhere, especially when they’re so technically unconvincing. Dialogue is punctured by long pauses and non-sequiturs, while restrained lip-synching and dead eyes turn some of the cast into ventriloquist dummies or latex puppets. Their static delivery is the only sense of uncanny you’ll get in a world where the name of the local café is Café Americano.
At times, it feels like Twin Mirror has an interesting idea on the tip of its tongue. Like it has something to say about the collapse of American industry, the creeping poverty and isolation in small towns, and the wave of opioid addiction that preys on the lost. But it never sticks on anything long enough to dig in. Even the murder plot is a washout. In surprisingly truncated middle and final acts, the crime is revealed and resolved before you can put together a suspect list.
The only real hook is Sam and his interior workings. Along with the mind palace, Sam has an imaginary alter ego who talks to him like a built-in therapist, advising Sam to stay calm and say socially acceptable things. At various points, you choose whether to listen to him or not, or fall into surreal corridor chases and mazes mapping out Sam’s emotional turmoil, where your friend tries to help you escape. It’s enough to at least put some meat on Twin Mirror’s bare bones and quicken the pace once in a while.
Yet these distractions also usher in a subplot about mental health and how Sam copes with his condition, which Twin Mirror is ill-equipped to discuss. Because it’s too vague and timid to confront the issues head-on, I was left wondering what on earth it was trying to say. Surely the message wasn’t supposed to be that the only way to have friends and lead a normal life is to overcome any “abnormal” condition and act like everyone else? But I’m not sure how else to interpret it.
Maybe such thematic shortcomings can be put down to missing scenes and chop-shop editing. But that doesn’t change the fact that Twin Mirror is an experience starving for substance, polish and identity. Next time I come to a place like Basswood, I hope I walk into a different bar.
Twin Mirror’s vision of modern America constantly stumbles into cliché and lacks the energy or determination to dig itself out. As an investigation game, it’s criminally under-plotted, and its ‘mind palace’ detective mode adds variety but little substance. Not one of Dontnod’s best.
- Some interesting visual representation of Sam’s internal processes
- Locations and characters lack personality
- Stuttering conversations and wooden character models
- No depth in the investigation routines
- A lot of underdeveloped plot strands and themes