Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Dontnod has become known for being a studio that tackles some pretty heavy topics. Life is Strange not only focused primarily on a relationship between queer characters, but it also blew up the philosophical trolley problem to a massive scale. Life is Strange 2 dealt with the experience of being a person of color in America, and how the law enforcement system isn’t built for everyone. Tell Me Why dove headfirst into not only the trans experience, but the experience of being an ex-convict, and more so a wrongfully accused one.
Their willingness to deal with these heavy topics tends to make me excuse a lot of their sloppy game design decisions. I have an ongoing joke where I refer to the point in Life is Strange where you had to find five bottles in a junkyard before you could proceed with the story as “Bottlefinder 5000.”
It’s basically the least compelling part of the game, a moment of brute force pixel-hunting busywork that separates one thoughtful piece of storytelling from another. Dontnod has a serious problem with Bottlefinder 5000. In fact, Tell Me Why put me in such an extended session of Bottlefinder 5000 that I put down the game in disgust, even though I was in the very last chapter.
Twin Mirror is an entire game of Bottlefinder 5000.
What is Twin Mirror about?
On paper, Twin Mirror is Dontnod’s attempt at creating a psychological mystery thriller. They basically wanted to make a more mature Phoenix Wright or Danganronpa, and that’s not a horrible idea in concept. But in practice, Dontnod fails to capture what makes these sorts of games fun, while also failing to capture what makes their own brand of heavy social commentary compelling.
You take on the role of Sam Higgs, an investigative journalist who returns to his hometown after his best friend dies. Sam once wrote a scathing article about the poor conditions miners had to suffer in this small West Virginian mining town, but in doing so he got the mine shut down and put most of the town out of work.
“Great!” I thought. “Dontnod is going to do a game about journalistic ethics and the plight of small America abandoned by the government and exploited by big business!”
Nope! This backstory really just serves as an excuse for most characters in town to treat Sam like a jerk, and that behavior serves to cover up the fact that these characters aren’t all that deep. Their dialogue is so awkward, they treat Sam like a stranger even though he ostensibly knows them from a long while ago, they never take realistic actions, and all of this is swept under the rug of Sam’s strained relationship with the town’s inhabitants.
Sam, himself, is pretty awkward too. He doesn’t do great in social situations and he thinks a bit differently than most people. He has an imaginary friend he talks to in order to compartmentalize his trauma, and he has a “mind-palace” where he goes to recreate crime scenes and think over evidence in excruciating detail. “Maybe Dontnod is going to make this game about mental illness,” I thought.
Nope! It falls into the same tired old “Autistic Superman” trope that TV shows like Sherlock do. Sam’s mental processes never quite factor into the story or into his personal relationships. Instead, they are portrayed as a sort of superpower that makes him super observant and smart. There are times when he is off in his mind palace, talking with his imaginary friend, right in the middle of a conversation with another character, and no one ever seems to notice. At times the game verges on something profound in the way that Sam’s second personality tries to guide him to make the less painful yet more cowardly choice, running away from the truth and doing whatever it takes to get others to like them, but even this character isn’t very internally consistent, ranging from a voice of doubt in one scene to an imaginary Watson style sidekick in the next.
So what is Twin Mirror actually about? The sad truth is… nothing much. It’s a fairly paint-by-numbers conspiracy thriller that doesn’t have a lot to say. It tries to push you through it’s run-time through plot twists, some of which you can see coming, some which actually took me by surprise, but since I never got to the point where I cared about Sam or this town, or its inhabitants, I never cared when someone turned out to not be what or who they seemed.
The revenge of Bottlefinder 5000
Frankly, a lot of Twin Mirror’s problems with its narrative are partially caused by problems with its gameplay. It is a slog. I was feeling fatigued right at the beginning and that fatigue never lifted through five-hour runtime.
You are supposed to be gathering evidence, interviewing suspects, and solving mysteries, but you really aren’t. What you are actually doing, as I said before, is Bottlefinder 5000. All you need to do to progress in most scenes is to examine the right objects and talk to the right people to get the plot moving forward. So, of course, that means you look at everything. You don’t solve puzzles or examine things with any sort of critical eye. You just examine everything until the plot moves on. Even worse, some things need to be examined sequentially, which means if you are stuck you have to go back and examine everything all over again.
There are points where Sam enters his mind-palace to recreate crime scenes, and while these certainly look impressive, it doesn’t actually require any sort of problem-solving. Sam can manipulate certain elements of the scene to try and come to the truth, but there is only one setup that works and lets you move on with the story. So again, you can just sort of brute force things, trying every combination until you can move on.
Dontnod is known for their “choice matters” style of gameplay, but frankly, it doesn’t. The choices you make in casual conversation over the course of the game don’t matter at all. They don’t have an effect on how the plot plays out, no matter how many times you go back and play it over again. At most, they will alter one or two lines of dialogue and that’s it. There are larger, more telegraphed decisions but even these rarely amount to any profound changes outside of the ending you get. There’s just not a whole lot of reason to go back and try a “different path.” What you see is what you get.
All of this is tied together with sporadic minigames which also aren’t very compelling. You’ll have a few chase sequences, some quick-time events, and a sequence that I can only generously describe as “mental zombie detective whack-a-mole.” But even then, I never felt like I was actually playing anything. I was just doing busy work before the game let the plot kick in again. Twin Mirror might as well be a walking simulator. You could take out every interactive bit and still get the major story beats without issue.
The uncanny valley
Twin Mirror’s presentation is also lacking, and despite a few really neat environments, it’s the least graphically impressive game that Dontnod has made yet. Those environments, by the way, are the portions of the game in Sam’s mind palace. Watching the world make and unmake itself as shards of reality come together to create the world around you is really cool.
And that’s literally it. That’s the only thing that looks good in the entire game. Models look off, falling right into the uncanny valley. Faces are not at all expressive. It feels like this game is using motion capture technology from a generation or two behind. Everyone moves in a stiff and unrealistic way, doing that weird shake and shimmy that NPCs do when they talk just to show that they have life in them. These characters do not look like or move like people and that is a shame.
It’s also a shame that they don’t sound like people either. The voice director must have been asleep at the wheel because there just isn’t the right emotion coming through in these performances. Sometimes voice actors will overact while their character does nothing at all. Sometimes their character will be flailing wildly while they speak with very little effect. Character introductions are handled with the same finesse as a middle-school play.
But once again these problems go hand in hand. It’s hard to tell if the characters don’t look like they should be saying what they are saying, or if they aren’t saying what they should be saying based on what their character is doing. It’s just clear that the animation and voice department weren’t talking with each other.
Frankly, there just isn’t a whole lot to like here. I’d loosely describe myself as a Dontnod fan. They built up a lot of goodwill with me through Life is Strange. But, Life is Strange this is not. Twin Mirror just falls so below the bar, even for Dontnod. In fact, it pales in comparison to the game they released earlier this year, Tell Me Why which, let me remind you, had so much Bottlefinder 5000 in it that I couldn’t finish its last chapter. I struggle to recommend this game to anyone, even Dontnod fans like myself. If you really want to experience every story Dontnod has to tell, just catch this one on Youtube. You can find a playthrough that edits out the busywork and loading times and be done in three hours or so.