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Dontnod's Twin Mirror swaps out the supernatural for a detective story grounded in reality

Twin Mirror
(Image credit: Dontnod)

It's been several years since Life is Strange developers Dontnod first teased Twin Mirror, a detective drama set in a small town in West Virginia. It's the studio's first self-published game, and fits in nicely with Dontnod's previous games: there's a mystery to be solved and you'll need to get to the bottom of it, usually with a supernatural twist. But Twin Mirror is a bit different. Time travel, bloodthirsty vampires, telepathy, and telekinesis have all been left by the wayside in favour of a gritty, psychological thriller that's grounded in reality—at least, that's what Dontnod is aiming for.  

Twin Mirror follows Sam Higgs, a former investigative journalist returning to his home town following the death of his best friend and fellow reporter, Nick Waldron. It isn't long before Sam gets caught up in a bigger conspiracy involving the mining town's community, and he decides to follow the case until the end, which leads him deeper into the underlying secrets of his childhood home. During the investigation, Sam is accompanied by his 'double', an identical twin who resides in his mind and occasionally chats with Sam about what he should do next. 

(Image credit: Dontnod)

After playing through the preview,  it's obvious Dontnod has made some major changes since Twin Mirror's first announcement back in 2016. For starters, the game has gotten a general glow up, making it of the best looking games that the studio has released. The mining town of Basswood is hidden away in a West Virginian mountainscape, surrounded by trees and wildlife. The unglamorous surroundings are a joy to explore and everywhere from its dingy dive bars and cheap hotel rooms is packed with information about Basswood's residents and the tough times the community has been through. Dontnod's love for small-town America is out in full force, next to Life is Strange's sleepy Oregon town and Tell Me Why's frozen Alaskan wilderness.

A particular place that has been given a big overhaul is Sam's 'mind palace,' a place inside his head that he uses for piecing together clues, analysing scenes, and recreating events in his mind. It's a beautiful environment that looks like it's built from hundreds of shards of broken glass, and as Sam explores Basswood, you can explore the mind palace and watch his old memories built from the environment's broken pieces.

When Sam enters his mind palace he loses track of time, and at the beginning of the game, he actually misses Nick's funeral due to his brooding. Luckily, he can still make it in time for the wake and arrives at the gathering to a not so approving crowd of Basswood folk. Emotions are high from the funeral, but it turns out that the stingy welcome Sam receives has its roots in an event that happened two years prior. Sam wrote an article exposing the lack of safety measures in the town's mine, causing it to shut down, leaving many people jobless, and pretty angry. Afterwards, Sam left, but the people of Basswood, as one of the characters puts it, have "short fuses and long memories."

(Image credit: Dontnod)

There's bad blood brewing, and this is where Dontnod's gritty reality-based story comes into play. After Sam arrives at the wake, Nick's daughter, and Sam's own goddaughter, confides in him that she thinks something about her father's death feels off. Caught up in the web of the town's history and a conspiracy surrounding his dead friend, Sam agrees to investigate. I'm really liking the set-up for this small-town mystery and, so-far, Twin Mirror's story definitely has me hooked.

The investigation follows the same structure as previous Dontnod games. You're introduced to a new area, where you walk, examine stuff and chat with people in an attempt to find evidence. I've really liked this mechanic in the studio's other games, and it always seemed like it would work seamlessly with a hard-boiled detective tale, but in Twin Mirror, evidence gathering is far from streamlined. The main issue is that you need to find evidence in a certain order, meaning that you'll be doing multiple laps of the same scene until you discover things at the right time. It's not ideal when you spot a smashed glass on the floor and Sam deliberately overlooks it.

(Image credit: Dontnod)

This lacklustre part of the process is a shame because after you've gathered all the evidence, the reconstruction mini-game using Sam's mind palace is really cool. Using all the information you've found, Sam will begin to recreate a timeline of events in the beautifully broken glass-style of his mind palace. Even though the re-creation mechanic has become a bit of a standard in many detective games, Twin Mirror's interpretation stands out, and there's a coherence to how Sam draws upon memories and re-creates crime scenes. It feels like all conclusions come from the same analytical mind.

Although the mind palace is a place for Sam to work his investigatory magic, it's also a place that he retreats to when he gets stressed or overwhelmed. When this happens, you need to play through a number of mini-games to help Sam calm down. These sequences are great for adding a bit of drama after scenes of evidence gathering. 

Another part of Sam's mind is his 'twin', another aspect that has changed since Dontnod's teasers. Instead of a dapper, wise-ass, he's more subdued, although still has plenty of sassy comments to throw about. Sam's alter ego pops up at key moments in the game that have you making important decisions, with choices that impact the rest of the game. His suggestions often reflect a more protective side of Sam, trying to keep him out of more trouble or encouraging him to open up to someone. Dontnod describes him as the "more emphatic and social" part of Sam, but it's difficult to grapple exactly what he is, and I think Dontnod is being deliberately coy about it.

Since Dontnod's introduction of Sam's 'second personality' or 'alter ego' back in 2016, I've been super hesitant about how the studio was going to represent a character with dual personalities without being problematic or insensitive. Dontnod is a studio that's celebrated because it explores inclusive themes, but the relationship between Sam and his twin isn't crystal clear. After playing the preview it's definitely not the Jekyll and Hyde situation I was initially wary of, but Twin Mirror goes out of its way multiple times to show that Sam is on medication, so I'm still sceptical about what direction the game is going regarding his twin.

(Image credit: Dontnod)

I'm still invested in Twin Mirror's detective tale and I'm keen to explore more of Basswood and uncover it's secrets, but I'm still very wary of Sam's double. I'm sure that the situation behind this alter ego will come to light, I just hope that Dontnod has a firm grasp on the topics it's grappling with. Twin Mirror will release on December 1 on the Epic Games Store.  

Rachel Watts

Part of PC Gamer's UK team, Rachel loves a good ol' detective mystery, story-rich adventure games, and weirdly wonderful indies. Her proudest gaming moment is the one time she kept her virtual potted plants alive for a year.