The grizzled journalist returning to their rural home town and becoming enmeshed in a dark mystery is a familiar theme in thriller movies and novels. Twin Mirror – equal parts psychological mystery thriller and narrative adventure – is a compelling interactive take on the genre.
Playing as investigative reporter Sam Higgs, you go back to Basswood, West Virginia, where you’re not exactly popular with the locals, and end up having to untangle the town’s secrets. As well as finding and analysing clues, you’re also in control of how Sam interacts with other people through a range of dialogue choices.
These narrative sequences are the game’s highlight – no real surprise given Twin Mirror comes from Dontnod Entertainment, the French studio that gave us acclaimed adventures Life Is Strange and Tell Me Why. In the game’s tight, eight-hour run time, some of these choices aren’t given much room to breathe, but the relentless pace ties into the dark psychological tone it is aiming for, and, while it loses some moments in the rush, overall the story ties together well.
The detective element of the game can slow this pace dramatically, especially if you’re not that good at it. You need to be incredibly precise when looking for clues – often hovering over an item won’t let you select it; you have to circle back and try again, this time able to interact. You can’t ever make a best guess, either. Sam needs every piece of information available to him before he’ll even begin to posit a theory.
Early on in the game you must recreate a bar brawl in your mind by examining various clues: blood splatter, broken glass etc. It didn’t take me long to solve it, but I couldn’t progress, and the game didn’t really let me know why. Eventually, I discovered I had to interact with a hat on the other side of the room, only for Sam to examine it and remark, “This probably isn’t connected to the fight”, then immediately launch into recreating the scene using clues I’d already discovered. There’s no pity mechanic either; Sam will never say anything like, “I wonder if there’s something I missed over by that tree ... hint hint.” If you’re stuck, you’re stuck.
It’s worth remembering, though, that Twin Mirror is not a detective sim. It’s a narrative game that features some detection. While the mechanics can be frustrating, the narrative itself is what propels it, and it’s sturdy enough to withstand the little niggles that come with clue spotting.
While nothing is as brave as Life Is Strange 2’s most harrowing depictions of racism, Twin Mirror is more bold in its themes than a lot of games are prepared to be. It presents a story with many villains but no real heroes. If you’re familiar with Dontnod’s work, you’ll find a lot of consistency with their approach, and a few departures: some work, some don’t. The use of a mature protagonist is the most obvious move away from Dontnod’s typical troubled teens, and Sam’s world-weariness is essential for the story. He isn’t particularly likable, and you’ll often be required to take upsetting actions, but he is well-suited to the game’s moral universe. Meanwhile, the game’s youngest character, Joan, is its most fascinating, but she is often excluded.
Entering Sam’s Mind Palace, where time freezes and he can piece together those hard-to-find clues, is the game’s most intriguing flourish. There’s a distinct Sherlock Holmes feel to this feature, with the solutions both frantic yet incisive. It’s far more interesting than combing through areas for tiny specks of evidence, and perhaps could have taken more of a front seat.
Sam also has an imaginary friend who looks like him, referred to only as Him or The Double. This Tyler Durden-esque creation is painted as a harmless narrative device at first rather than any mental illness, acting as a way for Sam to express his thoughts. Most of the time when Sam talks to The Double he’s not really talking. But sometimes he is, and other characters will react to Sam’s erratic behaviour. This is never explained, it’s not as effective at showing Sam’s inner workings as his Mind Palace, and doesn’t really add much.
The gameplay is occasionally wonky, some of the more elaborate storytelling devices don’t land, and Sam is (deliberately) unlikable. However, Twin Mirror has a powerful story and it puts you in direct control of where it leads. If you play your narrative adventures for the narrative, Twin Mirror has the plotline for you.
• Twin Mirror is out now; £24.99.