Twin Mirror Review
On reflection, maybe not
Twin Mirror is a choose-your-own-adventure investigation game where you play as a man trying to unravel the truth as to why his former best friend and co-worker died in a mysterious car accident in their hometown. From the team at Dontnod, responsible for the memorable narratives of the Life is Strange series, you would expect an emotionally engaging story with interesting pivots and choices to make. Disappointingly, I found that to be far from the case in Twin Mirror.
You play as Sam Higgins, who has returned to the fictional town of Basswood, West Virginia in 2015 for a funeral. It’s your first time back to your hometown in two years, as you wrote an exposé for the local paper about how one of Basswood’s mining companies ignored safety protocol for its employees, leading to your ex-girlfriend’s father losing his legs and the mining company shutting down. Many in the town blame Sam for the economic depression hitting Basswood. Furthermore, other characters — including Sam’s ex-girlfriend — feel that Sam abandoned them when he left town, riddled with his own guilt. On top of that, Sam has an unspecified — though it’s strongly hinted that it’s autism — neurological disorder which gives him two special abilities: a “mind-palace,” where he can stop time in his mind and take time to analyse a situation, and a doppelgȁnger version of himself. This double of Sam pops into scenes unsolicitedly to give Sam — and therefore the player — advice on empathy and which dialogue options to choose. The game is juggling quite a few narrative balls, and that’s before it decides to inject the heavy topic of the opioid crisis into its story.
To put it bluntly, the Sam double is an annoying and charmless plot device, who deadens the drama in conversational scenes by preventing any sort of flow. Rather than letting the player listen to a conversation and decide what they think they want to say, he has to opine on very basic human psychology and over-explain any potential dramatic subtext. It reminds me a lot of Counselor Troi, the controversial empath character from Star Trek: The Next Generation whose only function in the show was to outline basic human emotions because the show’s writers couldn’t figure out how to get those emotions across dramatically with their writing. Sam himself is rather generic and delivers lines in a flat monotone, and the characters in scenes rarely seem to register what other characters are saying. There are even basic story editing mistakes. I’ll give an example. Very early on in the game, we meet a character in a pharmacy, and the camera cuts to a close-up of this character sneaking a pill from a bottle. Later on, another character says that they suspect that this other character is secretly stealing and abusing drugs, and our main character has the option to be doubtful about it. No matter the choice, we later find the pill bottle and Sam says something to the effect of, “Wow, I guess they weren’t lying. This person really is abusing drugs!” But we already watched them take the drugs hours ago! It would be easy to let moments like these slide if there were anything more to the gameplay than conversations and minor investigation sequences.
To progress in Twin Mirror, you’re either having conversations with characters or solving scenes in your mind palace by finding all the clues you can find in a scene. Once you find enough clues, you can arrange the sequence in your head in which they followed one another, but this is a game that mostly plays itself. When you’re investigating scenes for clues — the most active gameplay there is in Twin Mirror — you often can’t access certain bits of the scene until you’ve accessed others, even if it’s painfully obvious which objects and parts of the environment are important to your investigation and why, you have to wade through extraneous clues and dialogue until they unlock. This makes the investigations feel more like pixel hunts, devoid of context. Other times, you’ll find what looks like a mild or innocuous clue, and Sam will make a massive leap of logic to explain something that you could have never figured out from looking. It all feels disconnected from player input. There are a couple characters I liked — Sam’s best friends’ daughter and his ex-girlfriend’s father — and I angled my playthrough to do the best by them. However, so much of the game’s portrayal of its unique setting feels like a wasted opportunity.
The main street of Basstown is well drawn, and certain environments — the bar in the game’s opening scenes, a scenic overlook, a pedestrian main street — are beautiful, but the animations feel antiquated and hamper any immersive potential. The characters of Twin Mirror live squarely in the uncanny valley, and their faces — especially their mouths — lack expression. Gone is the color and autumnal, moody emotion of Life is Strange. The characters in Life is Strange were stylised and memorable, and full of chemistry, so I wonder if the move to a more photorealistic setting is the reason for this. The game is brief and there are relatively few scenes, and it feels like entire storylines that were hinted at at the beginning of the game were just dropped at some point. For instance, everyone on Basswood’s main street is excited for the big Mining Day parade at the beginning of the story, so you would expect that to be a scene in the game. Surprisingly, it is not. This would be more forgivable if the main story was gripping and focused, but it’s both indelicate and inert. Economic depression, addiction, and poverty are more of a background setting than a subject being explored with empathy, and Sam makes a shocking, disturbingly mean choice with regards to an unhoused person at one point in the story. It’s one of the game’s many “choices” that the player has no agency over, either. For a game set in the American South in 2015, there is little in the way of political context. I would go as far to say that the game is stunningly apolitical, and — no matter which ending you get or choices you make — it ascribes the problem of opioid abuse to a few individuals led astray rather than a decades-long pervasive problem inflicted by one of the most insidious corporations in American history. Sam’s neurological disorder is both vague and filled with post-Rain Man tropes. It’s also inconsistent. Some characters around town know that Sam is….off?...and bring it up and talk to him about it, and then at other points in the story Sam acts like it is a big secret that he keeps from people. The story’s climax has a twist that is so telegraphed, I was left agape that it was where the game ended. The player is always ahead of the game in terms of plot moves.
Technically, the game is an absolute mess. I had some many strange and significantly annoying bugs during my PS5 playthrough. Shortly after I began playing the game, I experienced a bug where the game would exit to the main menu after a single line of dialogue, after going through the loading and starting screens to boot the game back up. I couldn’t get rid of it, so I uninstalled and reinstalled the game, and it worked fine until I exited and rebooted the game once more. The problem reared its ugly head again, so I uninstalled and reinstalled the game and then finished it in one go, in hopes that I could finish the game before the problem arose again. There was egregious pop-in, with scenes going on while characters’ faces didn’t have the textures loaded in yet. Frequently, when the camera would switch angles the entire background was missing behind a character, or the surrounding interior hadn’t loaded in. There were also severe loading times — the longest I’ve yet to experience on PS5 — whenever I travelled from inside to outside or from one scene to the next. Each area is small and self-contained, so I couldn’t figure out what was taking so long. As a game that consists entirely of dialogue and staring at these characters, it really does affect how the game feels and plays.
It’s sad to say that Twin Mirror is probably my most disappointing play of 2020. From the joyless, cliched story to the annoying, unlikable characters, it’s a game that made me feel anxious to sit through. Twin Mirror offers little to the player in terms of choices to make, and it doesn’t seem to have much on its mind about the very prescient topics it chooses to depict. I certainly don’t see the society that I live in reflected in Twin Mirror.
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