Twin Mirror, the upcoming adventure game from the developers of Life Is Strange, is taking its brand of narrative adventuring to uncharted territory for the studio: the thriller. Thrillers are easy crowd-pleasers—they're tense like horror, but with a good mystery to solve. There's an art to the thriller; it's the genre filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma helped shape with the likes of Vertigo and Blow Out. It needs suspense. Intrigue. A compelling anti-hero to hook the viewer (or in this case player). Games have often tried and failed to be good thrillers. The Silent Hill series, which straddles the line between thriller and horror, and Alan Wake are perhaps the closest games we have to great thrillers.
Of course, games will always have moments of thrills. But what Twin Mirror's aiming for is something more specific: the cinematic thriller. During a recent hands-off demo showcasing the first 16-plus minutes of Twin Mirror, a spokesperson for Dontnod Entertainment narrating the demo specifies the filmic influence, but doesn't cite anything in particular.
The last time we saw Twin Mirror was two years ago. Since then, the interactive adventure has been massively overhauled. Its art style has matured; its biggest gameplay hook—the ability to enter the protagonist Sam Higgs's "Mind Palace," a crystalized environment that plays back Sam's memories—has been completely reimagined too. With this being Dontnod's first self-published title (for PC at least), it's clear it's taking the extra time to try and course correct the adventure.
Unfortunately, what I saw in the new hands-off demo wasn't especially compelling from the jump. It starts off with Sam driving into his old hometown, Basswood. He pauses at an overlook to reminisce about growing up in the town, and gets so lost in his thoughts reliving one of the hardest moments of his life that he misses attending the funeral of his best friend, Nick—the reason why he's back in town in the first place. The memory he's dwelling on? It's the time he proposed to his girlfriend, Anna, at this very spot, and she turned him down.
In the modern day, Sam's an investigative journalist. Naturally, he has a highly "analytical mind," or at least, that's what's used to justify why he comments on every interactive thing in the environment. In the narration, Dontnod promises that these nuggets of seemingly useless information—such as details on a bulletin board about a hiking trail—will all prove useful later on. One use for them comes after unlocking character bios, which is shown in the demo when Sam retreats to his glossy "Mind Palace" to relive his failed proposal. He unlocks two character bios after the flashback, including his ex's. Through interacting with random things around the environment, the player can unlock more detail to character biographies. For instance, Sam happens upon discovering where he and Anna once carved their names into a tree, updating her character bio. Filling out character bios in this fashion will be just one way to utilize all the information you discover.
"It's a place that means a lot to him," the Dontnod representative narrates, regarding the setting of Basswood. "A place that holds a bunch of memories; some good, some not so good. This is Basswood. It's a fictional town but it's very much rooted in the gritty reality of contemporary smalltown America." Basswood's a town that once bustled with a mining industry, but nowadays, just sorta exists. Such is the fate with most small towns.
The demo's first face to face, non-flashback conversation comes toward the end of the demo. When he finally arrives at the wake, he runs into his goddaughter, Joan. The two discuss her dad, and she raises one big suspicion: He drove really slow all the time, she alleges, so it makes no sense for him to die in a car crash. She wants Sam, being that he's an investigative journalist, to look into it. It's here where the demo introduces us to two new elements beyond simple dialogue choices: The Double, and the more typical big story-shifting choices.
The Double is a man with glasses that only Sam can see. He's essentially a figment of his imagination, or perhaps a manifestation of his inner monologues. As Dontnod describes it, he's mostly just his alter ego. "The Double helps Sam make it through social situations that he isn't able to navigate on his own," narrates Dontnod. "He's always there to offer alternative viewpoints for Sam to consider when he has a big decision to make." The choice in this situation is whether Sam should be open about fielding Joan's request, or not. Either way, it impacts his relationship with her for the rest of the game.
All told, it's shaping up to be very Dontnod-y, despite its slow start. Sam is constantly having his own internal monologue with whatever he's observing. The few scenes in the demo where Sam interacts with someone other than himself are awkward in that charmingly awkward Dontnod way. (When his girlfriend is shocked by his proposal, Sam says, "You look like I just ran over your grandma," which made me laugh. I don't think that was the intended effect.) The promising catch here is that all this exploring will seemingly serve a bigger purpose than its past games, but I wasn't able to witness any of that firsthand in the demo.
My time watching Twin Mirror reminded me the most of another brand of adventure thrillers and dramas: The games of Quantic Dream. This is a comparison that will likely get some groans, but perhaps Dontnod is better suited to this kind of adventure game than Quantic Dream ever was. Y'know, with the ill-advised racism-but-with-androids direction of Detroit: Become Human, and the unintentional laugh-out-loud silliness of Heavy Rain. Dontnod's Life Is Strange 1 and 2 are great at effectively handling drama, and I'm sure Twin Mirror can prove itself—if it manages to make its central mystery and character actually interesting. And maybe, even if Twin Mirror isn't successful as a thriller, it'll be at least entertaining in the way Heavy Rain is. We'll see soon enough when Twin Mirror releases in 2020 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.