Crossroads stories have their roots in gamebooks, works in which the reader has the opportunity to actively participate in the plot, making choices that determine narrative developments and endings based on the path that has been taken. Although this literary genre has been around since the 1940s, it was in the '70s and '80s that it entered a truly golden age, actively helping define a new medium that was advancing at the same time: the video game. In fact, video games and the gamebook have a lot in common, after all, they are both interactive entertainment wherein the user - be they a player or reader - takes on a central role. It's he or she who determines, based on their actions, the progress of the story. That said, it's worth remembering that there's a predefined path, decided in advance by the author of the story. This is what is called the "illusion of choice", and it makes this kind of experience more immersive and captivating than a simple story.
In recent years, many development studios have worked on this aspect of interactive storytelling, giving us the aforementioned illusion of control, but one studio that has distinguished itself in this regard is Dontnod. After tormenting us with complex choices in Life is Strange (and its sequel, Life is Strange 2) and questioning our morality in Vampyr, the French studio is ready to give us an exciting new adventure called Twin Mirror, an intriguing psychological thriller that also represents a sort of summary of the developer's previous works. Announced for the very first time in 2018, up until recently we still didn't know much about it, except for some sporadic information shared over the last two years. Recently, however, I had the opportunity to attend a short demo that let us explore the game's mechanics and plot more deeply. If the promise offered during this fleeting glance is an accurate indication of what we're going to get, I can't wait to try the finished game. But let's start from the beginning.
The action takes place in Basswood, West Virginia. Basswood is a fictitious town, famous mainly for its mines, and it's the town that Sam, our protagonist, fled from years before. He's returning for the funeral of his best friend, Nick, who died following a car accident. Sam is not happy about this homecoming, and not only because of the tragic events that forced him back but also because of the many sad memories he has that are linked to this place. Straight away in the demo, which also represents the introductory minutes of the game, Dontnod shows its talent by offering us an opener with plenty of cinematic flavour. By showing us various details and via the careful use of long shots and close-ups, accompanied by a skilful soundtrack that fits the atmosphere, the French studio quickly had me immersed.
Sam is a troubled man, a former investigative reporter who has left everything behind following a difficult situation. He has an extraordinary analytical mind, which allows him to pick up clues that seemingly have no connection to each other, putting them together to arrive at key conclusions. Memories are also important for Sam - in fact, he is endowed with an amazing memory (a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view) that allows him to keep track of crucial information. To process everything, Sam uses his Mind Palace, which is one of the defining mechanics in the game. This memory technique, which has its roots in Ancient Greece, allows him to access a sort of mental database that contains all his memories and details about the people he meets.
During the demo, I got a first taste of this mechanic. Arriving at the promontory overlooking Basswood just before going to Nick's wake, Sam runs into a pair of stationary binoculars, thus activating a memory. It was there, in front of those binoculars, that he asked Anna, his ex-girlfriend, to marry him. However, the proposal didn't go to plan, a pain that caused Sam to leave the town and start a new life elsewhere. This painful memory, however, also activates a new feature, known as Memento, which can be accessed from the Pause Menu. This is a section of Sam's memories that relates to collectibles that he can find by exploring the environment (in this instance it's a heart carved on a tree with their initials). Once found, it's then possible to access the Memento, at which point I discovered the backstory linked to that particular object.
Another feature in Twin Mirror is the Double, which also represents one of the main mechanics in the game. The Double is a sort of alter-ego, the voice of Sam's subconscious that only he can hear, and who appears in situations where Sam has to make important decisions. These choices have an important impact on the narrative, as they also influence his relationships with other characters. To give you an example, I saw a sequence where Sam meets Nick's 13-year-old daughter and his goddaughter, Joan. The man glimpses the girl, who approaches him and asks that they speak in private.
The two get into Sam's car and have a discussion, during which Joan accuses him of completely disappearing after leaving Basswood, abandoning his most important relationships, starting with her and her father, Nick. After that sad discussion, Joan opens up and says she has suspicions about the accident involving her father, also because, as she says smiling, he used to drive like a grandma, and there are doubts about the accident. Given his past as an investigative reporter, Joan thus asks Sam for help investigating what happened so they can try to make sense of Nick's death. And that's exactly where the Double appears, freezing Joan and time.
The Double speaks to Sam and leads him to reflect on whether or not he should accept the request to help her, a choice that will have a decisive impact on the course of the story and on their relationship. In the case of the demo, Sam decides not to help her and this, of course, will have consequences for his future relationship with Joan, who is disappointed by the attitude of her godfather to the point that she decides to leave. And there endeth the demo.
There is one interesting aspect that Dontnod pushed in this presentation, which is the fact that there are no right or wrong decisions in Twin Mirror. It's all in the player's hands, and it's the player who chooses their path through the game, without ever being really judged for it. This is an area where the studio has already shown its ability in the past, giving the user free rein to build their own story (or rather giving them the illusion of building their own story...) based on his or her state of mind. It will be really interesting to find out how much these choices really impact events in the final game.
Compared to Life is Strange 1/2 and Vampyr, I noticed a certain stylistic maturity. You can tell that Dontnod has studied cinema, opting for a more refined visual style that's characterised by shades of noir. Impactful shots and strong narrative pacing look like they will make the experience even more cinematic. I saw the game played on a PC, and while it's still a work-in-progress, I'm feeling really enthusiastic about what I've seen. Technically, Twin Mirror has certainly taken decisive steps forward compared to Dontnod games of the past; the slightly wooden animations of previous titles are now much more fluid and natural, and the use of light and visual effects is also accurate and detailed.
I was very impressed by this small fragment of Twin Mirror. The choice-based mechanics are made more complex by the presence of the Double and the Mind Palace, and it looks like it will offer an intriguing story - all reasons why I can't wait for the game to land on PC, PS4 and Xbox One later this year. At the time of writing, we don't have a release date just yet, but after this demo, I look forward to being reunited with Sam, discovering more about this life while trying to solve the mysteries surrounding Basswood, West Virginia.
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