Dontnod is a studio that stands out from the crowd – not just because of its excellent Life is Strange series, but because it’s a rare example of a team that doesn’t rest on its laurels. Instead, it hops from one new project to another, rarely sticking around on something established (again, Life is Strange) for too long. So it is we’re met with Twin Mirror, the newest narrative-driven title from the French team, in which the player controls an investigative journalist named Sam as he returns to his old home. There he revisits and relives memories of the past while trying to navigate the mystery surrounding a close friend’s passing – with all the twists, turns, and conversational decision-making you would expect.
While Twin Mirror eschews the supernatural elements of Dontnod’s prior releases, it does still step away from the norm with a couple of elements: Sam frequently enters his ‘mind palace’ to remember and relive memories, filling the player in on more information; and all the way he is accompanied by a shadowy alter-ego, visible only to Sam, who offers alternative viewpoints and approaches to situations as he sees fit. There’s certainly that air of Twin Peaks-ishness to things, if only slightly, but it’s enough to intrigue. “We tried to develop the story we wanted to tell by staging gameplay features that increase the immersion and build a synergy between narration and game actions,” explains Xavier Spinat, head of publishing at Dontnod. “During the game, Sam will face important choices, and the decision the player makes will change the course of his life.”
It’s all well and good putting choices into something, but they have to have meaning – and impact – for it to be something that resonates with players. “For a choice to be meaningful, we need to relate to the situation and understand what’s at stake,” says Hélène Henry, narrative director. “Having a setting that is grounded in reality with relatable characters helps build a more intuitive immersion, a quicker emotional connection between the player and our character, and allows us to focus on everything else.” She explains that by introducing Sam’s mind palace, the devs are still able to introduce “extraordinary elements and imaginary situations,” thus keeping players invested in a realistic setting with a tinge of fantastical to it.
The focus here isn’t on player skill or the mastery of anything particularly complex – Dontnod is firmly in the camp of Everyone Is A Player – but that’s not to say there’s no complexity. Twin Mirror doesn’t aim to be shallow. “Everything is linked, the gameplay system with the characters and their story and the player, their own experience and how they can possibly act and feel,” Henry says. “Creating a main character in a choice-based game is always tricky. You have to leave enough space for the player to put their own feelings and reasoning into the character, but you also need to create a character who is fleshed out enough to not be an empty shell. During the game, most of the player’s actions, dialogue choices, and interactions have some effect on how everything adjusts – other characters’ actions and reactions during several scenes – up until the end. To make sure that everything works, that all branching is coherent, you need a lot of iterations and testing.”
The need for more iterations and testing came about as development on Twin Mirror moved from episodic to a one-off, ‘full’ game experience. This was a decision Dontnod took itself, a luxury afforded to a studio behind the many-million selling Life is Strange, and one the team was keen to take advantage of. “Having episodes meant introducing partial endings and reopenings in the plot and it impacted the rhythm,” explains Florian Desforges, game director. “A psychological thriller, with a sense of unity in the location and time, works better as a single storyline rather than multiple pieces. It did require some adjustment in characters and events, but the game was, in our opinion, clarified and improved by all those changes.”
Twin Mirror has been four years in the making – though the initial idea popped up around 2015 – so has had a lot of work put into it. A lot of work, according to Spinat: “I wasn’t part of the original team that started the idea,” he says. “But I know that the game had to go through several stages to reach its final state. Shaping an actual game from a pure concept requires that a whole team, with various talents, all bring their expertise as building blocks for the whole project. The story, the gameplay, the art, the programming, the cinematic direction… everything needs to come together to make the game work properly. And even when the development team think they are done, user research and playtest still bring you new feedback and invaluable insights on how all elements need to be organised and balanced.
“So just counting how many months, and years, were spent in making a game hardly captures the complexity that goes into turning the seed of a game concept into a fully grown playable experience that can be enjoyed by our audience worldwide.”
Genre: Narrative | Format: PS4 / XBO / PC | Developer: Dontnod | Publisher: Bandai Namco | Release: 2020