It wasn’t too much of a surprise to hear that developer Telltale was coming back with an episodic game based on SyFy and Amazon’s popular sci-fi series The Expanse. Before it was shut down and revived, Telltale made a name for itself on such licensed games. What was much more intriguing to me was that Deck Nine Games, the studio behind 2021’s excellent Life is Strange: True Colorswas handling the development of the project and that it was looking to expand the world of The Expanse by revealing the backstory of one of its most mysterious characters while expanding the gameplay possibilities that a Telltale-style narrative adventure game can provide.
That’s why I was excited to get a chance to play The Expanse: A Telltale Series early at an event and speak to Cara Gee, the actress behind the game’s main character Carmina Drummer, as well as its game director Stephan Frost. What I discovered was an experience that feels faithful to both classic narrative adventure games and The Expansewhile also feeling a bit like Dead Space.
Perfecting the Telltale formula
The Expanse is a hit television show based on a series of sci-fi books. While it’s not as popular as the likes of Star Wars or Star Trekit has a passionate fanbase who adore its more realistic take on the physics and politics that would be more likely to play out if humanity ever managed to populate Mars and the Asteroid Belt. As the series progresses, it does learn harder and harder into the sci-fi elements with a powerful Protomolcule, aliens, and eventually Ring Gates that allow people to travel far around the galaxy.
But this The Expanse game comes before all that. It’s set before the first season of the TV show (Frost tells Digital Trends this is based on the show’s canon and not the books) and follows a character named Carmina Drummer, played by an actress named Cara Gee in both the show and the game. Drummer first appears in the show as the stoic assistant to OPA leader Fred Johnson on Tycho Station.
As her character is an amalgamation of a few different characters in the books and her backstory was never delved into that much in the show, she was Deck Nine’s first choice for making a The Expanse game. Gee was convinced to join the project after director Stephan Frost walked her through the story and asked her to make choices as if they were playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
“Frost basically walked me through the story like we were playing D&D,” Gee tells Digital Trends. “I would get to a point, and I would have to make a choice, and it was really hard to make the choices, like perfectly agonizing. It’s a super cool way to experience this story, and I was totally on board as I wanted to make a thing where people could have that same experience with this story.”
Frost tells Digital Trends this is something he did with new members of the development team. The story follows Carmina Drummer as she works with, and eventually takes control of, the scavenger crew on a ship called the Artemis. It’s a bit of a space pirate adventure, although the game does have a darker tone than that kind of description suggests. In the first episode of The Expanse: A Telltale Serieswhich we played, Drummer gets reacquainted with her crew before exploring the bloodied wreckage of a ship from Earth.
It’s unfortunate that Deck Nine’s narrative team suffered layoffs last month, as they did a great job capturing the tone of The Expanse and crafting some tough choices for players to make. The first episode’s most critical decisions are whether or not Drummer should punch one of her crew members when they are disrespectful and whether or not she is willing to sacrifice another Artemis crew member’s leg to get more treasure after they get stuck.
These seem like somewhat small decisions at the time they happen but become critically important at the end of the episode, as Drummer has to convince her crewmates that she was left for dead by the Artemis’ captain and that she needs to take control of the ship. Even though I’d punched the crew member that was out of line, I still managed to convince them to take my side, as I’d prioritized the safety of the injured crewmate over any potential treasure. The episode ended with the choice to space or jail the captain. I killed him by releasing him into space during this demo, but I did feel weird about it afterward, so I may keep him alive when I play the final version of this game.
Through and through, this is very much a narrative adventure game in the style of Telltale’s classics. Whether you’re a fan of The Expanse or just Telltale’s formula, you can find something to enjoy here. And while Deck Nine could’ve stopped there and made the choices the only real interesting thing about The Expanse: A Telltale Seriesthey went a step further, adding zero gravity sections that feel more like Dead Space than The Wolf Among Us.
Evolving the Telltale formula
Pushing the classic Telltale formula in intriguing ways is necessary for the narrative adventure game genre to evolve in survive. In particular, a chapter in Deck Nine’s Life is Strange: True Colorswhere its dialogue choices and conversations are transformed into Final Fantasy-inspired turn-based battles, tease the possibilities of what these kinds of games can accomplish. In The Expanse: A Telltale Series’ case, that uniqueness comes from those zero-G sections.
Gravity is such an important component to the show …
Once the expedition to that wreckage begins, players are left to float through space as they explore it. If there’s a specific area that players want to analyze more deeply, players can then land on it and walk on its walls and roof with the help of Mag-Boots. Gravity will play a key role in the gameplay of The Expanse: A Telltale Serieswith Stephan Frost telling Digital Trends that it was a must to make that intrinsic to this game.
“When you’re making a video game story for an intellectual property with rules for its world that already exist, you have to think about what’s cool about being in that world and what a player would want to interact with,” Frosts says. “Gravity is such an important component to the show that it would almost feel missing if you played a The Expanse game in space that didn’t have zero-G.”
Everyone on this ship was brutally murdered, too, with their heads chopped off, so exploring is a pretty tense and creepy experience. While it lacks any of the combat and more terrifying moments of Dead Spaceit certainly felt a lot like I was playing EA Motive’s excellent remake as I floated through space in zero-G and saw the aftermath of a horrifying event that I’m mostly in the dark about. It’s a killer combination and works just as well as Life is Strange: True Colors’ RPG chapter.
Walking on the walls or ceilings of areas or simply floating through a ship while looking for something provided a gameplay experience than I’ve ever gotten from a narrative adventure game before. Working on this game was also a very different experience for Cara Gee, who had to tap into her background in theater as she couldn’t act as still and stoic during motion capture.
“I come from a background of working in theater, and that’s head to toe the whole time,” Gee explains. “You have to have this full body awareness, and that’s the same body awareness that you need in the motion capture volume … Drummer, in particular, is a really still character, but if you try to do something that is still-looking in a game, it looks like a glitch. You have to have a little bit of movement for the character to feel alive.”
Thankfully, Drummer does not look weird and stilted in the game. While it’s definitely a bit stylized, this game looks and animates a lot better than many of Telltale’s classic titles. That reinforces that we’re seeing the classic Telltale formula evolve here. While that developer’s games felt formulaic in the company’s final years, this game demonstrates that by choosing the right IPs and getting the most potential possible out of them, narrative adventure games can feel just as intriguing and tense as something like Dead Space.
The first episode of The Expanse: A Telltale Series will be released on July 27 for PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S. New episodes will be released every two weeks after that, which the developers tell Digital Trends is to emulate the feel of a TV show, like the one this game is based on.
Disclosure: Telltale Games and PR agency Tara Bruno PR paid for travel and accommodations so that Digital Trends could participate in this preview event in Los Angeles. This did not influence Digital Trends’ coverage of the game