Sponsored By

How The Expanse: A Telltale Series evolves the Telltale formula

Deck Nine Games game director Stephan Frost and actress Cara Gee discuss the process of adapting The Expanse into a Telltale-style adventure game.

Alessandro Fillari

June 1, 2023

7 Min Read
A screenshot from The Expanse: A Telltale Series showing protagonist Camina Drummer.

The upcoming adventure game The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a revival in more ways than one. Co-developed by Deck Nine Games – the creators of Life is Strange: True Colors and Before the Storm – and the new Telltale Games, it's a new adventure game adaptation of a cult TV series that had gone through its own resurrection, which is undoubtedly an appropriate pick for a debut game. But it's also the project that looks to re-establish a fan-favorite style of adventure game that revived a once-forgotten genre during the 2010s.

Announced at The Game Awards in 2021, The Expanse: A Telltale Series marks the debut of the sprawling universe of the sci-fi thriller TV series in the gaming medium. Focusing on the early years of fan-favorite Camina Drummer, the Telltale series sees her exploits as a scavenger in the belt, where she'll encounter vicious space raiders and backstabbing crewmates in remote areas of outer space.

It's a compelling setting for a choice-driven adventure series, and it's a promising start for the new era of Telltale Games. Just ahead of the upcoming release of episode 1 on July 27, I got to play the first episode of The Expanse, seeing those familiar and unexpected Telltale-style moments, and spoke with game director Stephan Frost and actress Cara Gee about bringing The Expanse universe to a video game.

Setting the Galactic Stage

For the uninitiated, The Expanse is a sci-fi TV series based on the novels by James S.A. Corey. The story focuses on humanity in the middle-term future as they colonize and explore the solar system. With different colonies and planets populated by humans, creating their own cultures and identities away from Earth, a brewing conflict amongst them puts the galaxy's fate at risk, which also uncovers evidence of a lost civilization that once lived in the universe before humanity.

The TV series focuses on the politics and society of the solar system's different factions, giving it a vibrant and dense universe with its history and lore. In many ways, it was the sci-fi equivalent to George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones, which also was adapted into a Telltale Games series. The Expanse initially ran for three seasons on the SyFy channel but suffered an unexpected cancellation. Eventually, the show was revived on Amazon Prime Video, completing its 6 season run on streaming.

According to the developers, when they secured the rights to make a video game adaptation for The Expanse from Alcon Entertainment, centering the game around Camina Drummer was at the top of their wish list and was also the only way they wanted to make the game. As a popular character with a largely unexplored backstory from both the novels and TV series, the team felt it was an exciting place to plant the main story for the Telltale series. The actress who played her in the TV series was also keen to revisit the universe, and she saw work for a video game adaptation as a "juicy acting project."

"It's been amazing revisiting this world and this character," said actress Cara Gee on reprising her role as Drummer. “The Expanse is a project that refuses to die; I feel like I will be playing Drummer until I'm 100. What I feel is so great about working on this game is that it holds itself to highly intellectual rigor.”

A screenshot from The Expanse: A Telltale Series. Camina Drummer examines a decapitated body.

“The science was correct, and the scripts and narrative were tight, and that was really important for me when it came to coming back to play this character during an earlier period of her life. It really made it easy for me to step into this new medium to play as Drummer once again. This was a really juicy acting project, and I'm proud of what we came up with."

The Telltale series is set in the early period of Drummer's life as a scavenger; we see her and the crew of the Artemis respond to a distress beacon for a ship that was attacked by a band of raiders. When exploring the ship, they see the devastation left behind as they find salvage and clues on what's happened. To further complicate matters, the episode begins with an in-media res moment with Drummer and crew escorting the captain to the airlock (to be jettisoned), adding a sense of dread and drama.

Reviving the Telltale format

When playing the first episode of The Expanse: A Telltale Series, it was clear that it stuck close to those familiar beats of exploration and investigation from the original Telltale's work on The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. Playing as Drummer, I got to explore the halls and ceilings of the ship via zero-g traversal, uncover diaries and other lore about the setting, and engage in key interactive decisions with other characters that trigger the familiar "X will remember that" prompt.

As the first Telltale Game in several years, it also updates much of the presentation and explorable space you would get to explore. When playing The Expanse, it was clear that the scope was massively increased compared to The Walking Dead series. One particular moment came when performing a spacewalk as Drummer. During this moment, you get to maneuver outside in space, exploring the ruined ships and seeing the insides, which feature some optional puzzles - all with the backdrop of Jupiter in the distance. This section was stunning, and it felt like something from a larger adventure game like Mass Effect, but here it was in a Telltale adventure.

A screenshot from The Expanse: A Telltale Series. Two

This upgrade was something that game director Stephan Frost wanted to inject into a Telltale game, and with co-developed coming from Deck Nine Games, it allowed The Expanse to leverage new technology and design work to flesh out its storytelling.

"If you look back at things, Telltale during the 2010s really inspired a lot of adventure games that came from other studios, like games with Life is Strange," said Frost. "We certainly want to lean into the classic Telltale experience, but with Deck Nine co-developing this, we're able to really enhance much of the emotional, character-driven storytelling because the technology that went into games like Life is Strange was really a big thing. We're using improved motion capture and having the actual actors from the show doing the work, and it really brings out the performances to make our story and adventure feel more grounded; it's like a new world for Telltale."

One of my favorite moments came during the midpoint of the scavenging trip. A fellow crew member is trapped between a door and a valuable cache of salvage. To safely remove the crewmember, Drummer would have to ditch the cargo, which would damage relations with the rest of the crew. But to keep the cargo, Drummer has to sever the crew member's leg to quickly secure the salvage, giving the rest of the crew something to walk away with from their dangerous trip. It's a harrowing moment that calls back to familiar Telltale-style critical decision-making but feels more potent given the expanded scope of The Expanse.

After spending some time with the game, I feel optimistic about the return of a Telltale experience with the new development studio. The Expanse is a great pairing for a Telltale adventure game series. Returning to the episodic model for its storytelling, with each episode dropping two weeks after its five-episode "season," it will bring back those periods where fans can talk amongst themselves about the events of each episode as they anticipate the drop of the next.

Deck Nine Games’ work on The Expanse shows an interesting direction for what might be the future of the new chapter of Telltale Games. The studio has managed to implement significant technological advances while preserving the style of interactive storytelling that turned the original studio into a household name.

Read more about:

Features

About the Author(s)

Alessandro Fillari

Contributor

Alessandro Fillari is a writer/editor who has covered the games, tech, and entertainment industries for more than 12 years. He is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like