As a massive lover of all things space, I was thrilled to finally get my hands on the first chapter of The Expanse: A Telltale Series. Telltale made its name by delivering an authentic take on The Walking Dead at a time when the franchise was at the height of its popularity. The team working on The Expanse is different from the old Telltale–the studio has partnered with Deck Nine, developers of Life is Strange: True Colors, giving The Expanse series a good chance of hitting the narrative highs it needs to. Gameplay, however, initially had me a little worried. The upcoming sci-fi adventure gives players much more physical freedom than the studio’s previous offerings, allowing them to roam, run, and float through zero-g environments and explore at their leisure–a potentially daunting task from a technical perspective. Although The Expanse’s enormous universe offers plenty of material for great storytelling, the game could easily become messy if not handled with care.
With fan-favorite Camina Drummer as its main character, The Expanse: A Telltale Series is already in a great position from a narrative perspective. Both studios have created immersive, stunning games over the years, but The Expanse is new territory for Telltale when it comes to both gameplay and story. The game sees a beloved character from a visually stunning sci-fi franchise with firmly established lore get a prequel to fill in her sparse backstory–a concept that certainly holds promise. After diving into the first episode of the game itself and speaking to some of its creators, it seems Telltale is thoroughly committed to telling Drummer’s backstory in a way that will please fans of both the books and the television series.
“At every level of the team, everyone cares about story first,” Deck Nine art director Emerson Oaks told me. “We’re super focused on telling the story, respecting the characters, and making the game as good as we can within those boundaries. That’s the kind of lens that [the narrative team] is looking at the game through.”
Episode One encompasses every event featured in the initial launch trailer, and it’s not pulling any punches. The year is 2327, and Drummer–voiced by Cara Gee, the same actress who played her on The Expanse television show–is the executive officer aboard The Artemis, a salvage ship operated by a crew with wildly varying personalities and motivations. Similar to the television show, the game sees tension between characters of different backgrounds immediately bubble to the surface, with each character’s status as an Earther, a Martian, or a Belter informing the way they relate to their fellow crewmates. The Artemis’ crew is led by Captain Garrison Cox, a gruff former U.N.N. military man who game director Stephan Frost tells me was inspired by “some gaming executives I’ve met.” Also aboard is Khan, the ship’s sarcastic elderly pilot (though she’d almost certainly leave a cigar hole in your vac-suit if she heard you refer to her as such), a pair of twins named Arlen and Rayen Morozov, ship medic Virgil Marks, and mechanic Maya Castillo.
Like Drummer, the Morozov twins’ Belter status is clearly stated in one of the game’s codex entries, but other crew members’ backgrounds aren’t explicitly spelled out, forcing players to pay close attention if they don’t want their interactions with these characters to go awry. Cox, Khan, and Virgil are all “Inners”–a Belter term for individuals who originated from Earth and Luna (though Martians are sometimes included in this category). The only Martian aboard is Maya, the character with whom Drummer appears to be closest to emotionally.
The initial scenario is a familiar one: A U.N.N. ship, the Urshanabi, went dark a few days ago, with no distress beacon activated. The Artemis’ crew have stumbled upon the ship’s wreckage and aim to scavenge it for goods, which are likely to be plentiful on a military ship. Food, necessities, and morale are all in short supply, but the Urshanabi’s wreckage is the solution to the Artemis’ interstellar woes: This salvage is to be the crew’s last job, and according to Cox, once the job is done, “We’re all gonna be f***ing rich.”
Ultimately, riches and relaxation prove to be an elusive goal. The Urshanabi job goes sideways in very short order, and survival quickly takes precedence. Though episode one’s overall playtime is a bit short–it only took me about an hour and 20 minutes to finish it–the game’s debut episode still manages to put the fate of two crew members directly into Drummer’s hands. Fans of Telltale’s “Do I or don’t I?” decision-making challenges will certainly not be let down–the game’s atmosphere had me second-guessing myself almost immediately, and the added conflict between Belters, Earthers, and Martians layered on an extra challenge. An action or comment that might get a hearty laugh out of Khan could easily see Rayan’s feelings hurt for the entirety of the voyage, and Drummer must make her moves accordingly.
Speaking of making moves, physically navigating the world of The Expanse is where the game looks like it could both shine and suffer. Episode one functions as a tutorial level, and obviously, leaving the franchise’s ubiquitous magboots out of the equation would be a crime. The good news is the magboots are there, and using them is intuitive and fun. When the tutorial prompted me to engage the magnets, I was pleasantly surprised by how fluid and natural it felt to stomp around. The smooth way the camera rotates as Drummer casually strolls up a wall at a 90-degree angle is so satisfying I found myself looking for excuses to do so at every opportunity, and the game did not disappoint. Naturally, the ability to just walk up the side of a spaceship that’s been split in two and leads directly into the vacuum of open space can be a little disorienting, but navigation via magboots manages to be disorienting in a fun way that really drove home the believability of the game’s setting.
Navigation only became an issue once I disengaged the magnets to float in zero-g. The Urshanabi was evidently targeted by pirates and blown to bits, meaning a significant portion of the vessel’s interior has few places to actually walk (or walk far) in mag boots. While this makes perfect sense for a ship that’s been ripped in half, having to travel long distances in zero-g can get frustrating quickly. The default movement pace in zero-g is extremely slow, but the real problem was acceleration. The thrusters on Drummer’s vac-suit engage when players press the button normally reserved for sprinting, but doing so doesn’t allow Drummer to move much faster than the default floating speed, which made backtracking much more difficult and time-consuming than it could be.
In both The Expanse television series and real life, humans navigating zero-gravity environments in an enclosed space will frequently propel themselves forward by using an arm or leg to push themselves away from a surface and gain some momentum. Unfortunately, this isn’t something Drummer can do in the game, because aiming the reticle at the nearest flat surface brings up a prompt to engage her magboots. As previously mentioned, the transition between engaged magboots and zero-gravity is incredibly seamless and satisfying, but with no way to propel Drummer forward quickly, navigating some parts of the game could feel more frustrating than fluid.
Easily visible electric cables running along the walls and floor did a decent job of giving me a better idea of where I was going, but zero-gravity navigation is also complicated by waypoints that can be difficult to decipher, and I sometimes found myself inches away from a waypoint only to realize it was on the opposite side of the surface I was floating next to, requiring me to retrace my path through the ship to get to the other side of a wall or floor–something that wouldn’t be particularly painful were zero-gravity movement a little speedier.
Exploring the outer hull of the destroyed spacecraft is obviously much easier than getting around twisted remains of the interior, but the camera did occasionally clip though the hull while I was standing or floating too close to a wall. Still, the transition from magboots to zero-g (and vice versa) is a lot of fun.
I frequently found myself comparing the game’s disorienting zero-g sections to the sprawling underwater environments of ABZU, a third-person diving simulator released in 2017. In ABZU, players can swim in any direction, and many areas are so vast it can be hard to tell up from down or left from right without a landmark. It’s a nearly identical experience to navigating The Expanse’s gravity-free areas, with one significant difference: In ABZU, players have three swim speeds, making backtracking simple and frustration-free while still showing off the game’s vast seascapes in a manner that makes the player feel appropriately tiny. Giving Drummer’s vac-suit a speed boost would quickly solve just about every issue I had with navigation, but according to game director Stephan Frost, there are no current plans for Drummer’s gear to receive an upgrade in later chapters.
So, what does the game get right? Based on my preview of the first episode: everything else. Cara Gee’s vocal performance is quite powerful, and her dialogue manages to come across as genuinely believable for Drummer, while also making it clear that Telltale’s Drummer is younger, less experienced, and more vulnerable than the Drummer we meet in Season 2 of the television show. The original characters created for the game by Telltale and Deck Nine feel just as authentic as Drummer–Khan, for example, would fit just as well into the books or television series as she fits into the game, and by the end of episode one, I struggled with the idea of making a choice that would result in any of Drummer’s crewmates dying. Khan’s “badass grandma” attitude quickly won me over, but when it comes to the crew of The Artemis, Martian mechanic Maya Castillo was the character who really stuck with me. As the lone Mars-born member of the crew, Maya is unique, and one quickly wonders what a former Martian military brat is doing on a scavenger ship in Jupiter’s orbit.
But it’s Maya’s relationship with Drummer that really drew me in. Spoiler warning: By Season 5 of the television show, Drummer is revealed to be bisexual, taking her place as the leader of a polyamorous Belter fleet. Drummer’s sexuality appears to play a part in the Telltale game as well–her first scene with Maya hints at a deeper bond between the two, and it seems that what comes of this bond will ultimately be left up to the player. Maya’s introductory scene also pays homage to the book series upon which the show is based, highlighting the physiological differences between the Expanse’s three main factions. As a Martian, Maya has served in the military (by law, all Martians are required to serve), and it appears that she and Drummer frequently have good-natured sparring matches on The Artemis. But because Maya grew up and trained in an environment with gravity–albeit less gravity than that of Earth–she naturally has stronger bones than Belters like Drummer, who she jokingly refers to as “brittle bones.”
Living most of their lives in the low- or no-gravity environment of the asteroid belt and surrounding areas, Belters are known to struggle in environments with gravity, and the book series describes them as long-limbed and lanky, with special medications required for them to survive long periods in environments with significant gravitational pull. Similar to the way Alien: Isolation was littered with visual references to its source material, The Expanse: A Telltale Series is stuffed to the brim with little nods to the lore of the books and television series, making it clear that the developers did their homework.
I also had the opportunity to speak with Deck Nine art director Emerson Oaks and lead environment artist Tommy Spampinato to get a better understanding of the bones of the game, from narrative design to lighting up the dark environments of deep space. Our conversation is transcribed below.
GameSpot: First things first: Aside from the player’s ability to shape the story itself, what’s the biggest difference between The Expanse we see on TV and the one players will be diving into this summer?
Emerson Oaks: I think the biggest difference is that the show has a very broad reach. I mean that in terms of like, the scope of the characters–where they are in space, where they are in the solar system, the kinds of things that they get involved with… Very, very quickly, characters like [James] Holden get involved in politics on a system-wide scale, doing things that affect entire planets, entire governments. But the scope of the interactions within The Expanse: A Telltale Series is much more personal in nature, it’s more about a single crew on the Artemis and their interactions with each other. They’re from all these different cultures, so they have friction because of that. Drummer’s not really playing on that system-wide scale, she’s much more focused on individuals, her crewmates.
What makes The Expanse different from other games set in space, like Dead Space, Alien: Isolation, Mass Effect, or Deliver Us The Moon/Deliver Us Mars, where you might be going out on a spacewalk?
Oaks: Some of those other games, if they’re built on their own IP, they’re probably built around some of the gameplay needs or expectations for that genre. Our game is coming directly from a story perspective, trying to faithfully and authentically tell the story of The Expanse universe in our own flavor, and in our own way. We come up with game mechanics and narrative mechanics that exist mainly to help service the story we’re trying to tell.
That makes sense. But I have to ask, why Drummer?
Oaks: [laughs] I mean, why not? She’s the best character in the whole series.
Tommy Spampinato: She’s pretty amazing. Just watching the show, she starts off as this scrappy character, and all of a sudden, through her interactions, you’re just drawn into that character. I mean, me and my wife would watch it and we’d yell her name out whenever she comes on, like, “Drummer! Yeah!” I just fell in love with that character, and then when we heard that we had this opportunity to do The Expanse. Of the characters we were deciding [to base the game] on–and I mean, not that I swayed anyone’s opinion–but I immediately said, “Drummer.” There’s not much known about her, she was kind of created for the show, because she’s a culmination of a bunch of different characters from the books.
Oaks: Yeah, yeah. Like, why is Drummer great? She has a strong personality, she has a strong will, she doesn’t play to type, she knows what she wants to do.
Spampinato: Mysterious, too.
So did you consider anyone else, play with any other ideas for the main character, or was it always just Drummer from day one?
Oaks: Of course, yeah, so we considered other things… I feel like we probably shouldn’t talk about those things here, not least because y’know, there’s always a possibility that those characters come up in the future.
Spampinato: I mean there are so many great characters, I mean, you can imagine the people we thought about. But really, with Drummer, there was so much we could do with that character, so that’s what we chose.
Interesting! In that case, what’s the biggest difference between the Drummer we’ve seen on the show and this younger prequel Drummer we’ll be playing in the game?
Oaks: She has room to grow. She’s got an arc that she needs to hit to land at the spot she’s at when you meet her in the show, and she’s a fairly indestructible character in the show. She’s got really tough skin, it’s hard to get through it, but nobody starts out that way, right? So she has some experiences she needs to go through to get to the place where she is in Season 2 [of the TV show].
Spampinato: Perfectly put.
What led to the decision to make a Belter the main character and craft the narrative around that identity
Spampinato: I think they’re the most fascinating of the bunch. I think the Martians are fascinating, too. But with the Belters, the thought of how they exist, and what they have to do to live and thrive in contained environments–it’s fascinating. All the tattoos, and the grittiness… I mean, I wouldn’t want to be a Belter, but I certainly love the Belter culture that’s shown in the show.
Oaks: Also, the Terran and Martian cultures are kind of monocultural. They have very strong, singular cultural identities. We wanted to tell a story about lots fo different characters coming together and having friction, so if we want to do that, we need to do it inside a culture that accepts other cultures or has to work with them out of necessity.
So what are the biggest differences that people who have maybe only played some of the older Telltale games like The Walking Dead expect from The Expanse: A Telltale Series?
Spampinato: I’d say a big one is you have free-roam movement in our game, you can move around a lot.
Oaks: You can move in zero-g. These environments are very expansive [chuckles], there’s a lot of exploration to do, it’s very open-ended.
Spampinato: And we made sure the choices you make affect the outcome. So there are consequences to her actions throughout the whole game.
Oaks: Yeah, the narrative team and our game director [Stephan] Frost went to a lot of effort to make sure that the narrative choices in the game have a lot of branches, those branches have meaningful consequences, and things that you do very early on in the game have really meaningful outcomes.
Were there any big design or programming hurdles you guys had to overcome to build this game?
Oaks: Obviously, Deck Nine has some experience with narrative games. As far as innovations that we’re adding to the narrative genre–we added new features like broader free-roam levels, zero-g movement. Those things automatically introduced gigantic scope changes and engineering challenges. Our engineering team and our design team and art teams have done a great job of adapting to that and getting the game out, which is a huge challenge.
Were there any lessons you learned from previous games, like the Life Is Strange franchise, that informed how you designed The Expanse?
Spampinato: Because we have these free-roam environments, nothing’s sacred, nothing’s safe. I can stick a really low-res asset in the background and think, “Oh, nobody’s gonna see it.” But then it’s like, “Well actually, that guy’s gonna see it.” We realized that there’s certain camera angles that are favored by cinematic films, so we’ve learned from that. That was a lesson I learned a long time ago, and we were able to bring that to this game.
Oaks: Much like a TV show that’s in a serialized format, you need to think about how to work modularly, and how to use stuff over and over, because you need to work somewhat efficiently. You get good at sort of mashing things together to create these new environments, and then light them very differently to create something that’s much more unique visually.
One thing it can be easy to forget in these super-futuristic games where we’ve settled in outer space is that space wants to kill you. How did you guys go about cultivating an atmosphere that reminds the player that space is their adversary just as much as any human enemy?
Oaks: I think audio is a huge component of that. There are lots of effects due to the oxygen apparatus that characters have to wear when they’re in space. There’s also a slightly different color-grading treatment that we actually ripped from the show that’s a great way to show that you’re in space. There’s a feeling when you’re out in space that it’s stark, the cinematic team’s done a great job with framing, and helping create that sense of emptiness of standing alone on the hull. Any moment you could fly off if your magboots turn off. All those little things kind of go together to help reinforce that feeling. Also, there are things in the game that demonstrate very clearly how dangerous space is. Those “object lessons” are pretty powerful.
Out of all the new characters Telltale and Deck Nine created for the game, who’s your favorite?
Oaks: I really like Khan, just from a visual standpoint. She’s unconventional, she’s got a great attitude. [laughs] I mean, she’s got a terrible attitude, but it’s great. She’s got reasons behind that [attitude], and I think the players will like those reasons.
Spampinato: I’ve always liked Virgil. I just wanna hug him, I don’t know, there’s something about him. I really love this guy, and his personality.
Oaks: He’s bursting with umami.
Spampinato: Ha, yeah, yeah. He’s bursting with umami.
Got any plans for mobile or Switch?
Oaks: Not at this time, no.
The trailers released so far have all depicted a very tense moment in episode one where Drummer is forced to choose between saving a vault full of supplies that could feed the crew for weeks, or saving Rayan’s leg, which is lodged in the door to the vault. Let’s say you only get one playthrough. Do you save the leg, or save the vault? We’re all dying to know.
Spampinato: I guess what I would choose is to…[groans] I would choose to save the leg. ‘Cause, y’know, I’m a nice guy. But my first choice would probably be to cut the leg so I can see the effects and make sure they’re working! [laughs]
Oaks: I choose to sweep the leg.
When the time comes, I ultimately choose to save Rayan’s leg. But the decision follows me the whole ride home. What if Rayan dies anyway? What if he eats more food than the rest of the crew and someone starves? What if he turns out to be a serial killer and I spend the next three episodes wishing I threw him to the space-wolves?
I never work out the “right” answer to this quandary, and it’s not until several hours into my pondering that I arrive at one undeniable answer: Telltale and Deck Nine are on the right track, and are thoroughly committed to giving fans of The Expanse a game that’s faithful to the soul of the franchise.
The time I spent with The Expanse: A Telltale Series showed the game to be a tense, exciting interstellar adventure that instantly throws players into a tumultuous, mutinous situation where every decision counts, and I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it, despite wishing the first episode were a bit longer. My most striking memory, surprisingly, isn’t that of a cutscene or a dialogue choice, but a single item floating somewhere in space: At one point, a side-quest appeared, directing me to look for a replacement part needed by the ship’s engineer. When I returned to the rest of Drummer’s crew on the Artemis without managing to find it, all I could think was, “Which one of these guys did I just kill by not grabbing that?” Fans of both Deck Nine’s narrative touch and Telltale’s difficult decision-making could find themselves right at home with all the severed heads floating about inside the remains of The Urshanabi.
As for the fate of Rayan’s leg, players will have to wait to learn how their choices play out, but they won’t have to wait for long. Episode one of The Expanse: A Telltale Series launches July 27, 2023, with a new episode set to release every two weeks after that.
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