The Expanse stood apart from other sci-fi series. With multiple nations vying for influence and power, it was a bit like Game of Thrones, except in space, and with fewer dragons. Instead we had Martians, Belters, and Earthers fighting it out across a solar system beset by competition and class tension. Humanity might have colonized Mars, asteroids, and moons, but they split apart, growing and evolving into distinct cultures. Telling an epic story over six seasons, the show finished earlier than many fans may have wanted. But now it is back.
In many ways The Expanse is suited to the narrative stylings of Telltale Games. The developer made its name with The Walking Dead, a hugely acclaimed video game series that told a story set in the zombie universe of the comic books. Characters remembered your actions and the consequences of your decisions carried across episodes in a narrative and episodic adventure. But with The Expanse: A Telltale Series the studio is going bigger than it ever has before.
Telltale also made the canny decision to focus on one of the most charismatic characters from the series, the Belter leader Camina Drummer. Set before the events of the show, the Drummer of the game is a slightly different person, but she is still played by the talented Cara Gee. In person Gee is quite different from the martial and fierce character she plays, having a much softer presence and a gentle Canadian voice.
At a preview event in Los Angeles, I ask her what it was like to step back into the role. “It’s really fun, it’s a dream role” Gee says. “It’s such a rare treat to get to transform so completely in a role. As actors we play versions of ourselves, but this is such an extreme version of myself. To get to step back into that physicality, it’s definitely challenging.”
Gee had been originally cast as a guest star with only a couple of appearances penned in, but after the first episode the show’s writers started to cherry pick the storylines of other characters from the books the series is based on. It was a deft decision as Drummer became one of the standouts of a very strong ensemble cast. But working on a video game is a new experience for Gee.
“Definitely shooting for a video game, you shoot a lot more pages in a day than you do on a TV show so that was challenging, for sure,” Gee says. Those who play the first episode will be pleased to find that Drummer has a lot of spoken lines in the game, and Gee mentioned the craft involved, to modulate and layer emotion what Drummer is going through. “You feel so many feelings in this game,” Gee says.
“One of the things that was compelling to me about this project was that it would be a chance to glimpse into Drummer’s past and see what shapes her. And hopefully playing this game adds just layers of depth and texture to the experience. I’ll be curious to see if people are interested to re-watch the series after they finish the game, just to see how that changes their thoughts and feelings about Drummer in the show.”
The first episode of the game finds you aboard The Artemis, with Drummer playing second fiddle to an Earther captain. As bosun, you have to ensure the crew carry out their duties efficiently and will have to decide how to discipline them. As a Telltale game, this’ll mean players will choose how they respond to others and what course of action to take, whether that’s something relatively minor or of major significance. Characters will remember your words and your actions, as outlined in our hands-on preview of the game. The gameplay also incorporates something The Expanse treats with great respect: gravity. Turning on your mag boots, you scale walls and navigate shipwrecks, and fly through space using zero-G thrusters. Making this part of the game was an aspect the developers found a challenge.
“One of the big hurdles was how we were going to depict gravity,” says Dan Ruescher, motion capture producer. “It was really a lot of fun trying to figure it out. In the early stages of the game, we had to capture animation for when she’s scavenging, so we’ve got this full rig, full harness, ropes, so she can reach in every single direction. Then we started getting scenes from the writers, so we’re having to choreograph scenes in zero gravity, fights in zero gravity,” Ruescher continues.
During the preview event, we’re shown some behind-the-scenes footage and motion capture which looks decidedly low-tech, with some big guys carrying Ruescher around, or he’s on props with wheels “flying” through space, or attached to a harness being pulled around, in the effort to simulate zero-G. But their handiwork paid off as the zero-G parts of the game feel realistic and believable. There’s one part in the first episode, where Drummer steps out of The Artemis and into open space, with Jupiter in the distance, and a shipwreck nearby, that both looks and feels great to play.
Telltale has said that this game, which is co-developed with Deck Nine Games (Life is Strange: True Colors; Life is Strange: Before the Storm), is its biggest to date in terms of how much there will be to explore, and the developers I spoke with promised variety and attention to detail in how different environments – whether under Martian, Belter, or UNN control – have been realized. But most of all, it’s a narrative and a personal story that has Drummer at its heart.
“Drummer was my favorite character,” says game director Stephan Frost, when the studio confirmed it was making a series based on The Expanse. Not only that but Drummer offered great creative potential since her background is “much more open” – being an original character created for the show – and therefore the team could explore her backstory with more freedom.
“She goes through a lot of moments where we have to see interactions with people that are not just Belters,” Frost continues. “She’s such a Belter-first perspective on the show and she works with somebody like Fred Johnson, an Earther that has become this Belter who’s helping shape a lot of people’s lives, but you’re on a crew of this ship that has a lot of different perspectives and different ideologies – so seeing why someone who’s so Belter first work with someone like Fred Johnson, and I think there’s some compelling answers in this game.”
An aspect of Drummer that was briefly explored in the show, during a later season, was her romantic side. Drummer is queer and it’s hinted in the first episode of the game that she may develop something with a member of her crew who happens to be Martian. While players may well want to explore this relationship in the game, the developers also warn that personal feelings will have to be balanced against the greater good for your crew. Gee says that players will experience “arousal” when playing Telltale’s The Expanse, but she says this slyly with a wary sideways look from Frost, in an amusing moment during our interview, perhaps knowingly teasing the audience. “There are certainly moments where that could happen!” Frost says, as Gee laughs.
“Attachments to these crew members is really imperative for us, they go through different things, and like anybody they have a show that they put up, or a wall, as you get to know them more you’re gonna find things out about these people and empathize with them,” Frost says, bringing the conversation back to something more grounded. “There’ll be funny moments, really sad moments, moments that feel like triumph, as you overcome challenges, so a range of emotions is frankly what we want players to feel. And arousal!”
“Yeah, most importantly, arousal,” Gee quips, in response.
While arousal may not be the primary emotion players feel when playing The Expanse, the game should have plenty of incidents over the course of several episodes that make up its first season. And, true to its name, Telltale’s game will most surely be expanding the universe of The Expanse and the story of one of its most significant characters.