The Expanse Marks Telltale Games’ Return to Form

The Expanse Marks Telltale Games' Return to Form 1

This summer, Telltale Games, the studio behind critically acclaimed titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, released it’s first game since its rebirth. Developed in concert with Deck Nine, the studio behind Life Is Strange: True Colors, the new game is a story set in the universe of S. A. Corey’s The Expanse, an epic hard science-fiction political thriller series popularly adapted into a six-season TV show critically acclaimed by enjoyers of grimy space noir everywhere.

The series is a perfect place for Telltale to work its magic, given the studio’s breakthrough success adapting The Walking Dead and later working in the Game of Thrones universe. Gamers are more than eager to see a return to the pedigree of Telltale’s seminal performance in the 2010s.

The Expanse was something that resonated with Telltale and Deck Nine,” Jamie Ottilie, CEO of Telltale tells WIRED. “The Expanse is a universe with great world-building and deep characters—the perfect setup for a Telltale game.”

Wait, What Happened to Telltale in 2018?

The studio’s difficulties in 2018 shocked and mystified fans. Its success had drawn tens of millions of dollars into Telltale’s coffers, from multiple Hollywood and major TV studios like Lionsgate and AMC, to produce the future of hybrid entertainment. Somehow, that resulted in an emergency bankruptcy, wherein Clementine’s voice actor was emergency-evacuated into a parking lot mid-recording-session for the final season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

For a while, this confusing money oopsie appeared to be the end of the studio, until it was brought back from the dead by a hitherto unknown company, LBC Entertainment, which was founded specifically to acquire and become Telltale Games anew.

A lot of people post-2018 blinked and thought they’d woken up in a different timeline, but no, this was just your usual overnight erasure of a legendary game developer followed by the brand being legally assumed by a new company formed just as quickly, like some sort of extraterrestrial cloning exercise.

If Game Informer is to be believed, as much as half of the original studio’s staff were working at the reanimated Telltale Games at the end of 2022.

Rebuilding a Fan-Favorite Studio

Telltale’s Expanse takes place a few years before the first season of the show, centering on Camina Drummer, a smouldering firebrand working aboard a salvage vessel before she came to Tycho Station to become head of security under Fred Johnson, fleeing the radical influence of Anderson Dawes.

The game aims to portray the events that led to Camina’s hardened exterior and uncompromising discipline, working on the assumption that you already know about her, the Belt, and essentially most of the background lore of The Expanse.

Drummer is played by Cara Gee, a sparkling Canadian talent whom Forbes once described as one of the most prominent indigenous women in entertainment.

“The actors we worked with from the show were a delight,” Stephan Frost, game director at Deck Nine, tells WIRED. “There was definitely a camaraderie there, founded on a real excitement to return to the universe. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Shohreh Aghdashloo through a set of quality headphones.”

The game ably captures the tone of the show, for a solid entry in Telltale’s gameography. Telltale’s Expanse aims to undertake the costly work of expanding the remit of the classical Telltale formula, building an engine that allowed for much larger environments, zero-gravity exploration, and motion-capture performances informing the animation, courtesy of Deck Nine.

“Story will always come first,” Ottilie says. “But we want to empower our teams to experiment with gameplay and try new things. We did quite a bit of this in The Expanse, and it’s just the first step in that direction.”

The commitment for a newly founded studio with a no-crunch policy to deliver never-before-seen features in what amounts to its debut game is more than ambitious, and it sets Telltale up to capitalize on all these new avenues for future games.

“Salvaging a massive derelict spacecraft in zero gravity was a fantasy we wanted to live up to, as this was a great visual on the show, complemented by radio dialog with the crew,” Frost says. This faithfully adapted part of the show uniquely allows you to engage with exploration gameplay while chatting with characters.

“We wanted to ensure the quality bar was high for frame-rate performance, animation, acting, and gameplay,” Frost explains. Despite stretching themselves so far in a first-time collaboration, both studios deliver on their promises. If nothing else, bringing professional acting seamlessly into a Telltale-style narrative adventure with motion capture feels like a sea change for the genre, and it means great things for the studios’ work in the coming years.

How Far Can Branching Narrative Go?

Gamers have debated their expectations for branching narrative for years, largely concerned that their choices don’t matter enough, offset by the impracticality of studios producing scenarios, dialog, and sometimes whole environments that a segment of players will never see.

In their heyday, studios like Telltale made a science of this dichotomy, making sure player autonomy led to unique outcomes, and episode end-screens recapped which percentages of players made certain choices. This communicated where the turning points were and how uniquely they were realized, to foster an appreciation for the unrealized content.

“Everyone in your crew can die except for one person, and everyone can live except for one person, which makes for high stakes,” Frost says. “Your exploration successes or failures in finding what you need to survive in space, and rare treasures besides, influence the trust and capability of your crew, dramatically changing story outcomes. It hopefully conveys the feeling of being a captain responsible for the lives of everyone.”

With so much on their plates, there were hard limits to how much the developers could do to install meaningful pockets of their stories in optional plotlines, and show gamers the gravitas of their choices when players are conditioned to look only for mere success and failure.

“To also curb budget-breaking branching, our last episode has the most resolutions paying off from prior episodes,” Frost explains. “It’s the shortest episode in terms of run time, but it has the most cinematic content, because so many choices are being resolved.”

Beyond its announced DLC episode featuring Chrisjen Avasarala, Telltale hopes to continue working in the universe of the Expanse.