‘Rayen will remember that’ flashes on the screen as I tell him I’m going to cut his leg off. And like that, it’s 2012 again, and I’m playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead for the first time. Based on the best-selling Expanse novels, this new game may be set in the cold deep of space, half a galaxy from the nearest zombie, but it’s warmly familiar.
I’m in the magnetic boots of Camina Drummer, second-in-command of a salvage ship, illegally stripping wrecked vessels in the asteroid belt on the far side of Mars, and my crewman managed to get himself trapped under a crate while we searched a derelict United Nations Navy ship. While I could have jettisoned the container of supplies and saved his leg, he knew the risks, and the rest of our crew may not thank me for getting rid of lucrative cargo to save the clumsy astronaut’s limb.
Even if this is a prequel to the storyline told in The Expanse novels and TV series, the Camina Drummer I know wouldn’t hesitate to do what was best for her crew, even at the cost of one crew member.
You may disagree, though, arguing that Drummer would sacrifice temporary gains for the health of her crew. And there lies the power of Telltale’s games: you can choose differently and then see the consequences of your actions play out.
Same name, new game
In The Expanse, humanity has colonized much of the solar system, splitting into three distinct factions. Earth and Mars are the solar system’s superpowers, but Belters, who populate the space stations, trawlers, and asteroid belt between the two, are growing in power and beginning to demand recognized independence. The series tells complicated stories from multiple characters' perspectives on the different sides of the galactic political struggles.
In The Expanse: A Telltale Series, however, developer Deck Nine Games has decided to focus on a single character’s arc, and it’s set its story years before the turmoil of the main series. From what I’ve played of the first episode, we’ll see what turned a younger, less experienced Drummer into the pragmatic Belter captain we see in the books and TV show.
While The Expanse: A Telltale Series bears the name of the adventure game developer, it’s being developed by Deck Nine Games, makers of Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, with Telltale acting as publisher. After 2018, when Telltale management laid off more than 200 employees and LCG Entertainment acquired the studio, the studio is taking on fewer projects than before. Its in-house team is working on The Wolf Among Us 2, while Deck Nine Games makes The Expanse.
A different developer may be at the helm, but The Expanse: A Telltale Series is immediately familiar. The focus isn’t on action but on conversation and frequent use of quick-time events. Although, as I explore the drifting United Nations Navy vessel, navigating the railgun-blasted corridors in zero gravity, I can see how Deck Nine has expanded environmental navigation. I can lift off from the floor, float through space, reorientate myself, and engage my mag boots to lock onto a new surface – making what was previously the ceiling into the floor.
It can be rewarding to spend time exploring. While snooping in my pilot’s quarters, I found an empty box of cigars, and then, later on in the mission, I found a pack in the ship’s captain’s room. The pilot isn’t my biggest fan, but this small gift opens the door to a better relationship.
I’m presented with secondary objectives, too, like finding a crystal to fix the med-bay's surgical laser. (Worryingly, I don’t find one, and I can only imagine this will come back to bite me in a later episode.)
Between those moments of exploration, however, Deck Nine has deviated little from Telltale’s formula. Multiple dialogue options appear on the screen when talking to characters, giving you a short window to choose what to say. Those options often veer between friendly and standoffish, letting you roleplay different kinds of Drummer. Sometimes selecting an option will cause the story to branch, like when I took Rayen’s brother to task for insubordination, punching him rather than letting it go, an attack he referred to later in the episode. Other times, the dialogue choice has no impact beyond giving you a little more ownership of the Drummer you’re playing as.
Though, while walking a familiar path, The Expanse: A Telltale Series will have to up its game in later episodes to compete with Telltale’s best work.
In previous Telltale games, the consequences of your actions could be shocking. In the first season of The Walking Dead, while patrolling the woods, you find a man screaming in pain, his leg caught in a bear trap. His friends beg you to help him, but the screaming has drawn in a crowd of zombies. You have two choices: try to break the trap or cut off the man’s leg.
If you try to break the trap, you first use your axe to attack the chain securing it to a nearby tree, but its metal links are too tough. When that fails, you pick up a stone and strike the chain. Again, it does nothing. You can then try to pry the metal jaws of the snare apart with your axe blade. As a final attempt, you can try and cut down the tree the chain is looped around. Your companion says it’s useless and pulls you away, leaving the man to be eaten.
If you cut off the man’s leg, he leaves the wood alive.
The scene is horrible, twisting attempts at bravery into costly failure. It teaches a harsh lesson that brutal pragmatism is the new heroism in the world of The Walking Dead. But that lesson lands only because of your choices' obvious, immediate costs – something I’ve not yet seen captured in The Expanse.
Leaving aside the fact that once again we’re given the choice of to amputate or not to amputate, after cutting off Rayen’s leg in The Expanse I expected a significant consequence to such a major decision. Yet, in the next scene in which Rayen appears, which seems to be less than an hour after the violent field surgery, he's walking around on his new prosthetic. Apparently, in the future, you don't even need physio after losing a limb. It's a narrative miss that punctures the impact of my decision. The choice will surely impact future dialogue options, maybe game choices, but my immediate sense is one of deflation.
Deck Nine is the team behind Life Is Strange: Before The Storm, so they know how to tell a consequential story, even within the restrictions of a prequel. I hope episode two and the rest of the series have the weight I'm missing in episode one. Currently, its decisions lack gravity, which, oddly for a space game, is a bad thing.
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Julian's been writing about video games for more than a decade. In that time, he's always been drawn to the strange intersections between gaming and the real world, like when he interviewed a NASA scientist who had become a Space Pope in EVE Online, or when he traveled to Ukraine to interview game developers involved in the 2014 revolution, or that time he tore his trousers while playing Just Dance with a developer.