The Expanse is a sci-fi world that’s already lived multiple lives. First imagined as a setting for a tabletop roleplaying game, it became a series of best-selling novels before being adapted into a TV show that ran for six seasons. It’s now, in the hands of Telltale and Deck Nine Games, being turned into an episodic adventure game. You slip into the magnetic boots of Camina Drummer, the second-in-command of a scavenger ship illegally stripping the wrecks of Earth vessels in deep space.
Drummer is not a new character for fans of The Expanse; she appears in a number of the books, and for the TV show, her role grew larger, incorporating multiple characters' storylines. The Expanse: A Telltale Series develops her even further. Set as a prequel to the TV show, it shows Drummer in the years before she becomes head of security on the Tycho space station.
When actor Cara Gee originally got cast as Drummer on the TV show, she had only days to prepare her character for the first day of filming. “I had the first season, which I had already watched, and as much as I could devour of the books,” Gee tells me. “It was a mad dash of reading through as much as I could. But, of course, it was unrealistic to read through so many of the novels in such a short time.”
Originally, Gee was cast as a guest star with a couple of appearances scheduled. Still, after that first episode, the writers incorporated Drummer into the show more and more, combining the storylines of other characters in the books. “The writing team gave me extraordinary material to explore; it just kept going. And as she developed, it was a matter of cherry-picking the coolest parts from the characters [in the books].”
Developing Drummer on the move led to a fan-favorite character but also one without a fleshed-out backstory. While other characters in The Expanse have prequel novellas, Drummer’s past has been left a bit of a mystery.
Deck Nine aims to correct that with The Expanse: A Telltale Series. “We had an opportunity to explore back a backstory for [Drummer] and set her up for being the person she is in the show,” cinematic artist Joshua Dobkins says. “She's gone through a lot to get to where she is.”
The Drummer we play in The Expanse: A Telltale Series is more junior, and we’ll see that in her movements, speech, and manner. “In the show, you know, she's just very stoic, very stern,” animator Gigi Mundheim says. “She doesn't give away a lot of expressions. For the prequel, [we wanted to] show a Drummer that's a little unsure of herself and coming into her own. [Show her] evolve into a captain.”
It’s a challenge for actor Gee, who is returning to a role that’s had a whole arc of growth in the TV series. She now needs to create a new phase of the character, one that existed before Gee ever played her on screen. “It was a process for me of trying to reverse engineer character choices, looking at where can I create differences so we can show an arc,” Gee says. “She’s not the same character at the beginning of the video game that she is in season two [of the TV show] when we meet her.
“I tried to play her a little more vulnerable, a little more open. I wouldn't go as far as calling her optimistic but as optimistic as Drummer gets given her life circumstances, being a belter, experiencing that systemic oppression, and surviving what she has survived already.”
Trauma on the horizon
While no one on the team was particularly keen to give away spoilers, it’s clear something is planned to happen in these five episodes that turns Drummer into the closed-off character we meet in season two.
“That's why we have a bunch of characters that are not in the show,” game director Stephan Frost teases. “We can do anything. Look at Rogue One, there are a lot of really compelling characters, and you haven't met them before because they don't make it out. [Drummer] needs to be at Tycho Station by season two, right? That can't change. But everything else can be moulded and shifted and changed.
“The choices that you make, every one of them matters,” Dobkins says. “They're not necessarily going to pay off in the first episode; you may see the results much later in the season. We've made a conscious effort to make sure all of our choices have an impact.”
With so many different paths for you to take your Drummer, it creates massive challenges for making the story and performances consistent for each player. “There are just so many moments where you're like ‘Okay, so what has happened in this version of what they're playing?’” Frost says. “‘Okay, this happened, this happened, this happened. Drummer, therefore, is in this mental state.”
“I wrote a lot down,” Gee says. “I've got sheets and sheets and sheets of notes. I tracked that very conscientiously. I'm not just trying to like wing it; it is so particular. And the ending of each branch has to match where we meet her [in season two]. So no matter what happens to her, I want that to be believable. So yeah, that was a lot of notes.”
As someone who spent years in the world of The Expanse, filming five seasons of the TV show, Gee had another pseudo role in the game’s development. “It was like having a consultant on set,” Stephan Frost says.
Often that would become evident in the little things.
“I was a real mag boot stickler,” Gee says. “That's one of the biggest challenges when you're in gravity, to pretend you're not. You can't shift your weight and sit into a hip, all these things that we do. So I was always the person who was like 'uh uh'. I’m real fun, real fun to be around.”
“We didn't have access to the expensive devices to emulate zero gravity,” Mundheim says. “We had to get scrappy and crafty in the motion capture studio, make harnesses and nets and hoist people up with two-by-fours to get that float-like movement down to a tee.”
Deck Nine brought in an acrobat to perform a lot of the movements. “She must have awesome core muscles,” Mundheim says. “She was able to do all the poses correctly, and we spent all day just doing subtle movements veering right, veering left, just really nailing down the locomotions for the gameplay.”
When I played the first episode of The Expanse: A Telltale Series, I enjoyed exploring environments in zero gravity, disengaging my mag boots to float around a wrecked spaceship, and looking for loot. And, certainly, the way Drummer and her companions behave in the cinematics was strongly reminiscent of the show, with even the camera rotating to follow zero gravity acrobatics in the same way.
With only one episode under my belt, it’s too early to say if the work done to insert a new story into the world of the books and TV show has been worth it. The major choice I’ve been presented with so far lacked the punch I was hoping for, but, as the team says, the impact of those branches may not be felt until the series' final episode.
The mark of success, which we can’t measure until the last of the five episodes of The Expanse is out, is whether it’s given us a new appreciation of who Drummer is when we meet her in season two of the TV show. I sorely hope so.