#1247: The Branching Narrative Architecture of “The Expanse: A Telltale Series” Featured at Tribeca Games

The Expanse: A Telltale Series is a 5-part, 2D narrative game series that’s a prequel to the Amazon TV and book series. I had a chance to play through the first 90-minute episode at Tribeca Games, and then unpack it with game director Stephan Frost of Deck Nine Games. It’s published by Telltale, which is well-known for their interactive narrative games where there are consequential decisions that impact how the story unfolds in later episodes in a “broomstick” narrative architecture where episodes 3, 4, and 5 should have the most variance. The first episode was released on July 27th with each subsequent episode being released two weeks afterwards.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the potentials of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So continuing on my coverage of Tribeca Immersive and Tribeca Games, today's episode is with a piece that was actually part of the Tribeca Games selection. I've been mostly covering the 13 experiences from Tribeca Immersive, but there was also seven different games that were there at Tribeca Games, which totaled over six hours of content that I had a chance to play through as well. And so this interview today is with a piece called The Expanse, a Telltale Series. So a lot of folks are probably familiar with The Expanse from the Amazon television series or the books. actually started as a role-playing game and then translated into these other media, but now it's coming back into a Narrative game by telltale studios who has been well known for doing these types of interactive narrative games that have branching elements And so this is a very cinematic experience where there are some choices that you're making in the course of this first episode but it's a five episode series and so there's a decisions that you make in the first episode that aren't going to really start to branch out into these different potentials until later on in Episodes 3, 4, and 5. So they're starting to release these on July 27th, and it's going for every two weeks after that. And so I had a chance to actually talk to Stefan Frost. He's the Game Director of The Expanse, who's working at Deck Nine Games, the developer of the game, while Telltale is the publisher of the game. So the reason why I wanted to cover this in the Voices of the Year podcast is because the narrative structures that they have in this piece are quite involved in terms of the different choices that you're making and how that plays out, but also how they're designing that. But overall, the Expanse also has a very cinematic and immersive quality to it, going around in space, and it's mediated through a TD environment. So there's other aspects of environmental exploration, as well as the game mechanics of walking around with your gravity boots, exploring these different ships. But the biggest part was thinking about how to design and architect these types of interactive stories and how to translate from one media to another. So starting as a game, moving to a book, then to a film, and then coming back to a game as well. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Stefan happened on Monday, June 12th, 2023 at Tribeca Immersive in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:35.358] Stephan Frost: Yeah, my name is Stephen Frost. I'm the game director on The Expanse, a Telltale series, which is being showcased here at Tribeca.

[00:02:42.164] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into the space.

[00:02:46.367] Stephan Frost: Yeah. So I'll give you the abridged version. So I got started about 16 years ago in games. I started at Disney and worked my way through making really terrible games in Utah, including Major League Eating the Game, and then worked my way up through that to Batman the Brave and the Bold, the side-scroller game. and then went to making MMOs for a while, worked on Wildstar, World of Warcraft, New World, and took a job as a creative director at Nexon for a little bit, and now I'm at Deck Nine making The Expanse here, and as the game director, it's my job to work with all teams to make sure we're all telling the same story.

[00:03:21.151] Kent Bye: Great. And it's also, I guess, Telltale is publishing it. And maybe give a bit more context to Telltale as well, because I know that they were around, and then they went under, and then they sort of came back. So yeah, just give a little bit more context for Telltale and the relationship for your development shop and Telltale.

[00:03:36.173] Stephan Frost: Yes, so I'll give the abridged version of that as well. Telltale started out years ago making narrative adventure games that were like Sam and Max or Homestar Runner, all sorts of different things. And then they started getting into more cinematic storytelling. They got into making Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us. They found a lot of success with those titles and unfortunately they ran into financial troubles. They had basically shut the studio down. until the name and rights to a couple of those games was purchased by Jamie Audley, who's the head of Telltale now. And so Telltale has been basically taking the same idea of making cinematic storytelling games. And so they have Wolf Among Us 2 that's in production right now, and then we have The Expanse, a Telltale series which is coming out here July 27th, and they're working with us at Deck Nine to bring that to fruition.

[00:04:25.687] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context to the Expanse, because I know there's books, there's a TV series, and now a video game. So maybe talk about the lineage of this story world that you're building upon.

[00:04:37.007] Stephan Frost: Yeah, so the funny thing is I think everybody knows The Expanse mostly from the television show that was on SyFy and Amazon. Originally it was a book series, but even before that it was actually based on a tabletop role-playing game that one of the authors had created and he was playing the game with another one of his friends and they basically saw the potential of this being a much bigger story and the two of them worked together to create The Expanse and they wrote Leviathan Wakes, which is the first book in the series. So, yeah, here we are. They had six seasons on the show, really successful, great character arcs, awesome, grounded sci-fi. And, you know, we had worked with them and talked with them about the possibility of making what I called a novella in the series, but in video game form with the character Camino Drummer.

[00:05:21.913] Kent Bye: And I understand that this is a bit of a prequel to the larger either book or film series. So maybe you could give a bit of a context for where we're at in the timeline of this slice of the expanse that you're doing here at Tribeca.

[00:05:34.095] Stephan Frost: Yeah, so this one's kind of a quirky one in that Kamina Drummer is the main character. She's based on the character in the show. Drummer exists in the books, but she's sort of a different character in the books. In the show, she's actually an amalgamation of a couple of characters. Bull, Michi Opa, a couple of character storylines basically go through this one character in the television adaptation. What that allowed us to do is find a prequel here because she didn't really have a background that was explored much in the show. So a lot of the other characters have books and episodes dedicated to their backgrounds before the events of the show. With Drummer we had this open canvas to tell a story or have a novella that's dedicated to Drummer in video game format.

[00:06:15.439] Kent Bye: And yeah, I also didn't realize that it started as a tabletop game, and so are there similar mechanics of the original game that as they go through the different mutations of then into a book, then into a TV, now you're coming back to a game, are you able to reconnect to some of the different aspects of the original game mechanics in this piece?

[00:06:33.330] Stephan Frost: Yeah, I think the biggest things that sort of came through with that was probably less mechanics and more storytelling. You have the three factions, so there's Earth, there's Mars, and then there's the belt, the Kepler belt, where really that's like the forefront of exploration, where people are colonizing the solar system, and to me that was the most compelling part of what they had brought forward was this idea that People have lived in space for hundreds of years and it changes their body structure So because there's no gravity pushing down on them a lot of them are actually much taller and a lot of the mechanics based off of Spaceflight so when you're traveling really fast in a ship it creates an artificial gravity and when the ship stops It just goes back to zero G It's not like Star Trek or Star Wars where you know You're just kind of walking around all the time on a ship and everything's fine They really lean into the realistic mechanics of astrophysics and zero gravity and stuff like that.

[00:07:26.611] Kent Bye: And there's also the experience of playing this game was very cinematic. So there's a lot of cut scenes that I'm watching and I felt like it was like watching a film in some ways. But there are other aspects of environmental exploration. So I'm looking at different objects and getting more context of this world to be able to engage with these objects. But I think the other part of this piece is that there's all the relational dynamics of the crew. And so who is the crew? What's their back story? You have these original encounters with the crew. And the crew has a variety of different backgrounds, which you had mentioned, with where they're from, whether they're Luna, the Earth, Mars, or Belters. And so there's different cultural dynamics that are happening with each of these. And there's different dialogue choices that you get to make. As the executive officer, are you going to be antagonistic, or am I going to be non-antagonistic and try to be conflict avoidant? And so there's all these different relational dynamics of the crew, and I'd love to hear you expand upon the different game mechanics that come about, like exploring these relational intricacies between these different characters. And there's a lot of choices as a player, and how those choices may aggregate over time.

[00:08:30.692] Stephan Frost: Yeah, a lot of that is based off of my own interactions with people in making video games, honestly. There's different folks that need different ways of motivation to get through things. Some people, you need to be a lot more gentle in how you're breaking news to them about things, and some of them just give it to me straight. And if you do the opposite, it usually harms the relationship. So somebody who just wants the news immediately, if you're trying to walk them through slowly, they get agitated. So a lot of that came from my own personal experiences and the writers' experiences in game dev, funny enough. And also there are characters like Cox, who's the captain of the ship, is actually based on executive producers I've worked with in the past. And so the first scene that we see with him is him getting thrown in the airlock and you can space him or not. at the end as a choice. And, you know, what our hope is, is that when you throw them in there, it's not something that you're looking at like, yeah, obviously, you know, get rid of them. That there are moments that you actually kind of like them. Because I feel like even with people that I've bumped head with in the past, there are parts of them that I like. And so if we can have multi-faceted characters that need to be talked with in different ways as you're going through things, that's just kind of what leadership is. It's about adapting to what those people need and seeing the many sides of them so that these decisions shouldn't be like, well, this person's mad all the time, so I'm just going to give it to them straight. Sometimes maybe they don't need that, and sometimes they do.

[00:09:55.699] Kent Bye: And I'd love to hear any reflections on the cinematic quality of this piece, as well as the environmental storytelling that you have embedded into this piece.

[00:10:02.357] Stephan Frost: Yeah, really there are three main loops in the game that we're looking at here. There's this cinematic dialogue that you were talking about. We really studied the cinematography of the show and making sure that the camera movement when you're floating in space has a slow Dutch angle turned to it to make it feel like it's floating or, you know, when something's really urgent we have a lot more close-up shots and things like that. And, you know, you're making dialogue decisions along the way, which really make you feel like you're in the moment. And then there's stuff like walking around the world, and like you were saying, interacting with objects, and making sure that you're learning about the perspective of the character, Kamina Drummer, and how she feels and sees things. And then also the environmental storytelling of what is in the world. So, you know, there's an example when you walk in the hallway, there's a bunch of boxes that have not been put away and she, you know, says to herself, Arlen told me put these things away last week. Again, lazy ass. So we're finding out something about Arlen. We're finding out something about drummer and we're finding out something about the world while we're doing that. So that's how we kind of really lean into the storytelling while you're on the sticks. And then there's the zero-g, the component of using your mag boots to walk up on walls and ceilings and float around in space and there still interacts in that environment too. So, you know, one of the points that we see people kind of react the most is you in a cinematic see a bunch of severed floating heads inside this derelict ship. And so the first question you have is, who did this? Why did they do this? What would possess somebody to do that? And as you're going through, you get the perspectives of all these different people. So the perspective of the Belter brothers is that these are a bunch of inners, or people from Earth or Mars. It's a bunch of inners, like, who cares? And that you may have somebody else's perspective that maybe doesn't feel the same way about that. And so there's more storytelling still, even when we're floating around and controlling the character in Zero-G.

[00:11:53.870] Kent Bye: So I understand that this is the first episode of a five episode series. This one runs around 90 minutes. And so you're going to be expanding this out into multiple episodes and chapters, I guess. I'm wondering, how do you take the decisions that happen in the first chapter and how does that feed into the following chapters?

[00:12:09.038] Stephan Frost: Yeah, so this is a long process of writing out narrative arcs that have different affecting points throughout the series. And we have technology called Storyteller and Playwright. Playwright is effectively final draft, but we're able to have our writers create branching systems that allow us to say, if you chose this, then it will go down this route and different cinematics will play or different choices will be available to you. So we focus heavily on the ability to map out what is the core story, put that into this technology, and then spread it out over time. And then we test it a lot. We make sure that this stuff feels compelling as you're going through it, or that something that might feel unfair, we test that to make sure that that feels good, just narratively. And so, yeah, we have to map out just on paper first, does it feel good? And then secondly, put it in the game, play test it, and get to that point too.

[00:13:03.895] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a little mechanic that showed up in the upper left-hand side of the screen that says, this character is going to remember this decision. So as you make these decisions, there's a bit of a memory of that choice actually has stakes that's going to impact something in the future. It's not immediately clear what's going to happen, but I guess it's as people play this again, maybe they'll have an opportunity to explore those other possibility spaces. But I'd love to hear about that flagging of what choices are going to maybe flavor an experience where there's not real consequence and what choices may actually take you down a different branch that either opens or closes different possibilities and to reveal that to the player as they're playing through it.

[00:13:42.377] Stephan Frost: Yeah, that is definitely a Telltale classic. So if you've played Telltale games at all before, they often will have that, this player will remember that. And really what we want to make sure, we use those not all the time. We want to use them at moments that will make you feel that pang of impact of what does that mean. And so As you're going forward, we want that choice to feel that way. There's also the major choices. These are the moments where, like I was saying before, you throw Cox in the airlock and you can decide to space him or you can decide to throw him in the brig after what he's done and how he's acted. So there are multiple points where we have choices and how they affect things. And those major ones usually have bigger ramifications. sometimes they're not like massive, but they are something bigger that will affect how other people kind of view you or how you talk with them. And, you know, it's interesting to see players' perspective on what they were thinking that that was going to do or where that was going to go. And that's something that we also refine over time as we playtest and try stuff. And then there's even just dialogue options that are more what I would call flavor, you know, things that you're asking somebody's opinion on something or want to get more information about. It's just learning more about who they are as a character rather than huge plot-defining choices.

[00:14:55.772] Kent Bye: So I had a chance to meet John Zimmerman, one of the narrative designers on this piece. I actually met him in Belgium at StoryCon, where he was giving a talk about experiential design, immersive storytelling. He was talking about true colors. And so he was telling me that the narrative structure of this piece is a bit like a broomstick, where all the decisions that you're making aren't really necessarily branching up until the end, then the different choices you make actually start to expand out a lot more. So as you go through it, there's all these choices, but it's not until you get near the end where a lot of these choices of consequence start to really come up. In this demo, there's at least two of those big major decisions that are being made. Yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections you have on this structure that you have in the first episode. And if you expect to see a similar type of broomstick approach in future episodes, or if it's going to get even more branching, which as narrative designers, you would have many different possibilities to have to explore all these different possibility spaces. So I imagine that there's a convenience to the broomstick structure to prevent this exponential explosion. But yeah, I'd just love to hear any reflections on how you manage all these many different possible branches as you move forward.

[00:15:57.525] Stephan Frost: Yeah, I think that's pretty accurate. I think the one thing that you will notice, though, is as the episodes progress, there are certain choices that will start to manifest and build on what they were. So decisions that you've made in Episode 1 will affect outcomes of decisions that you make in Episode 3. there may be a major choice where you affected a character in some sort of way and now they have the upper hand on something in a moment where you have a point of weakness and you have to remember what you did with them and why you did it. And then your choice then becomes not even just an A, B, it's sort of the calculus of how have I worked with them and affected them in previous things and now I need to change why I would do it this way. But there are a few of those that I think that broomstick I would say it's not quite only in five that you see that. You'll start to see it spread out more. However, yeah, it's not going to always be, I made this choice now, so boom, instantly there's something different. It builds up over time and you start to see those. What's interesting about episode five, to kind of build on this point, is it's the shortest episode we have in the series, but it's the most amount of cinematic content that we shot. So it was the hardest episode for us to make because of all of the loose ends that we have to tie up based off of all these decisions that build on one another. So, you know, the way I sort of view making a video game at the very beginning is kind of like a D&D stat sheet. It's how much, to make another metaphor on top of this broomstick one, You can say, OK, I'm going to put all my points into Int. And so that's what I'm going to focus on in this kind of game. Or I'm going to not min-max it, and I'm going to spend it across multiple things. And so you can look at other games in the genre space and see how they say, well, we're not going to put as much into visuals. We're going to put a lot more into these huge branches that are wildly different, but we won't be as cinematic. Or you can go, no, we're going to be very cinematic, but limit the amount of choices. be a mix of the two. And I think if you look at other games in the genre, you can kind of see where they spent their D&D stat points. And I think with us, we wanted to make it have something where your choices did matter and that they were affecting things and going on. And the way that we can do that within budget and time is to have it stack up more towards episodes 3, 4, and 5. so that your choices do matter at the beginning but the ripple effects of them really carry out at the end because the choices will affect who lives and who dies on your crew. Pretty much everybody except for one crew member can die or everybody can be saved except for one. So it's a way for us to have multiple endings that is not, you end up in 16 different places and that has cost effects and also we are tied to a show here so we have to get our main character to a certain point in the plot so we can't have too wildly of a different ending but we want something where there's impact and no bigger impact than the people that you've come to know and love hopefully throughout the story.

[00:18:53.866] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm wondering how you design a piece like this, because you talked about the special software to do the branching narrative and everything. But then there's a lot of cinematic quality, which I guess has less interactions that you're testing. But you also have just the design of game design often has user testing and feedback and iteration. And so how do you meld this iterative process of user testing with this vast, complicated narrative architecture with a lot of cinematic cut scenes? How do you slowly build up to that? I'm wondering how you integrate the user testing with the story architecture with the cinematics and everything.

[00:19:28.176] Stephan Frost: Yeah, this is kind of interesting. There's a few ways. The first way is that we write something, and if we're happy in the writer's room with it, we will then take it out to other people and start sort of paper-pitching it to them. And we allow them to make the decisions as we're going through things. And they can tell us if something feels fair or awful or amazing or what have you at a very cheap level because we're not having to reshoot cinematics or, you know, make environments holistically because of somebody's said, like, I really hate this environment over and over again.

[00:19:58.450] Kent Bye: So you're just basically telling them the story, and they're making choices.

[00:20:01.771] Stephan Frost: Effectively, I'm the DM. I did this very early on with literally every person that joined this team. I walk them through this story from beginning to end, and I'm basically being the AI. I am saying, OK, do you want to space Cox or not? And they say, yeah, space him. Okay, well, in my head, I'm like, okay, the branching paths that I've helped map out, I know them, and I walk them through it. And we actually made a few changes to decisions based on those that you'll see in later episodes that when people were going through it, they said, ah, that didn't feel fair, or if I did this, would that have changed things? And then I was like, no, it would have always done this, and then they would have said like, ah, it feels bad. And so in so doing, it allowed us to do that without having to reshoot a bunch of content. So there's that part that's component, right? Like that's the narrative part of that even when you do that though Sometimes it's you need to get it in the game and see it we do it in a very rough way so that when people are playing through you have to squint but you can see it and you get the feels as you're going through that and So if you can do it in what we call gray box, right? which is the very early prototyping version of what the game is if you can see people are struggling with something or not really agreeing with it or seeing it we can make those changes then and Then we have to does everybody in the writers room agree. Yes. Okay. Let's talk with everybody else Who's doing the implementation on this to make sure they're all on the same page and they understand where we're going That's another section of it Then there's the gameplay part of it, the zero-g. That can kind of be independent of the storytelling, frankly, because we want the mag boots to feel good when you're walking up the wall or jumping into space. We wanted the flow to feel good, so what we didn't want was when I land, it feels like I'm stuck for a second and I can't move. It should feel like a continuation. It's not, you know, this state shift that you can feel. It's a state shift that flows with you. so that one is just more about let's put it in front of other people that are not us and get their thoughts on it and let them say and it feels bad when I do this and if you hear that enough that's probably something you should change and So we do that and then we just continually do weekly play tests with the whole team so somebody will play we'll zoom share it with everybody and we'll watch as somebody is playing through and And we'll get thoughts and commentary from the dev team as well to say, this doesn't feel good, or I noticed this problem, or this moment isn't coming across. What can we do about it? And you do that as much as you can with the time that you have. And then ultimately, you have to ship at some point. And then you polish it as much as you can, make sure there's no bugs, and get out the door.

[00:22:35.088] Kent Bye: It's super fascinating that you're using this Dungeons & Dragons DM approach to do this story prototyping. But yeah, just to wrap up, I'm curious what you think the ultimate potential of video games, immersive media, and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.

[00:22:49.120] Stephan Frost: Yeah, this is a very deep question. I think the thing that I love about video game storytelling is that I'm not passive, I am active. And I think what we need to continue doing in a narrative medium is really focus on getting immersiveness as part of the storytelling. A lot of people think that you should just separate gameplay and narrative as like its own thing. The way that I look at it, gameplay is a form of narrative storytelling. The fact that you can use zero-G in our game is telling you a story about space and where you are and what the mechanics are. So seemingly in the future, you know, I don't think it's about how do we make first-person shooters feel better when they're in those gameplay loop moments. It's how do you create gameplay mechanics that help tell a better story, that even with something like Portal, you're telling a story by shooting one door into another floor and then walking through it. That's storytelling in one way or another. So I think it's just immersive gameplay storytelling is really the focus I know that sounds generic, but I think depending on what the IP is and what you're trying to get across How do you create mechanics that make you feel like you're doing that thing in that world?

[00:23:55.814] Kent Bye: Will immerse you more in storytelling make you feel like you're a part of it Is there a launch date that's expected for the expanse when can folks expect to see this?

[00:24:03.579] Stephan Frost: Episode one will be available July 27th. It's coming out every two weeks. So every two weeks you'll get another episode culminating in our fifth episode. I'm very excited to see how people make these choices and watch reaction videos online. So excited.

[00:24:17.366] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Stefan Frost. He's the game director of the Expanse A Tale of Tales series and working at Deck Nine Games. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, it's a very cinematic experience. And I think the letdown in some ways is that the choices that you're making in the first episode, you don't see until you play the entirety of the whole experience. And so there's a lot of stuff that you may be deciding in that first episode that you don't get to see how it actually starts to play out until episodes two, three, four, and five. So it's a big game, and it's a very ambitious game, and talking about this broomstick structure of a narrative where the choices that you're making have more of an impact near the end of the game, which is trying to prevent what happens in choose-your-own-adventure games, where for every choice you have, you have an exponential explosion of possibilities that are opening up, given that the developer has to then develop all those, and then the challenging thing being that, yeah, it's just a lot of extra work that most people would never see. So like I said, it's a very cinematic quality. A lot of times felt like I was just like sitting back and watching a movie, but I feel like the story and the arc of the characters and the whole world, it expands. If you enjoyed the TV series and enjoyed the books, then the series lives into the same kind of world that they're building out here. with some characters that are a bit of a composite character that allows them to create some backstory and still not disrupt any of the canon per se and allow you to explore the characters it sounds like there's these different decisions that you're making where you could have as little as like one person alive at the end or all but one person alive at the end so how as a executive commander of this ship are you going to make the different choices and different trade-offs and go down a variety of these mortal decisions about life and death that you have to make throughout the course of this piece So the experience is starting to release on July 27th, 2023. And so you buy the entirety of all five episodes and then every couple of weeks it's being released as a serial. So trying to tap into this zeitgeist of group discussions as people talk about the different chapters of the story as they're playing through it. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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