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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Monday, April 18, 2022

Climbing the Open-World Heights of Sable

I’ve been playing a lot of cool games lately, and they’ve given me quite a few things to talk about. However, my last few games articles have gotten a little on the long side, both in word count and writing time, which can be a little daunting even when I don’t have a bit of a backlog to work through. So, I’m going to try and keep these a little shorter; maybe I’ll slip up a bit and one of them will grow in length, but keeping two out of three manageable isn’t bad.

And so, today I’ll be talking about Sable, the debut game of two-person studio Shedworks. I had seen and heard some good things about it prior to release, which got me interested. But one unusual thing that I noticed was that some of the previews I saw called it a 3D platformer (always a hot topic here), but that didn’t seem to be the case universally. “Open World”, “Adventure”, and “Exploration” showed up more frequently as genres/descriptors. And… yeah, it probably is those first and foremost, but I also don’t think I would dispute calling it a 3D platformer; it’s certainly not a traditional one, but it’s definitely more in line with that sort of level design and play style than most open world games.

But first, the general backstory: Sable takes place on an alien desert planet, beautifully rendered in a vibrant, rotoscoped* artstyle, where people live in much smaller-scale villages and societies (many even taking on nomadic lifestyles). You play as Sable, a young girl from a herding tribe known as the Ibexii, who is about to experience a coming-of-age ceremony, then set off into the world on a hoverbike to find her place in the world and decide what she’s going to do in life.

*Art criticism is not my forte, but I think that’s the term/technique I’m going for, at the very least for the animation? It looks like drawings over real figures, to give it a distinct mostly-realistic style with a few embellishments here and there, and usually colored in ways that are more striking, unique, or vibrant than real life? Either way, it makes for some amazing scenic landscape shots, and driving your bike over these dunes makes you feel like a master cinematographer with how easy it is to get beautiful and striking images of the world as you frame the in-game camera.

It’s a pretty basic story, but one that Sable sets up beautifully. You get dropped in pretty cold and build up an understanding of what’s going on naturally, talking to the rest of Sable’s clan as they mentally prepare both her and themselves for the coming separation of her going out into the world. It’s extremely relatable and well-done, and that natural discovery for the player, leading into the ceremony itself, is a huge emotional swell.

You then get a few last minute tasks around the Ibexii’s home valley to acquaint you with the controls and missions you’ll be dealing with, plus some instructions from the local elders about how you’ll be picking a mask during your adventures (everyone in this world wears masks for environmental protection from the harsh desert, with the mask also serving a dual cultural purpose of tying into the individual’s profession or role in society). And then, they announce they’ll be heading out to follow their herd’s migration, and you’re on your own until the end of your ceremony.

And so, you set out on your adventure, driving your new hoverbike out of your home valley and across the desert dunes, surveying the seemingly-endless landscape around you, deciding where to even start… and then the soundtrack kicks in, and you get the opening credits. It’s all incredibly cinematic, and definitely one of the more memorable moments I’ve had playing video games. Also, did I mention the entire soundtrack was written and performed by Japanese Breakfast?* It’s not as flashy as the type of video game soundtracks I usually fall in love with, but there’s a lot of great stuff here, and it really sets the mood.

*Michelle Zauner had one hell of a 2021, between her work on Sable, winning awards for Japanese Breakfast’s third album Jubilee, penning a best-selling memoir, and of course being featured in my Summer Playlist article.

And then… well, you can kind of go wherever. The game gives you a suggestion to go to a nearby settlement, but there’s nothing really forcing you to do that. And really, even if you do want to follow their advice, that settlement is still a pretty central point on the map, and you’re given a few leads in multiple different directions. Or you can just ignore all of them and do your own thing, make your own place in this world.

And it feels a little weird to pitch Sable like this, since there are so many open world games that rely on this idea, but it feels different here. There’s something about how open the world is, with you on your own riding a hoverbike over sand dunes, chasing after the large formation on the horizon or following vague “it’s roughly southwest of here” instructions. There really isn’t any “preferred order” or path the game nudges you along, either, as some others do; you get the opening in the valley and a general suggestion for a first stop after that, but there’s really nothing stopping you from just skipping it to see what else you find instead.

You have all of the tools you’ll use through the game by that point, and from there, the missions can be done in any order, with nothing really locked behind anything else.* And even if you do follow the game’s gesture and go to that recommended first outpost, you get a befittingly sparse guidance. Chasing after these ideas of what to do basically involves you guiding a young adult to these actual adults and bugging them, “What are you doing? Do you need any help? What can I do?”, the whole time knowing that you’re really trying to figure out what you want Sable to do with her future. It kind of does feel true to life in that way.

*In fact, it is not difficult to accidentally complete a quest before finding the character who tells you about it!

And from there, we get the ways that Sable is a more traditional 3D platformer. Most of the tasks are actual collecting missions, whether it’s “find these badges and you’ll become a member of our guild” to “run these errands or pick things up for me and I’ll let you be an apprentice”. There are other things as well, although you’ll need to find them as you go.

Or maybe you won’t. That’s part of the game’s freedom, too; you can choose to finish the game’s story whenever. As soon as you’ve done enough things to earn a mask, you can just decide to trigger the ending. I would personally recommend seeing more things, because I think it’s an interesting game world, and there will certainly be characters who tell you the same. But a few others disagree with them, finding their calling early on. Of course, I also thought that finding and talking to the inhabitants to get these bits was its own joy, and the game definitely comes down on that side… but again, no one can force you to do anything.

For the missions themselves, to do the collecting, it usually involves a lot of more traditional platforming bits, climbing to the top of buildings, landforms, ruins, and anything else. And just like with the rest of the game, it’s often a lot more freeform and self-guided than other 3D platformers; you’ll usually need to do a little scoping out of your target, deciding the optimal point to start from, looking for places to rest on the way up for tall targets, looking for other adjacent surfaces that can serve as such if you don’t see any, measuring your jumps to reach nearby things, deciding if you have the stamina to make it now or need to improve and return later, and so on.

It’s almost like a puzzle at times (although there are much more traditional platforming puzzles as well), and sometimes you even get to feel a little cheeky when you find a way to game your way to the top of something taller than you “should” be able to handle with clever planning. It can be a little tedious sometimes, like a lot of climbing mechanics, but I think the routing adds a level of activeness that mitigates it a little. And sometimes the controls or physics get a little weird; it’s not the smoothest of platformers (although that can also cut both ways, like when you work it to your favor and climb higher structures through understanding those oddities). But any jankiness is nothing that will permanently stop you, and making it to the top of impressive points after long treks, seeing what’s up there, and surveying the surrounding views of the world is just all fantastic, and will definitely help you forget most frustrations.

I don’t want to spoil the game’s story too much (to the extent that it’s possible), so I’ll keep discussion on that end a little light on specifics. But I will say that there’s something about the ending; I initially was a little hesitant after reaching it, but it’s kind of grown on me. It’s understated and a little open-ended, which I think helps it match the theme it’s going for. And it might seem a little weird at first how it doesn’t match the opening's big, cinematic statement… but that kind of feels true to life for these sorts of coming of age journeys, with big moments eventually petering out into just becoming the normal routines of your new life. There’s this wistful sentiment, the sense that none of this can last and there’s more to come that you don’t even fully understand yet, and on the whole, that mood just really sticks with you.

I don’t know that Sable is for everyone? There are probably some who will find the openness and lack of direction or missions off-putting, or bounce off the story’s light touch. Most of the pleasure in the game comes from the journey itself, and if you want a little more direct narrative to things, it’s going to be largely subtextual here. The game is not all just the vast, sweeping grandeur of its world, there’s a lot of understatement paired with that. If you can appreciate all of those things, there’s a lot of beauty here to enjoy.

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