Sable Is a Self-Discovery Game with an Identity Crisis
Watching footage of Sable, you’d think it was an exploration game. Glittering purple skies preside over the gently hushing flurries of the desert, your glider cutting a smooth line across the dunes as the wind whips your cloak behind you. With its Moebius-inspired line art and seductively earthy colour palette, it’s an exemplar of visual minimalism and finesse — there’s no HUD, except for a stamina bar and a compass-like orb that appear at the press of a button. And if the visuals scream “discovery”, the dialogue does it literally — the first hour of the game is full of none-too-subtle proclamations that this is a Game About Going On An Adventure.
Here’s a small village now, with some people you can talk to. Ooh, this lady is in need of some beetle husks, and I’m ready for the challenge! Let’s see, she said the nest was to the south. I’d better head in that direction and look for something resembling a- wait, no, the exact location has appeared on my map and in-game compass. Crap, it’s this kind of game isn’t it.
Pre-release articles for Sable were full of breathless chanting about how it’s a game about discovery and exploration. “Sable’s developers are trying to capture the spirit of discovery” — that’s Jordan Oloman for Rock Paper Shotgun, in response to a trailer presented at E3. Sable will have “the same sense of adventure” as Breath of the Wild, reported The Verge’s Andrew Webster. Writes Julie Muncy for WIRED: “Sable could be the exploration game of your dreams.”
And I can understand this early coverage, because — again — Sable looks like an exploration game, and a gorgeous one at that. Shedworks have poured their love into this world. It shows. Geysers gush into the air, wisps of smoke beckon in the distance, the sands under your wheels come alive in shades of vibrant orange, uneasy black, stark blinding white.
None of it leaves any doubt that the developers — at least, on the artistic side — know what they’re doing. Personally I wished this desert land were more alien, more forbidding, more hostile and strange and mysterious. For a daunting journey into the unknown, it all felt a little too comfortable for me.
But where the game really strays into the all-too-familiar is in its mechanics and structure. Sable opens with the titular character leaving the warm embrace of her home village to “find herself” in the desert lands beyond. She can run, jump, glide, and ride between a variety of regions and quaint towns populated with characters ranging from the enigmatic to the ebullient. The activities you choose to do out in the wide world — climb, scavenge, tinker — will net you the relevant badge, and once you have three of the same badge, you can trade them in for a mask signifying your membership in that guild and your true passion in life. On paper, it’s a cool idea: the game will recognise how you play, and you’ll find out a bit more about yourself as a player — a nice parallel to Sable’s own journey of finding out who she is. Neat!
Sadly, the half-baked badge system simply doesn’t live up to its own promises. The badges often don’t correspond well to the activities you do in-game, or reflect your motivation for undertaking that activity. For example, the “A Stubborn Snag” quest has you climbing to the top of a tower and removing a rock that was jamming its wind turbine. You get a Machinist badge for this, but I would argue the task involved climbing much more than it involved tinkering or fixing. One badge (the Merchant badge) you receive by simply buying it from a specific person (100 “cuts” — the in-game currency — a piece). This demonstrates a passion for…having money, I guess? The Guard badge makes even less sense — you get it from doing various busywork for guards. You could say that “doing stuff other people tell you to do” is part of being a guard…but it’s also 80% of what you do in open world games. Shouldn’t I then have gotten a Guard badge every time I helped someone? Ultimately none of it is clear enough to make you feel like you’re actually finding out anything meaningful about yourself through your actions.
This problem is made worse by the in-game currency system, which unnecessarily complicates your various acts and achievements. You don’t actually earn the Cartography badge when you reach the summit of certain spots. You have to reach the summit, then talk to the cartographer there and buy the badge from them with cuts. Why the extra step? Probably to justify the existence of the in-game currency, which itself feels like an attempt to solve the non-problem of how to “reward” the player for exploration (gather things, exchange them for cuts, exchange that for badges and other things). Nothing takes the shine off a game about adventuring faster than realising much of the actual experience of play will be collecting stuff that can be exchanged for other stuff that can be exchanged for other stuff. Having to buy the Cartographer badge is maybe the most glaring example — it feels jarring, like some kind of diegetic microtransaction (now with more useless in-game purchases that are actually in the game!).
The Scrapper badge also reveals its own pointlessness when you consider that a lot of players will only collect scrap to sell it for money — but merely exchanging scrap for cash nets you a Scrapper badge. This also felt weirdly jarring to receive — it was like the game was telling me I love scrapping, when I was just trying to get paid so I could buy a scooter upgrade. Who honestly loves picking metal crap up off the floor? It’s a means to an end, and Sable — like so many other open world games — focuses on the means at the expense of the end. It seems less interested in making the journey itself engaging and resonant than in “rewarding” you with arbitrary tokens — badges, masks, coins, scrap, general stuff — almost none of which are very interesting or pleasurable to acquire.
How is it that a game so dedicated to minimalism in its visual design ended up containing this much fluff in its gameplay design? I wonder if it would have been better to bin the entire badge/mask/money system and instead implement a Skyrim-style levelling system where the more you do a thing (climb, survey, tinker, ride) the ever-so-slightly better you get at it. This would have provided a much more satisfying feeling of growth (in a game that is, ostensibly, about personal growth) as you start to be able to notice yourself climbing higher, riding faster, seeing farther, gliding better than you previously could have. If it was important to keep the mask thing as a cool visual symbol or piece of world-building, you could be offered one when you achieved a certain level of skill in a particular activity.
Upon being asked why he planned to summit Mount Everest, George Mallory replied: “Because it’s there”. He and many others since have made that treacherous climb, despite there not even being any chits at the top that could be traded for a badge. And yet, despite the obvious and marvellous fact that people have a natural sense of curiosity that will prompt exploration for its own sake, so-called adventure games insist on undermining this desire to forge our own tricky, sticky path into the unknown by plonking a quest marker exactly where we need to go and then making sure that what we’ll find there is yet another empty monument or derelict structure with a pile of money or a pair of shorts in it. Press X to collect. What a wild adventure.
But what truly mires Sable in shopping list territory is its inclusion of map/compass waypoints and uninspired fetch quests. Not only are a lot of Sable’s quests the kind of “go here and collect three thingamajigs” busywork we’ve come to know all too well, but most will come with a marker on your map and in-game compass. Also, every point of interest in the region is flagged on your map by talking to a cartographer, effectively killing the joy of discovering places for yourself (of course you can turn off the checkpoints and not converse with the cartographer, but it’s never a good sign when you have to play against a game’s mechanics in order to have fun). I consider this a particularly big stumble because Sable isn’t some sprawling AAA epic. It’s a 10–15 hour long game with a relatively small open world — it could absolutely have guided the player with more subtle verbal and visual hints rather than automatic map checkpoints. And it certainly didn’t need a quest about collecting poo. Open world games have a thing for poo stuff and I need this to stop.
Let’s talk for a moment about Breath of the Wild, because its influence is all over Sable — from being able to climb any surface, to the “manually mark whatever you can see in the distance and go there” mechanic. The bite-sized Sable had the potential to be a more elegant game than Breath of the Wild — but despite being a fraction of the size, it feels substantially more clunky. It’s not just the aforementioned overuse of needless items and tokens — it’s the mechanics that conflict with each other as well as with the fundamental theme of exploration and discovery. For instance, Sable’s lovely Breath of the Wild-esque manual scouting system is rendered pretty much unnecessary by the multiple ways the game flags almost everything on the map for you. And although the interior of Sable’s crashed ships strike me as an analogue to Breath of the Wild’s shrines, none of them contain a puzzle that’s remotely interesting.
It’s like Sable lifted some surface-level elements of Breath of the Wild without its underlying spirit, and in doing so it invited a comparison that doesn’t do it any favours. I played 120 hours of Breath of the Wild and still didn’t want it to end. I played about five hours of Sable before the open world fatigue set in. There are, thankfully, some quests in Sable that don’t contain markers — such as finding artefacts in the desert — and a few decent Zelda-ish environmental puzzles (not enough to make a difference). It also has great writing by the extremely talented Meg Jayanth — that much has been rightfully praised by many — but for me, great character writing in an open world game falls into the “nice, but not essential” category. An open world game lives and dies in the world itself — whether it mystifies and invites and eludes me — and what I, the player, can do in that world. What it comes down to is this: the world of Sable gave me a bunch to do, and I didn’t really want to do any of it.
I know that I’ve been quite negative in this article, but I want to acknowledge wholeheartedly that it must be really, really, REALLY hard to make a great adventure game. It must take an incredible amount of ingenuity and finesse to thread the needle between “too much hand-holding” and “leaving the player entirely lost and confused”, between “giving the player things to do” and, well, poo quests. It’s a testament to how difficult that process must be that a game can lift mechanics wholesale from possibly the greatest open world adventure game ever made, and still completely miss the mark.
And I understand that I’m excoriating Sable for the very thing that many (far, far too many) open world games do — undermine the inherent joy of exploration with trinkets and tchotchkes, use the map and mini-map as a crutch, turn the journey into a collect-a-thon of cuts or blobs or whatever trail of breadcrumbs the developers put there to guide you on your “journey of freedom and adventure”. To be fair, I excoriate all those games too (most of which are AAA titles). But it hurts more with Sable, partly because I had hoped and expected it to play to the strength of its indie origins — to be elegant and nifty and break the mold rather than getting bogged down in some of the same cumbersome quicksand big open world games do. I also expected more from Sable because of all the glowing praise I heard and read — reviews which pretty much all agreed that, while Sable might be hampered by some bugs and technical issues, it succeeds at being a great adventure game about finding your identity.
But I’m more than inclined to be forgiving of bugs and glitches in a small game made predominantly by a two-man team, as long as the underlying design is solid (Miasmata, anyone?). Unfortunately, for me, it wasn’t Sable’s technical performance but its fundamental design that was the biggest let-down. While I applaud its decision to reject both combat and a more typical “save the world” storyline, Sable is a game that promises self-discovery but has an unresolved identity crisis of its own. It seems to have fallen into a troublesome spot somewhere in-between richness and simplicity — it eschews a lot of the grandiosity and complexity of bigger open world games, but it’s still far too busy to be a truly minimalist gem. As a result, Sable feels — ironically — stuck in its own awkward adolescence, a game that can’t seem to decide whether it wants to replicate or shun open world conventions, and doesn’t successfully do either. Ultimately, all I discovered about myself playing Sable is how much I yearn for an adventure game that lives up to the name.
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