The last time we covered Sable was more than two years ago – then midway through its development, it was already looking truly special even back then. So special that, when it was shown off at E3 in 2018, interest in the game exploded, and Sable rapidly became one of the most anticipated indie games on the horizon. It’s not hard to see why: set on a desert planet that may or may not be Earth, Sable is an open-world adventure about exploration and discovery: cast in the role of a young woman on a quest to find five lost masks, you’re free to roam the landscape as you see fit. You can hurtle along sand-dunes on your hoverbike, climb cliffs in search of abandoned buildings filled with secrets, or chat to the world’s masked inhabitants, who’ll provide quests and hints as to where to go next.
Sable recalls the design of such video game staples as Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Breath of the Wild, but its sci-fi world reaches further afield – the depiction of a ruined world where remnants of a previous society’s tech is treated with almost holy relevance recalls Walter M. Miller Jr.’s novel, A Canticle For Leibowitz. And isn’t the intrepid heroine roaming post-apocalyptic vistas akin to the one in master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s manga and animated feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Yes, agrees Sable’s creative director Gregorios Kythreotis, who reaches up to grab a book of Nausicaä artwork from a shelf. “I picked this up from the Studio Ghibli Museum in Japan,” he tells us, referring to the Tokyo-based attraction dedicated to the work of Miyazaki and his collaborators. “At the beginning, before we kicked off with Sable in 2017, I went to the museum. I was going through some personal stuff at the time – a few of my family members had just died – and I think, going there, experiencing that, and then coming back to start work on this project, something about it was always going to just stick with me and always be part of it.”
Echoes of Miyazaki’s clean, delicate style are easy to spot in Sable’s gorgeous cel-shaded environments, and the artful minimalism of the visuals also extends to the world’s design: unlike other titles of its type, Sable doesn’t contain combat or harsh survival mechanics – instead, it offers a calmer experience where the player is rewarded rather than punished for gliding off into the unknown. “We don’t have a main narrative that the player’s required to follow,” Kythreotis says. “We have a beginning and end, but the middle is completely loose, like a series of short stories. So people can play it and pace it how they want – if you get stuck on a puzzle, we don’t ask you to finish it, you can just walk away, and the same’s true for a piece of narrative content… we tried to have an element of freedom in the game, like A Short Hike for example, or Breath of the Wild. But then the flip side of Breath of the Wild is that there’s combat; there’s always things that can kill you. We don’t really want to do that – we wanted to give players the confidence to just explore, so in that sense, it’s quite a relaxing game.”
Back when Sable was in its earliest stages, studio co-founders Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg thought carefully about their individual skills and how they could use them to make a video game. At this point, the pair were still working out of a garden shed belonging to Kythreotis’ parents (hence the studio’s name, Shedworks) and had mostly worked on smaller-scale projects like websites and apps. With Fineberg’s degree in Comparative Literature and Kythreotis having studied architecture, the duo asked themselves: what kind of project would suit their strengths? And equally important: what kind of game could they make as a tiny independent team of two?
Many of the design decisions that make Sable so distinctive sprang from those conversations: the clean, cel-shaded rendering style, for example, meant that the world could be constructed from simpler, low-poly assets. “A lot of what we do revolves around making sure we can produce this,” Kythreotis says. “Like the masks that the characters wear – they’re quite an integral part of the culture and mechanics of the game, but originally they came about because we didn’t want to animate faces, so we said, ‘How can we turn this weakness into a strength?’ A lot of decisions have been made like that. The lack of combat for example: we love combat in other games, but we thought, ‘We don’t think we can do it to the level that Dark Souls can’.”
Kythreotis’ architectural training, meanwhile, allowed him to focus on one of Sable’s most immediately striking elements: the vast buildings that jut out of the desert landscape. At once ancient-seeming and technologically advanced, they’re the hiding place for many of the game’s mysteries and puzzles. “I think one of the cool things that we’ve tried to do with the world-building is make sure it feels like a special place, but these are just ordinary people living here,” Kythreotis says. “It feels somewhat grounded in that sense – it has a stronger sense of life… also, we give the player such a freeform set of skills to explore, the buildings have to be fully realised – they can’t just be a shell. So having a background in architecture has helped with that, and the way I try to approach it is by thinking about the function, the context, but also trying to create buildings where it’s less of a structured experience. Instead, we’re nudging players towards opportunities where moments can occur rather than having anything specific in mind. But level designers do a lot of the things architects do in terms of using openings and windows to create viewpoints, or using spaces to create psychological effects and emotions.”
Exploration and mystery are so key to Sable that one of the early design decisions Shedworks made was to avoid giving the player any kind of mini-map to follow. “We didn’t want to have mini-maps in our game, and I feel that way quite strongly,” Kythreotis says. “I feel like it’s the equivalent of going abroad somewhere and just staring at your phone the whole time. Because it optimises the way you navigate the environment, so it kills the experience. I feel like a lot of games suffer from that. So we try to make sure we designed the game to solve that problem. Like, even Skyrim, they had the compass on the top of the screen, and that solution’s very elegant. In that regard, we looked at Ico and also the Souls games, because those environments are constructed so that you understand them without needing a map at all. Shadow of the Colossus has a map, but it’s really zoomed out, so it’s more about locating yourself in relation to other landmarks.”
As careful as Shedworks has been to keep Sable’s scope under control, making an open-world game as a two-person studio still presented a challenge – not least because the landscape’s studded with dozens of NPCs that all needed to be designed, animated, and written for. “I definitely understand why ruins are a useful video game tool,” Kythreotis observes with a rueful smile. “It’s so much easier to make a building that’s uninhabited and implies a history than inhabit it, because then you start introducing the uncanny valley into your architecture. That’s such a hard problem to solve, and so much effort goes into that.”
The sheer scale of the game – not to mention the stresses of Covid-19 on production – have meant that development has taken rather longer than Shedworks had originally envisioned. But with Sable’s release mere weeks away (it’s slated for 23 September), the largest hurdles have now been cleared, and Kythreotis is already anticipating a well-earned rest. “Covid made production much harder, but we’re on track, and I’d say the reception to the demo was really good. And again, I’d say we’re setting expectations – we want people to realise we’re a small team making a pretty ambitious project. Maybe we shouldn’t have made such a big project, in retrospect… I think we’re ready to move on, creatively, and have been for a while. Maybe we’ll want a smaller, palate-cleanser project before we dive into another long one. Because we never thought this project would end up being four years of production. You’re constantly moving that end date, so you push yourself to get to that, and then that gets moved back. It’s hard to know how to pace yourself when the distances start changing. It’s hard to go from a 100 metre sprint to 800 metres, you know? You’re going to suffer. So yeah, we need a break! I think we deserve one.”