(Sable is available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X and Series S, and Microsoft Windows.)
Review copy provided by Indie Game Collective.
“Gaming as an artform has been a not-so-hotly-debated topic that’s existed since its inception in 1873. Over the decades, many scholars have spit-balled a variety of often controversial takes on the subject. Take Cher for example (who hasn’t aged a day, by the way). During the Great Gaming Prohibition of 1919, Cher advocated furiously for gaming to remain legal for all to enjoy.
She had argued that video games gave people an opportunity to interact with art in a way that wasn’t possible before. As a matter of fact, her argument as to why gaming shouldn’t be outlawed was so moving, the board of directors for INSERT COUNTRY NAME HERE ultimately decided to reverse the prohibition.
From there, the rest is history. Cher was able to use the media attention she received to her advantage, eventually becoming a world renowned singer. Gaming was given its own branch of government, and art was taken seriously once and for all. The world then knew peace, and a golden age of prosperity for humanity began.”
-Kevin James, Gaming Historian (circa. 2009)
I want to tell you about a game I played recently called Sable. This was actually one I’d initially hoped to review when it launched in late 2021. Unfortunately at the time, the game was plagued by a few minor (yet somehow majorly annoying) bugs. Thankfully Sable was patched shortly after. Now the bugs I had previously encountered are nowhere to be seen.
And now I can melt over this game properly.
Sable sets itself in an almost post-apocalyptic setting reminiscent of Mad Max meets Star Wars. Nomadic tribes live in isolation from one another, occasionally gathering in city hubs to barter with one another. The people of the land all wear masks as a representation of their purpose in life. Machinists, who build landspeeders called sand cutters, speak the ancient tongue of technology. Suffice it to say, Sable’s setting has a lot going for it.
As a coming of age story, the game follows the adventures of a young Woman named Sable during a pilgrimage of self-discovery. Her quest will take her to a wide range of desert locales, where she’ll meet a wide range of interesting characters. Many of whom will provide opportunities for Sable to help them in one way or another. In return, many of these people will give you a talisman of sorts.
Many of these relics are directly tied to whatever task Sable completes as well. So helping a cartographer rewards her with a cartographer’s talisman, helping a merchant rewards her with a merchant’s talisman, and so on. When three of a specific talisman have been acquired, Sable is able to craft a mask of her own (sort of), ultimately culminating in her rite of passage to adulthood. It’s a simple premise that does well to set the stage for the journey.
Beyond the game’s opening and closing sections, Sable is fairly non-linear when it comes to progression. Its sizable open world allows for freedom of exploration that reminds me heavily of 2017’s Breath of the Wild. Sable may not compare in scope, but it’s still full of all the climbing, puzzle solving, and oddly comforting intrigue that made Breath of the Wild so fun.
Sable’s game world is so full of different and exciting things that it excels in the craft of getting the player to stick around for “just five more minutes”. But I also think it draws the player in with its uncompromising commitment to creating and maintaining its unique atmosphere. If I had to give a comparison, I’d probably say Journey, which hits many of the same emotional beats. Making a game that’s equally as isolating as it is comforting is no easy balancing act, but it is one I think Sable’s developers aced.
It’s also nice to see a game utilize a unique art style popularized by the late French artist, Jean Giraud. You may know him as Moebius.
His signature style was prevalent throughout the 1970’s and beyond, both in sci-fi and in the general media. Almost dream-like in presentation, Moebius’ work was full of surreal, abstract imagery, which, when mixed with one of a kind color schemes, made for a hypnotizing series of works. His art was so iconic in fact, he’d even go on to contribute storyboard and design concepts to many well-known projects, such as Alien, and Tron.
And now I can officially scratch “give an art lesson in the middle of a review about a niche indie game” off of my bucket list. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
So let’s talk about Sable’s gameplay now, because it’s something you’ll be doing from start to finish. That is the whole point of games after all. Though, I’m not sure there’s as much “playing” going on in Sable as there is “walking from place to place while being entranced by the aforementioned atmosphere”.
There are larger quest chains for you to tackle, though these are few and far between. One of the highlights for me was a quest I picked up in the early hours of the game. There’s this town called Eccria, and it’s possibly one of the first places you’ll visit on your journey. I won’t go too into the specifics of what happens here, but just know that you’ll be expected to do some A Grade detective work in order to solve a classic case of who-dun-it.
Outside of these major questlines, Sable’s gameplay loop remains the same throughout its 7 to 10 hour runtime. Most of your time will be spent going from one location to another, solving not-so-challenging puzzles or asking locals for ways to make money so you can buy parts for your sandcutter.
There are a wide range of ways to whittle away the day in Sable, though I’d argue much of it boils down to the same rinse and repeat formula. And while it’s certainly something I have my gripes with, it’s such an inconsequential thing in the grand scheme of my experience with Sable that I can’t help but overlook it a bit.
Because when I think back on my time with Sable, I’m not reflecting on the last puzzle I solved, or what the most recent audio log said. Instead I think about the moments in-between these moments, where I found myself staring off into the starry night sky. The moments where it was just me and my sandcutter in the isolation of the desert, with nothing but the sounds of Japanese Breakfast to kill the silence.
These moments allowed me to reflect on my own life choices in life. It gave me a window to look back at my own history. To view the steps I had taken to claim a mask of my own. Which was made even more enlightening by the realization that I’ve yet to pick a mask. At this point, I’m not sure if I ever will either. Perhaps, not too unlike Sable’s journey, I’ll continue to wander until I’ve found a future worth wearing a mask for. Or, perhaps, the mask of the wanderer has inadvertently been chosen.
Because it’s about the journey, not the destination.