When I think of Sable, trying to conjure for it an elevator pitch that I might use to convince my friends to play, my mind settles on describing it as: what if the pod-racing sequence from The Phantom Menace made a baby with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in a world where no one suffers, and everyone’s needs are met? It’s an unwieldy description, but it gets at the heart of what I love about the game.
Developed by Shedworks, a small team based in London, Sable generated a lot of interest at its E3 2018 preview with its Moebius-inspired art style and similarities to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Comparisons between Sable and BotW are inevitable but welcome, according to its developers, who said they took heavy inspiration from 2017’s nigh universally acclaimed game of the year. In Sable, as in BotW, the seemingly endless world lies open to you, demanding no more from you than your attention and appreciation. Almost anything can be scaled, there are hundreds of bugs, clothing items, and cosmetics to collect, and, predictably, there’s a paragliding feature.
But that’s where the similarities end. Rather than being driven to defeat an ancient enemy, you are the engine in Sable. There is no combat, no evil to outwit, nor any grand mystery the game demands you solve. Instead, Sable gifts you with a pod-racer and some encouraging words of self-determination and discovery, then lets you go. I didn’t think I’d enjoy such a game. I’m a creature of structure, preferring an objective be clearly spelled out for me. Without that kind of guidance, I grow bored of aimless wanderings or become so paralyzed with choice that I simply decide to do nothing and turn off the game. But Sable’s desert world, hiding discoveries buried within and above the dunes, enticed me into a state of pleasant and quiet contentment instead of mindless wanderings.
You play as the titular Sable, a person on the cusp of adulthood who embarks on their coming of age journey called “The Gliding.” In Sable’s culture, young people are sent out alone to experience the world and learn their place in it. To figure that out, they must earn masks that denote a particular profession, and at the end of their Gliding, they must choose a mask to lock in the vocation they will be bound to for the rest of their life.
To earn masks, Sable is given tasks by the people they encounter on their gliding, the reward for which is usually a badge. The tasks are simple, usually involving you collecting some kind of item, which requires a bit of creative platforming, and that’s it. Collect three of the same type of badge and exchange them for a mask.
Do not approach Sable expecting it to be a bunch of side-quests strung together to form a full game. Though there are the characters who give you badge quests, the majority of what you experience in the game is because of your own exploration, and therein lies its charm. There were often times when I was heading between objectives that I noticed something interesting-looking on the horizon. The landscape unfurled like a kicked piece of carpet, revealing a visually distinct piece of land or a structure that begged to be explored. You’re rewarded for your inquisitiveness with money, clothing, or a bike cosmetic. There are also little Korok-like creatures called Chums that, if you turn them into their mother, will reward you with an increased stamina bar. There are no quests that point to these areas, so you’d never know they existed without wandering into them.
You may run into some problems playing Sable. The game suffers from frustrating bugs that occur just often enough to distract from an otherwise lovely experience. Quest objectives sometimes don’t spawn or trigger. Saving and quitting usually fixes the issue, but it doesn’t always happen on the first try. Also, Sable can clip through surfaces you want to climb, which can undo some healthy progress if you’re in the middle of some creative platforming.
I also appreciate that the point of Sable is for you to cruise on your hoverbike vibing to music that wouldn’t sound out of place on a “lofi beats to chill to” playlist, but sometimes, I wish there was just a little bit more in the world for you to see. The landscape is the attraction, and it is breathtaking, but there were times that after cresting a dune, I had hoped to see a hidden town or a temple to explore instead of just more sand.
Sable is a soft, slow game that only asks of you to be present in your surroundings. I learned that lesson acutely and by accident. At one point, I noticed that I didn’t know what I could do with the menagerie of bugs I collected. To find out, I fast-traveled to the nearest vendor to see if I could sell them or trade them for a badge. While speaking to the vendor, I noticed smoke billowing in the distance — indicative of some kind of settlement. Sable refuses to give you explicit direction but will hint at where you can visit on your map. When I saw the smoke, I checked my map to see if there was a village I somehow missed in my travels, but I couldn’t see any of the usual visual cues the map uses to denote a place of interest.
“Sable is a soft, slow game that only asks of you to be present in your surroundings.”
The village was far away and situated atop a plateau too tall for my stamina bar. Since most of my enjoyment of Sable came from figuring out, “How do I get up there?” — I decided to try. It took a fair bit of planning and stamina management, but I made it to the settlement to find a lone NPC. I opened my map again since, once you visit a place in Sable, it gets named on your map and becomes a fast-travel destination. It was then I noticed that this place was indeed marked on my map, but I was too far zoomed out and covered in quest waypoints to see it. It felt like a bell going off in my head, in which the premise of Sable revealed itself to me: f you focus too much on the forest, you miss the trees.
At the beginning of the game, your mother figure says that your Gliding can be as long or as short as you want it. Functionally, this means there is no set number of masks you must collect before you can “end” the game. After earning only one, you can simply return home, select a mask, and complete your Gliding. I didn’t focus too much on acquiring masks, knowing I could return home at any time, figuring there would be some point at which all the wandering would finally get to me enough to “end” the game.
While exploring, I found the wreckage of a spaceship. Inside, it was like the shrines in Breath of the Wild, requiring you to complete a simple puzzle to gain access to the ship’s control room. There, you meet an AI who shares with you a piece of a recording from the long dead crew. The AI suggests you find other ships to piece together the whole recording but can’t tell you where they are. As I went about earning badges and climbing the highest peaks, I slowly found each of the spaceships, and through them, I learned the story of this world and how its people got there. Once I learned the secret of the world, I was satisfied that I had reached a natural ending point. That knowledge was what my Gliding was supposed to show me, and more than that, I had gotten all that I needed out of the game. So I returned home, chose my mask, and ended the game.
Most video games are about “beating” them, giving you an objective to satisfy or a quest to complete. Sable doesn’t need you to complete it. That might be why the game’s best moments don’t happen along some questline but are experienced only through dogged exploration.
Sable is available now on Steam, Xbox, and Xbox Game Pass.