Sable might look like a posterized, sci-fi Journey, but it’s all Breath of the Wild. It’s got the latest Zelda game’s climbing, gliding, and sliding mechanics and is set in an open world with a gorgeous art style, but there’s one big difference: Sable has no combat. Through the story-focused exploration game, developer”Shedworks” is attempting to capture the meditative wandering and satisfying secret-discovery a great open-world can provide, without the usual violent interruptions most in the genre feel the need to include.
Sable had a playable character, striking visuals, and a space to move around in when”Shedworks” showed off its announcement trailer at Xbox’s E3 2018 conference, but it was less than six months into full-time development at the time, with few completed systems beneath its rolling dunes. Fortunately, Sable’s vibe was compelling enough without them. The sweeping shots of its Moebius- and Studio Ghibli-inspired landscapes brought plenty of media attention to the project. Answering the public’s questions helped”Shedworks” nail down exactly the kind of game it wanted Sable to become – a “coming-of-age tale of discovery through exploration.” After some team growth and a year and a half of development, that vision is starting to come together.
Gregorios Kythreotis, ‘Shedworks'” co-founder and art and design lead, told Screen Rant making a video game without a combat system is a challenge the team has actively worked to solve, building in alternative motivation to explore. Daniel Fineberg, the studio’s other co-founder, and lead programmer added that combat is usually satisfying because of the appeal of executing something well, not necessarily because of the violence itself. Without this system to master, “Shedworks” is leaning on Sable’s music (by Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast), atmosphere, and style. Judging by most YouTube and social media replies to Sable footage, these elements already have many viewers interested.
Fineberg: We really want the appeal of the game to be … just sort of being in the world. Just the act of traveling across the desert and being in control of where you’re going and what you’re doing. … We want it to be thoughtful. I guess it takes a certain kind of player to want that, but we’d like to think that that’s appealing to a lot of people looking to escape killing stuff.
That’s not to say the removal of combat would leave a particularly devastating hole in every Breath of the Wild-style open world. In fact, with its much-hated weapon durability system, Breath of the Wild’s combat may have been its worst feature. But “Shedworks” is still providing more than aesthetics to fill in that extra gap. Sable is written by Meg Jaynath, recipient of a UK Writer’s Guild award for her work on mobile narrative game 80 Days. This means quests and a full dialogue choice system, based on that of 80 Days. These choices play into the central goal of Sable, which is to assist the titular protagonist in a coming-of-age ceremony called “Gliding,” completed by helping out NPCs in exchange for masks that reflect something about their wearers’ identities.
Kythreotis said Sable’s story threads, along with failure states in puzzles and other obstacles found throughout the world, will help provide the “peril” traditionally felt through the consequences of video game combat. There’s no central story arc in Sable, however, beyond the protagonist’s goal of finding a mask that suits her. No single storyline needs to be completed for a player to make it to the end. Jaynath’s branching 80 Days narrative experience will undoubtedly help execute this, but, while a decentralized story provides lots of player freedom, it may also require the world itself to draw players from location to location.
Compared to Journey’s artsy, abstract depiction of a pilgrimage’s emotional beats, Sable is very literal. It takes place in a world with an established history and realistic people going about their daily lives. Everything players see on the horizon that “doesn’t look like a rock” is there for a reason. With Sable’s compelling art style and relatively sparse desert setting, it shouldn’t be too hard for these more complex structures – ancient ruins, downed spaceships, etc. – to intrigue wandering players. But a consequence of working every day on an exploration-focused game is a loss of context for how interesting its locations are. This can be solved with playtesting, but Kythreotis said he has to constantly rely on others’ feedback to know if something is intriguing enough. “It’s all guesswork,” he said until someone who isn’t developing the game sees it.
Fineberg: This chamber is meant to be grand and intimidating, and the player is meant to look up and go, ‘Wow, look at that! That’s amazing! That’s huge!’ But obviously, when we go in that chamber, we look at it like, ‘Ugh, we really need to fix the lights. Ah, the textures are a bit wrong.’
Collectible items will help provide a reason to visit Sable’s structures other than their surface-level appearances. Players will find “video game-y” hidden collectibles, like clothing, masks, and hoverbike upgrades as rewards for quests and in hidden treasure chests. Kythreotis and Fineberg said, by now, Sable’s core systems are mostly in place. There is a map screen and a quest system, and the climbing, gliding, and hoverbike mechanics are all functional. What’s left is filling out the world with content, like these hidden collectibles, plus NPCs and puzzles.
“Shedworks” isn’t ready to announce an official release date for Sable, but Kythreotis said, “for our own sanity,” the team would like to finish before the end of the year. Luckily, Sable’s almost modular design – its self-contained chunks of content in a wide-open desert and its non-essential narratives – allow the team a lot of flexibility as far as what stays and what goes. Now, the work ahead is about finding the right balance of room to breathe and things to do in the desert, without the all-too-easy fix of tossing filler combat encounters in the spaces between.
Sable is planned to release on consoles and PC sometime in the second half of 2020.
Read more: screenrant.com