Lost horizon: looking ahead at Sable

Genre: Open world adventure
Format: PC, Xbox One
Developer: Shedworks
Publisher: Raw Fury
Release: 2019

If you already know anything about Shedworks, the developer behind Sable, then it’s likely to be that its two core team members while away the hours in a shed at the bottom of a garden in north London. This shed represents a rather obvious icon of indie gaming; just two guys making it work as they produce games for the sheer desire to do so.

Neither Greg Kythreotis nor Dan Fineberg, the two friends that formed the company, had experience in game development before and instead sought to make that experience for themselves. “The reason the shed is a focus for is because it’s the reason we’ve been viable as a business,” says Greg, “because it kept our overheads down even when we weren’t really earning much money and it meant we could survive. Without it we couldn’t really survive in the same way.”

But the shed isn’t what makes Shedworks so interesting; rather, it’s the duo’s attitude towards the development of Sable. While the developer has released mobile games before, Sable is its first ‘proper’ project, for want of a better, less insulting word. It is a game that - even in the face of just screenshots - is able to captivate; it is visually unique and creates a sense of curiousness about the title that, as it turns out, is an integral part of its ideology. “The art style is something that we felt we needed in order to serve the experience of the game that we wanted,” explains Greg. “If the art didn't work, the experience we wanted to create didn't work, so it was crucial to get correct. We didn't know exactly how it would end up looking once we got everything working but the effect was extremely powerful; we also never thought it would have the level of appeal that it's ended up having.”

Hopping on a hoverbike and kicking dust in the air in search of mysteries and meaning is an intriguing concept.

This appeal was largely born from its first public showing at E3 last year, standing out on stage amid numerous other upcoming indie games. It’s here that interest in Sable exploded, the initial Moebius-inspired art style piquing gamers, though Greg and Dan namedrop narrative-focused games like 80 Days, Firewatch and Submerged as gameplay influences. “Breath of the Wild was the one that convinced us that the structure of our open world would work,” adds Dan, “but even then that still had survival mechanics, kind of, and it still had combat.”

And that’s the thing, Sable has no combat whatsoever; the experience is built around exploration, some puzzle solving and interacting with the world and its inhabitants. It’s driven by a narrative, but one that is at the behest of the player and not a scripted, guided hand.

The visual style of the game is influenced by a great many number of resources, though the line drawing effect is heavily drawn from French comic artist Moebius.

One man and his bike

“The core is just exploring a desert on a hoverbike,” suggests Greg, alluding to the Podracer-like vehicle that the player will use to traverse the open world. “The core experience is that of wonder and curiosity and trying to encapsulate that feeling as you look out at this vast, lonely landscape.”

That’s where the game’s essence of curiosity comes in, since there is no forced manner of guidance for the player but instead their own desire to seek and explore. “The desert is obviously quite empty and quite lonely,” says Dan, “and we wanted there to be some strange looking thing on the horizon and for the player to think ‘huh, I wonder what’s over there’, and then for them to drive up to it, explore it and find out something about it.”

This alone doesn’t sound all that novel, admittedly, but it’s the freedom of exploration that stands out as compelling. The story is dealt out in piecemeal, with “secrets and mysteries” littered throughout the world or disparate short stories with NPCs - a refreshing take on a tired genre. “Open world games are a very well-established genre with quite suffocating conventions of side quests and icons on the minimap,” explains Dan of designing curiosity into the game. “The sell of those games is that they’ve built this massive world and it’s packed full of stuff for you to do, but I find that quite stressful. There’s only so many fetch quests and side thingies that you actually have to do before you can see where it’s going.”

Allusions to the much-beloved Journey are obvious, though Sable is open world instead.

As its own answer to the frustrating tropes of open world gaming, Shedworks is eschewing the typical clutter that these games are crammed with: no towers to climb to unlock the map, no resources to gather or bases to upgrade. Sable is an open world adventure in the truest sense of the phrase. This will carry over to the storytelling, too, with certain branches and parts locked off based on the way it is played, as Greg explains: “I’m quite happy to say to people: you’ve made a decision and now that’s meant that you block out a storyline for yourself, and that’s a decision you’ve made and you just have to live with that. I like games that do that.”

It’s a brave attitude to take with a modern game but then that seems to be nature of Shedworks; the pair have made it clear that if they weren’t working on something they were passionate about, they likely wouldn’t be making games at all. “The dream is that each person will seek out the stories that they care about and they find interesting,” adds Dan of Sable’s approach to its content. “You should be able to have a conversation with a friend and their playthrough could be completely different.”

So far the excitement around Sable is purely a visual one, its trailer setting the tone for what the game intends to be and little else. Shedworks is keeping a its lips tight on as much of the details as possible, and rightly so; without its mystery to discover, Sable perhaps wouldn’t be nearly as tantalising as it currently is. If these two inexperienced developers can maintain that sense of curiosity, Sable could well be a standout open world experience.

Exploration isn’t limited to vehicular travel, either, though how much of scaling the world will be necessary is still an unknown.

A learning process

Neither of Shedworks two key developers have experience with game development: Dan studied English literature and Greg studied architecture. As such there’s a lot of learning on the go with Sable’s development, with Greg suggesting that most of the times the pair turn to Google for solutions, wherever the internet has the answer. “Unity forums, GDC Vault talks, YouTube tutorials,” he says. “When we were starting out, Lynda tutorials were helpful too.”

The contract work the pair did prior to starting Sable was significant, too, since it meant they could “see how professionals with experience structured projects and how they made decisions and conducted themselves”.

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