Shedworks’ Greg Kythreotis tells me that the first time that he and his development partner, Dan Fineberg, saw Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the response went something along the lines of: “oh s**t”.
The developers had been kicking around ideas for a game that featured a Ghibli-infused living comic artstyle, non-linear open world exploration, a peaceful outlook, even wall climbing across almost all surfaces. Except Breath of the Wild emerged out of Kyoto’s premier dream factory, and Sable is being made primarily by two men in a shed in north London.
The thing is, once Greg and Dan actually played Breath of the Wild, and saw the reaction to it, that comparison wasn’t a problem anymore. The public’s sheer delight at a game that offered the trappings of an open world without any of the clutter has actually bolstered their resolve – it might be way at the other end of the indie spectrum from Zelda, but Sable already feels less like an imitator and more like it’ll be a worthy member of the same new subgenre.
There’s no way I’ll do justice to how this game looks in words, so I’ll pepper this preview with the gifs that got Sable signed by publisher Raw Fury.
Sable is our heroine, a young girl from a nomadic pastoral tribe, now entering a desert filled with cracked remnants of what seems to be a disappeared civilization, some stuffed with retro-futurist machinery that feels oddly, abstractly spiritual in purpose. She – and you – are on a pilgrimage, her journey to become an adult among her tribe, simply by exploring and interacting with the world around her, and seeing where it takes her.
If you were really boring, you might be tempted to yawn out the phrase “walking simulator” at this point, but you’d be wrong on two counts: One: this is very much a Zelda-like set-up. The open world’s pitched somewhere between Hyrule and Journey, a desert scattered with structures and monoliths, each tempting you to stray from whatever path you’ve decided on. Inside, those points of interest include platforming, puzzles and dialogue tree-driven meetings with other wandering strangers – but crucially not combat. Sable’s designed purely around exploration, never battles.
Two: Sable has a hoverbike. This feels like a very big world, even at this extremely early stage of development (at one point, I travel so far that the devs have to restart my game, because there’s currently no easy way of finding my way back to where I should be). Wonderfully, this world’s solution to that problem is for everyone to have their own zippy future-vehicle – Sable’s will be fully customisable, with each modular part offering different handling and statistics. Right now, the ways some of these parts interact makes your bike a juddering mess – in a lovely touch, Shedworks might actually keep that feature in. The idea is not that Sable’s creating the best bike, but the bike she likes the most, and you might just fall in love with your floating jalopy.
The idea that you’re simply choosing what you enjoy most will seemingly cross much of the game. Dressing Sable in different clothes is purely cosmetic, while changing her mask (everyone in this world wears one) is more of a story choice than a dryly mechanical one. Every tribe has their own style of mask, denoting status or job, and your choice could affect how you’re reacted to. There might be a master mask maker who offers you one of his wares as a gift, impressing others you meet on your pilgrimage.
Much of this is still theoretical – Sable is very early in development, and at one point I manage to break the demo I played in a way the devs have never seen before (sorry again). But what’s already in place makes it feel far less than a pipedream. There’s a clarity of artistic vision, both visually and mechanically, that already had me aching to see more than actually exists in the demo. It’s been enough for Meg Jayanth, the celebrated writer who worked on 80 Days, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Sunless Sea, to come onboard. Similarly, lo-fi pop minstrel, Japanese Breakfast is providing the soundtrack, inspired simply by the landscapes Kythreotis has been creating.
Shedworks doesn’t want the team to expand any more beyond that. It’d like the development of this quiet, personal game to remain, well, quiet and personal. Where Zelda went for epic scale and apocalyptic storyline, Sable feels so much quieter, so much more restrained. But that doesn’t mean it won’t make you feel the same way.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK News Editor, and he has nothing wittier to say than “gissit”. Follow him on Twitter.