A young girl, called Sable, prepares to leave her village home, but, before she can, her village home leaves her. This is standard practice, for she is one of the Ibexii, a tribe of nomads who drift through the desert. Returning to camp one day, Sable finds it, well, deserted. She is just about to embark on a Gliding: a spiritual pilgrimage in which she will find herself, or not; get a job, or not; and absolutely go travelling. In other words, she is doing a gap year. “It’ll be over before you know it,” someone says. And Sable narrates to herself, “A warning and a reassurance, all in one.”
To aid in her quest, she has two things. One, a Gliding Stone, which allows her to grow a gravity-resistant shield around her person and descend the air at a stylishly non-vertical angle. And two, her hoverbike, which, with its stubby wings and its see-through cylinder of glowing fuel, gives the impression that she were sat bestride a jumbo syringe. This curious machine is named Simoon. I would say that Sable has named it—the way a slightly precious tennis player might christen a prized racket, say—but that may not be entirely respectful. “Among my clan, we believe that machines have names, held for ages like deep secrets, unheard by those unequipped to listen,” one character says. So there you have it. As Simoon skims, near-silently, over the dunes, a beam of red light bleeds from its exhaust, flanked by twin trails of dust, barrelling behind each wing. Very cool.
Much of Sable, it’s fair to say, is about cool. Not the pose-striking kind that you find in a game by Goichi Suda or in the Devil May Cry series, where any hint of human frailty is frosted over by the kinetic deeds of action heroes—more the quiet existential groove that you sink into while playing. The art direction, by Gregorios Kythreoti, casts the world in stark colours; one mountain range, for example, is rendered pastel-purple, until the sun rises and bathes the rock, as if tipping over a bucket of brown paint. (You roam through a speeded-up day-night cycle, granting ample opportunity to gaze at the shifting hues.) Kythreoti is clearly indebted to the French artist Jean Giraud, better known as Moebius—who specialised in surreal landscapes, scratched with fine detail—but, in motion, he forges a style of his own, restless yet static. We might call it the unstill life.
That description certainly suits Sable, whose adventure is of the peripatetic variety. She zooms through the baking expanse, backed by a spectral score, from Michelle Zauner (of the band Japanese Breakfast), which tranquilises the mood. Piano chords hang sparsely in the air, like the planks of a broken rope bridge. As you pick up odd assignments from the locals—fix a turbine, collect a few beetles, and so forth—your quest log soon fills up. Sable takes after the Link of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild; she can scale sheer walls, so long as her stamina allows, and a vantage—especially one of air-thinning height—provides not only a view but a roost, from which to launch and glide. But, while Link expressed his character through action, happening upon himself through selflessness, Sable provides an internal monologue for us to read. “I’m nervous, and she’s softly, sweetly amused,” for instance, which, for a stream of thought, mid-babble, sounds remarkably like strained writing. Then she describes her attempt at a shrug, with touching vulnerability: “The movement is jerky, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more aware of my little shoulders.”
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Take a look at Sable in motion, and you will see that she is right: the movement is jerky, and not just her shrugs. She leaps and sprints at a reduced frame rate, flickering through the world as though she were bound within a lazily thumbed flipbook. Is this faltering performance a reflection of her nervous disposition—a heroine running at a reduced frame of mind? If so, there is little chance that the agitation will spread. There is no combat here, and the only challenge comes by way of mild environmental puzzles: of lugging statues onto plinths or batteries into sockets, to open temple doors or to awaken the slumbering wrecks of marooned starships. Your rewards for these soft toils are information (scraps of mythology and background) and upgrades—new chassis styles for Simoon, or a fetching leather jacket for Sable.
If Fumito Ueda were in charge of the game, I dare say he would look at these distractions—along with the entire script—and find them highly subtractable. Ueda, who made Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, understands that what we lose in graspable fact we stand to gain in atmospheric power; the colossus may stoke our fear, but it is the shadow that fascinates us. Likewise, Sable herself requires no explanation. Think of the friendship, in Ico, between a boy and a princess, that strengthened in glances, and in the intimate rumble as the pair ran, hand in hand. I remember feeling guilty at the jerky movement, as he pulled on her arm, and I don’t think I had ever been more aware of her little shoulders. Games like Rime, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, and now Sable key into the iconography of Ueda’s work, tapping the storytelling potential of animation and simple mechanics, but they can’t resist the dampening call of backstory.
Still, this is not to say that Sable doesn’t summon a climate of ambience worth basking in. As you begin, you may not be quite sure of where you’re going, or of how long you will be held in its airy bubble, but that is the point. Playing it is like going on a Gliding. It offers an otherworldly break from the busyness of life, and, when you do return to Earth, you will do so with a smooth landing, and without stress. In fact, as you prepare to leave the game the game will have already left you—a warning and a reassurance, all in one.
Publisher: Raw Fury
Available on: Xbox Series X / S [reviewed on], Xbox One, PC
Release Date: September 23, 2021
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