‘Sable’ devs offer an all-new perspective for open world adventures
Devs Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg discuss the making of their indie smash, and why its “heads-up” approach is such a breath of fresh air.
Spend an hour with Sable and you might notice that you’re looking at its open world differently to most others. Your eyes aren’t oriented downwards at sparkling collectibles, or even towards the corner of the screen, squinting at a minimap. Rather, they’re directed up at a golden horizon, scanning for the next tantalizing landmark.
And what a skyline it is, filled with rusting spaceships, ancient monuments, and balloons tethered to gigantic pieces of rock. The elevator pitch is simple: Sable is what you get when you cross Fumito Ueda’s melancholic classic Shadow of the Colossus with the opening minutes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Rey scavenging a gigantic felled aircraft on Jakku. As creative director Gregorios Kythreotis explains over Zoom, this is precisely where the first seed of an idea came from: “What if you played as someone who never left that planet,” he says. “You just lived on it, explored these giant ships, and you weren’t a hero?” Between this and Ueda, perhaps you already have a sense of Sable’s tone — it’s a big, lonely, decidedly quiet video game, one that delights in making you feel small in its mythic landscape.
While the game’s mood is ultimately familiar, there’s a deep alien mystery imbued in the scorched desert of Midden, rendered in exquisite clean lines that recall the French comic book artist Moebius. You experience this place alongside teenage protagonist, Sable, who is about to undergo the Gliding, a rite of passage on her way to adulthood. She ventures out alone on her hoverbike, a spluttering contraption that kicks out plumes of dust and smoke like the motorcycles of Akira. She will get lost but then find herself, both figuratively and literally, and the way we, as players, help her through this process, is by directing her virtual body across the game’s gently undulating dunes, simply pointing her in the direction we please.
It is, as Kythreotis says, a “heads-up” open world adventure, one whose prototype was put together in 2016 just as fatigue with the popular design had reached its zenith. In that year alone, Ubisoft released Watch Dogs 2, Far Cry Primal, and The Division, games that were so big and unwieldy, crammed with so much to do, that they relied on icon-filled maps to organize players’ attention. The “heads-up” approach that Kythreotis and technical director Daniel Fineberg had been mulling over was a response to these so-called “map games.” They wanted to deepen immersion by pulling a player’s attention away from screen-cluttering HUDs and UIs and back onto the virtual world itself — its sounds, sights, and emotions.
It has been a long road cultivating this grand virtual space. The prototype consisted of a handful of items found on the Unity Asset Store, a hovercraft, and two kilometers’ worth of sand dunes. Then a giant cube, itself half a kilometer in size, plonked at one end of the map — something for players to drive to (here’s some great footage). They took this idea to an indie games meet-up at The Crown, a pub in Angel, London, and it resonated immediately. “Usually, people play whatever you bring out of courtesy, but this time, something felt different,” says Kythreotis. “People were genuinely interested. They found it compelling to drive about this environment.”
Five years later, Sable’s wistful realm features much more than a few dunes and a cube. It has become a game rich in ruinous, unresolved wonder, filled with vehicular wreckage, colossal skeletons, and stone monuments, all of which feel like they derive from different epochs in a vast, ancient history. A sense of deep time extends to the rock formations whose fossilized sedimentary layers are emphasized by the game’s sharp lines. These lines sit on top of every 3D model in the game, flickering as the sun extends over them, as if they have a life of their own. Alongside environmental clipping that happens so frequently that it must surely be an aesthetic choice, Sable has a certain kind of glitchiness that makes it feel like its own lost artefact, one we as players are discovering just like those Sable unearths herself.
For Kythreotis, the feeling of getting lost in this world, of simply wandering through its relics, is key. “That’s where the challenge comes in, and where the game’s journey comes alive,” he says. “You see something in the distance, you go down into the dunes, and it disappears. And then, as you start to crest over another dune, you see it again, except it’s a bit closer. Or you see it in a place you didn’t expect because you’ve gone off track.”
Very few games trust players to be okay with such a loose structure of exploration.
Very few games trust players to be okay with such a loose structure of exploration except, of course, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of Wild. When it was released in 2017, just a few days after Horizon Zero Dawn delivered the apex of the “map game,” Kythreotis remembers feeling conflicted. On the one hand, it was an “oh shit” moment — Nintendo had got there first so what was the point in Sable? On the other, it felt like a validation of his and Fineberg’s ideas.
What Breath of the Wild offered (aside from a climbing mechanic that Sable cheekily lifts) was a model for how a small team might practically approach open world design, not just in terms of space, but how such space talks to story. Kythreotis and Fineberg refer to each quest as a self-contained vignette, and the desert, far from being an arid land, as a sea. Quests, and the places they happen, are so-called “islands of content.” Because interdependence is low between each of these nearly modular parts, it means that if you cut one, another doesn’t fall apart. Far from being unwieldy, the desert setting, a not inconsiderable ten kilometers squared in total, could almost be remixed on the fly by the pair, tweaked until the balance of space and story felt just right.
As they both admit, Sable likely couldn’t have been made ten years ago by a team of this size and experience. In the years prior, the duo, operating out of a renovated shed in Kythreotis’ parents’ garden in north London, did various bits of contract work and self-released an iOS game, the imaginatively titled, Swing King and the Temple of Bling. “We were barely earning enough to keep operating,” says Kythreotis. “We didn’t pay ourselves a salary that anyone would be happy to take.” But after they started posting GIFs of the game on Twitter in 2017, Swedish publisher Raw Fury came knocking, and a deal for the game, despite its extremely nascent state, was thrashed out.
The team naturally grew, welcoming sound designer Martin Kvale and indie-pop artist Michelle Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, into the fold, alongside a number of other contractors. Working in Unity, a game engine Fineberg believes couldn’t have supported an open world game with ambitious production values even five years ago, the team took advantage of community-developed tools. The most important was MapMagic which allowed them to quickly sculpt the bruising terrain. “All of that stuff was proceduralized,” says Kythreotis, “and then we used it as a bedrock for what we were making elsewhere.”
Still, production was far from straightforward. In 2019, Kythreotis and Fineberg moved out of the garden shed, and into a comparably plush office, alongside programmer Jourdan-Reiss Russell and designer Ioannis Pitsikalis. Then, the pandemic hit, so having just familiarized themselves with in-person working they had to readjust to remote. This happened while they were managing a budget and a team far greater than they’d ever experienced before, a lot to handle for two old school friends who hadn’t yet turned 30.
“It felt like we were going to release the game in the next six months for the past two years.”
Kythreotis says: “The tricky part was planning the production. There were different phases, different expectations, and even different budgets. It changed over time. And we had to delay the game twice. It felt like we were going to release the game in the next six months for the past two years — like we were coming to the end of a race, but someone was just moving the finishing line. But it was us moving the finishing line — that's the worst part. It was tough making those adjustments.”
In a way, it’s remarkable that Kythreotis, Fineberg, and just a handful of collaborators were able to make a game of such vast, deep territories. Like other indie open world games such as Outer Wilds and A Short Hike, it doesn’t just offer a different way of looking at a virtual world but interacting with it, one that foregoes health bars, weapons, and combat of any kind. There is action, of course — rhythm and thrust, none less than when you’re scaling its vertiginous rock formations and bouncing down its dunes, but you’re never on the take. There are no resources to extract, only sights to see, and people to talk to, all of whom share this space of long-buried stories, one that’s still quietly thriving.
There is one more way Sable gently subverts its commercially-minded blockbuster counterparts — by masking not just its protagonist but every other character in the game. Of course, this is a smart move for a small team — facial animations are expensive and time-consuming! But the decision carries a delightful ambiguity — a fluidity when it comes to notions of identity. Renata Price ended her beautiful review for Kotaku, by writing, “There are no deadnames in Sable. Just people and places who have become something new.” This gets to the heart of the magical, in-between state that Sable occupies. It is featherlight where comparably gigantic productions feel leaden, at its best when delivering moments of transition, be that of Sable herself, the land, or the sky as it segues from warm afternoon orange to the cool blue of dusk.
Despite a warm reception from both critics and players alike, Sable’s launch hasn’t been without issue. Bugs and performance issues persist, so Kythreotis and Fineberg are still hard at work. Far from an end, the launch is simply another part of their own journey.
“You have to get back up and go again,” says Kythreotis. “When we were getting ready the week before release, we had literally no idea how people were going to react. We thought, ‘Okay, have we got the balance right here? Is the story going to come across correctly? Are people even going to engage with this way of approaching the world?’ And I feel like we have. I feel like even the people who don’t like it, just don’t like it, rather than don’t get it, which I think is fine. I can deal with that.”