The doors to the LA Convention Center hadn't even opened before I'd already played one of my favorite games of E3. It's called Sable, a name which you might recall from its stunning trailer at the PC Gaming Show (opens in new tab). Created by two lifelong friends who work out of a shed in a parent's backyard, it is a visually striking and quietly contemplative adventure game about riding hover bikes, exploring ancient runes, and growing up.
I met the two developers Gregorios Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg in the lobby of a nearby hotel, with Sable running on a laptop. It was an intimate and relaxed setting for a demo, which feels appropriate because Sable is an intimate, relaxed kind of game. There's no combat and no danger. Just me and the infinite sprawl of sand dunes.
If you've seen the trailer, it's easy to pick out Sable's influences. French cartoonist Moebius is the most obvious one as seen in the flat, desaturated colours encased in delicate lines that add bits of texture. But the two developers also told me they pulled heavily from Studio Ghibli—an inspiration evident in the character animations and Nausicaa-like barrenness of the world. It's the kind of unique art style that I just can't get out of my mind, and I love seeing it in motion. The running animation of Sable, the main character, feels hand-drawn in a cool way, and I love the way dust clouds billow out from behind my hoverbike as I race across the desert. It's all both so simple and so evocative.
It's a memorable look, but with only a year of full-time development so far, Sable isn't much more than that. Fineberg and Kythreotis have a clear vision and some promising ideas, though. As Sable, I embark on a coming-of-age journey to explore the alien desert I call home, meet its other residents, and learn their stories. It's not about leveling up or finding new tools to play with. Instead, it's about exploring the landscape and learning about the culture and history of its inhabitants—something that Kythreotis and Fineberg spent a great deal of time telling me about.
During my demo, I first spoke to a merchant who hinted about the significance of some nearby ruins. From there, I was free to go where I wanted. In this current build Sable's desert is infinite, but hand-crafted landmarks dot the horizon, providing focal points for exploration. I head toward one such ruin—tall stone towers jutting from the sand—aboard my hoverbike. Along with my clothing, hoverbikes are the only real thing I could customize and upgrade. Each bike is comprised of three parts—body, engine, and wings—that affect its speed and maneuverability. I can unlock more parts either by helping people or through exploring.
It should have been liberating taking off on my hoverbike, but the controls needed some fine-tuning, which Kythreotis was honest about. There's a real sense that physics governs how these vehicles move, but it was immediately obvious something was out of whack which led to me oversteering and spinning out a lot with even the tiniest movement of the joystick. This was likely a symptom of the bikes being randomly generated for the demo, giving me the sense that it was possible to create some truly terrible combinations by combining parts that don't play nice together. In those brief moments where it was smooth flying, though, I could see what a meditative experience exploring the desert might be.
There's no real objective to Sable. It's simply about exploring and seeing what else is out there, which has me a bit worried that it could end up being a little boring if the things I discover aren't intrinsically rewarding. Without a carrot on a string like upgrades or RPG-like progression, Sable is going to have few crutches to lean on if its worldbuilding isn't captivating. Fortunately, developer Shedworks is turning to 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth to help with that.
What's there now is promising. The stone towers I found housed a subterranean temple with a kind of casket I could move forward by stepping onto switches. It was a simple puzzle, but Sable's complete lack of direction made the experience feel kind of mystical. I felt like I was exploring an alien ruin because I had no idea what I was doing or looking at, which is a nice contrast to the way other exploration-minded games all but drop a giant arrow above a switch that says "press me." Without context being fed to me directly, it was up to me to observe the environment and piece together clues about what (or who) this temple was for.
It's here that Sable's one special movement ability—being able to float temporarily while encased in a magic bubble—helped me as I cleared some jumps and weaved through the maze-like passages. Sable can also climb onto almost any object similar to Link in Breath of the Wild, with a stamina meter limiting how long I can climb.
In this early demo, it's obvious how much work Sable still needs. Sable and the camera could clip through some structures entirely. Performance was also not stellar, frequently dropping below 20 frames per second. But these felt like symptoms of a game that is still very early in development. The bigger hurdle, I think, will be making Sable's infinite desert one worth exploring. Kythreotis and Fineburg have plenty of ideas about the story and characters that will populate it, but it's hard to judge whether that will coalesce into a world I want to spend hours in.
My time exploring the desert evoked games like Breath of the Wild and Journey, but Sable has much smaller ambitions. And while it risks being boring if its world and story don't captivate, it's also what I like most about it—aside from the gorgeous art, obviously. I like that Sable isn't trying to be the next great open world exploration game, but rather an exercise in inherently rewarding worldbuilding and storytelling. I just hope Sable's desert ends up being as fun to play as it is to look at.