Sable is so much more than a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild clone.
While the similarities between indie developer Shedworks’ breakout indie game and Nintendo’s monumental Legend of Zelda title are blatant at first glance, it’s not the only game Sable’s developer looked to for inspiration. They analyzed a variety of open-world RPGs to understand why they became such an explosive trend in the last decade.
One of those games was Square Enix’s divisive Final Fantasy XV.
“We were really inspired by the mood of the open-world parts of Final Fantasy XV where you’re driving around on a road trip with your mates,” Creative Director Gregorios Kythreotis tells Inverse. “I think Final Fantasy XV actually becomes a weaker project when it starts to narrow.”
Sable is at its best when gameplay systems come together to tell a story as compelling as its cutscenes. Combine that with a distinct visual aesthetic, fantastic soundtrack, and relatable themes, and you have one of the standout indie games of 2021.
We spoke to Kythreotis and Technical Director Daniel Fineberg to learn more about the game’s creation and the Sable’s surprising influences — which unexpectedly includes the shape of a lemon — and how those influences enabled them to create a super ambitious game with a small team.
When Life Gives You Lemons...
Development on Sable began in 2017, around the time Breath of the Wild was released. But the idea for Sable goes much further back. Fineberg notes that Breath of the Wild’s success simply affirmed that Shedworks’ idea was something special.
“We’d had the idea for the game before then, but Breath of the Wild proved that those ideas were viable and that people would enjoy it,” he said. “It was a framework for how you give players that much freedom successfully.”
Fineberg believed that open-world video games were all “trending towards Assassin’s Creed” with checklist-like gameplay that lacks a sense of wonder. The structure of Sable directly defies the genre norms that pretty much everyone in the video game industry except for Nintendo is following to deliver a more player-driven experience.
Both Breath of the Wild and Sable start with tutorial sections that confine you to one area of the map before completing opening up and then closing in on one location for the finale. Kythreotis calls this idea the “lemon structure,” as there’s a pointed beginning and end but a middle with a significantly looser structure.
To refine the inner pulp of that lemon, Shedworks looked to RPG games like Shadow of the Colossus and Final Fantasy XV. Shedworks attributes the bareness of Sable’s world — or at least parts of it — to Shadow of the Colossus. Kythreotis considers driving around with Noctis and his friends in Final Fantasy XV as the game’s major highlight.
“We liked the mood of those games and the way they use open-world design to create specific narratives,” Creative Direct Gregorios Kythreotis tells Inverse. “We tried to make a game with a specific narrative about self-discovery and exploring a world that you don’t know. We wanted to use the systems and frameworks of an open world to tell that story using similar techniques.”
Breath of the Wild, Shadow of the Colossus, and the open-world sections of Final Fantasy XV give players the tools to lever their own curiosity and explore the world at hand. Sable got the formula right, making it the latest open-world game to achieve a unique player-first feeling.
This kind of open-world game design not only gives the player more freedom, but it’s a boon to the development process as well.
“For us to be able to make an open-world game, we needed an approach that allowed us to be a bit more flexible with the structure,” Fineberg explains. “You just don’t know how long it’s going to take to make everything, and you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you create this whole map and story and then only actually have time to make a quarter of the things you had planned.”
Games like Far Cry 6 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have hundreds of developers working for several years. The small team at Sable only had four years to create the entirety of the game (it was initially supposed to take half as long), so it was helpful to focus this vast experience on a coming-of-age story where anything can happen.
“The structure of the game meant we could plan 20 locations, end up with five, and know that the game wouldn’t fall apart because it’s a series of short stories that aren’t interlinked or interdependent on each other,” Kythreotis says.
Shedworks delivered more than five locations, making the pulp of that lemon even sweeter. That said, Kythreotis admits that this structure can be precarious as it isn’t for every player.
“It’s a big risk when you give a lot of control and trust to the player,” he explains. “If they choose to drive off to the other side of the map, then you just have to try and embrace their experience with the game and hope that for every player you lose, you’ll find someone else it resonates with.”
Sable, Breath of the Wild, Shadow of Colossus, and Final Fantasy XV all took bold risks with their structure, hoping that the game would offer every player a unique experience. That’s why they are all some of the most memorable open-world games of all time, even if Shedworks didn’t know Sable would meet that high bar until it was finally in players’ hands.
“We thought we liked it, but it’s hard to tell with a game like this because it’s so based on first impressions and on what someone feels when they encounter something that surprises them,” Kythreotis says. “Sable stopped surprising us a long time ago, so to see how it is really resonating for some people is amazing.”
Sable is available now for PC, Xbox Series X|S, and Xbox One and is available with Xbox Game Pass.