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Sable

Made by: Shedworks

Publisher: Raw Fury

Platforms: PC, Xbox, soon to be PS5

Release date: 2021

Review date:

Emoji summary: 🌙🚶‍♀️⛺️

Review by: GDLP

It’s 3AM and I am walking down a steep, autumnal road in cold, heavy rain. My health bar is just below green, where it always is. My stamina is middling too. For armour, I am wearing a reflective silver waterproof jacket and I have chunky Caterpillar trainers on so that I am steady on the floor. I have in my inventory an iPhone, headphones, some old receipts, keys between the knuckles of one hand, and a high level spray in the other. It can dye the skin and clothes of attackers bright green, except I am not expecting any battles at 3AM in the suburbs of Liverpool, especially not in this downpour.

I feel good. I feel the best I have felt in a long time. I feel so good that I almost want someone to emerge out of the dark and fight me so that I can take this adrenaline even higher. It’s great out here, completely alone. I love it. The rain is heavy enough that when my headphones run out, I still have something to listen to; and to my surprise, as someone who always leaves the house with something in my ears, I am enjoying the world’s soundtrack too. Cars being pelted, debris being washed into full gutters; the massaging beat of water all over my body as the rain tests the limits of my jacket and I feel my jeans become dark and thick and flush to my skin.

When I eventually get back around 4AM, my boyfriend – who had fallen asleep on the couch – comes to undress me in the hallway because I don’t know where to start. A puddle quickly emerges on the floor where I’m standing, and we laugh at all the weather I’ve brought back into the house. Mud on the floor. A small part of a leaf. The cat comes to see what all the commotion is about – and I’m home again. And even though it’s home, and home is where the heart is, and the wifi, and the home-sweet-home decor, I’m not sure home is where I want to be right now, and I feel torn.

About a month ago, I played Sable. It is an open world exploration game about a young girl of the same name who leaves camp for an adventure across the desert. It is tradition for everybody in her clan to go through a ritual called The Gliding. They get to an age where they must leave comfort and familiarity behind in order to see the world on their own terms. They explore what’s out there, meet people, help out, try lots of new things. In doing so, they figure out who they want to be. Through various activities, the player can earn badges for achievements. These badges can be crafted into a special mask that signifies the wearer’s chosen discipline. You don’t see any faces in Sable, only lots of enigmatic masks.

Eventually, the young person on The Gliding has to decide if they even want to go home. They can always keep on going if they want to, and everybody knows that getting into it. There is no rush to decide either way. But in Sable, going home, deciding what mask you will wear going forward in your life, and presenting that choice to your family triggers the end of the game. It says I’m ready, I am settled, I know what I care about and I’m back. I am satisfied by my curiosity. I am done. Undress me, take off my cape, peel me out of these wet jeans; let me show you who I am now that I have seen what I’ve seen, and now that I know what I know. Roll credits.

A month after finishing Sable, it is the ending of the game I am still thinking about. The growth, the closure, the agency to bring about a happy end of the world. It’s playing on my mind because even though I chose to end the game, I wasn’t quite ready. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. Like, yes, I returned to camp and showed everyone the mask I’d worked hard for but it was so bittersweet to come of age instead of continuing to be-coming-of-age, which was such an incidental, gentle gift of the gameplay. I wished there had been more to do, more to find, more to get lost in. I wish ‘open world’ had meant somewhere infinite (and I always do and I almost forget that infinity is not promised). As Sable, I wanted to carry on flying between the earth and the air, collecting butterflies, driving under glowing blue archways, and climbing the giant skeletons of animals who were resting like bridges between rocks. Simply put, I wanted to stay on my way.

There was no fall damage to worry about, no health bar at all. Every puzzle was optional, avoidable. Come back and finish it another time. The experience inside the game was incredibly soft, like walking barefoot along the wet pour floor of a playground. I nearly trip into a wet hole of gravel on my journey and wish our own adult roads were made with the same give. When I finally walked along the perimeter of Sable’s world and found the hardness of those edges – when the game’s story was interrupted, revealed to be only a game, a flat earth, a grand design – I knew it was time for me to call it a day.

A month later, I think of the broad shape of those sand dunes, not the grit of any individual stars of sand. The beginning and the end of the game, and not the long moment in between. I happened to play Sable when journeys and endings were becoming very present in my mind and the game has stayed with me for that reason. Because, every single night of my October, and now my November, I have had to decide whether or not I even want to come home.

It’s 3AM and I am walking down a steep, autumnal road in cold, heavy rain. I am wide awake. My body has its own rules nowadays. I wake up tired and the longer I am up for, the better I feel (the more powerful I become). I’ve been cursed by the sun, and part of me doesn’t mind. Because it’s like… during the day, the world is fastened tight around my body. At night, it finally lets me go.

By 3AM, I am wired. I am in a slow-motion cinematic scene from the early 2000s out here on the street; I can see every raindrop suspended, including the one that has just bounced off a leaf behind me. I watch for animals and other people but nobody ever appears. I hear the low hum of the dark green electricity box at the side of the pavement. Do they always make a sound, or am I only noticing it because I am finally lucid?

I move slowly but it feels fast to me. I can’t believe there are houses this big in Liverpool, and within walking distance. Huge gated mansions, fronted with long driveways and surrounded by old trees. I am too low on the ground to see through the windows, only the moon can spy. I wish I knew someone who lived in one of these castles so that I had an opportunity and an excuse to go inside. I want to know why they are so rich. But everyone in the world is asleep right now and I am discovering that so much of my map is greyed out. I wish I really was in a game so that I could climb over the fence, but they probably have doorbells with cameras on them; and they probably don’t want girls in silver jackets invading their personal space.

I reach the bottom of the road where the air opens out into a meadow. It is brown and orange under the streetlights but it is glittering with all of the rain. I continue past it until I reach my boss, my out of bounds: it is the edge of the park, where the lights stop. The darkness takes away all the shapes and all the space so that my nighttime walk finds a real black end. I know I shouldn’t, I know I can’t, but I want to walk forward into it. The adrenaline is climbing; I am looking left and right. I can see the trees closest to me and then nothing. Is anybody in there? I pretend the Victorians who built the park come out when nobody’s looking. I don’t need to watch a horror film, I only need to stand on the edge of the world.

A car goes past. It’s a taxi. I only ever see taxis when I am out this late. I realise my legs are hurting. I cannot tell if all these walks are helping or making things worse, but the movement is a distraction. It’s nostalgic. I want to fly into the park, meet the ghosts, scare myself when I find them and then run away, the fastest I have ever moved in my life.

I am a daredevil or I am naive.

For the first year of my sickness I couldn’t walk far enough to reach the mansions I didn’t know existed, and the park felt a million miles away. Now, it’s only half a podcast. I could just about make it to the lamppost at the end of my road and back, and that was hard and boring, and I only tried it a handful of times because my body reacted badly to the whole affair. I felt trapped in my house, trapped further by my body, imagination going nowhere, frying my soul. When I finally got my answers in January – dysautonomia after COVID – I learnt that I had a body that needed a lot of care. I needed heart medication but I also needed more water, more salt, and less heat. I needed to rest, yes, but the doctor also told me I needed to strengthen my legs to help pump the blood around my body. I didn’t know what to do with that, and while I was still figuring out the conundrum, summer arrived. Heat put me back in my trap.

I have been waiting all year for autumn, for the moment I could finally leave the camp of my own free will. I happened to play Sable in the crossover between these seasons and when I went outside on my own, just for fun, I imagined that I was her. I keep imagining it, and in writing about us both, I am finding it easy to blend her alien world with mine because chronic illness is so ridiculous it can feel like a fiction of its own.

Last night when I went out, I walked another way. It was midnight and there was no rain this time, but I saw frost on the windows of the cars. Frost – but I had sweat rolling down my arms. I could feel it tickling me, dripping out from under the sleeves of my jacket and onto the backs of my hands. Tonight those sweat-drops are mixing with the raindrops, and I’m so hot that I want to take my whole jacket off even though it’s torrential. Whenever I so much as stand up, my body gets a rush of heat because my nervous system has no idea what it’s doing with me anymore; I dread every summer to come. I split the difference and take my hood down to let the rain curl the hair around my face and wash the blush right off me.

I look down so the rain doesn’t get in my eyes. The pavements are covered in moving leaves being power-hosed by the sky so I walk down the very centre of the road like a car or an animal. Without headphones in, I listen to the rain but I can also hear myself struggling to breathe. And even though the heat, the pain in my legs, the tight chest, and the hours I keep are all signs that things are not right inside of me, I am having the time of my life. After a year in the house, and almost another full year waiting for the weather to be ready, the world is more interesting than I remember it. The stimulation is necessary. It is healthy. I like that it feels new; I try to avoid walking down the same road twice if I can help it. I turn the way I wouldn’t naturally turn, and wonder what’s around that corner – and when I notice myself wondering, I make a deal to always follow through.

On these late nights, feeling like I am the only person alive, I have so much fun that I don’t ever want the game to end. Looking at the houses, daring myself to walk along the edge of the park, gasping for air in the suburbs, I become so free that I don’t actually want to go home. I think that is understandable. I mean no offence to anyone I know, but it makes me want to leave and never come back.

I think of Sable’s premise again. Even though I chose to end the game, I wasn’t quite ready. I thought I was – I chose my mask – but I wasn’t. And that’s true every night in real life. I enjoy my time exploring but it never really feels like it’s enough, or that I go far enough. I think the world outside is for the taking but it isn’t because other people have set me limits. I am not allowed to go where I really want to go, and I cannot reach real wilderness on these legs alone. Until I can, or until I break the rules, I don’t think I’ll be satisfied. At least Sable sees more than a postcode before we decide that she has grown.

Disability has changed my relationship with many things but my sense of ‘home’ is particularly wrought. This house is too familiar now, and that has been a problem for some time. What I need is the opposite – discovery, spontaneity, serendipity; a mad act that throws all the windows open, takes the lid off my head and my house, lets me grow an inch overnight, and shocks me. When I leave every night excited to walk and walk and walk, I think I can outrun my captors but I am bringing my body with me. I think, well if I don’t stop, I can’t have a crash afterwards. If I don’t look at my phone, no one can find me. I am a kid packing their belongings in a gingham blanket, tying the bundle to the end of a stick, and throwing it over their shoulder. I’m leaving forever, I shout.

And I want to act out. As a disabled person, I am supposed to do every single thing right to feel my best and stay safe, and so doing something that I know might fuck me up is thrilling and rare. It’s like getting blackout drunk as a teenager and just hoping for the best. It matters to me because I have to be on my best behaviour every single day, I don’t get a day off thinking about my symptoms. I’m finding a new kind of fun in deviance; in walking further than I’m used to, in going out at night, and ending up in places a 28 year old woman probably shouldn’t go on her own. Like one time – and don’t tell anybody this – I turned onto the main road near my house and the path ahead was clear and empty and well-lit, and all the joy in my head became energy in my body… and I ran. Okay, it was only a jog and I only went between lampposts, but it was something. My legs hated me for it, of course, and I couldn’t go out for the next two days, but I was so smug about my hangover because in those seconds, I felt like the king of the world.

And that’s it, isn’t it. I’m on my own Gliding. Breaking the rules and testing my limits is an important part of growth. I am unlocking my own mask, and finding out who I am in my new identity. If I was leaving Sable’s camp and coming back, what would my mask look like? A surgical mask so big and layered that it covers my whole face, allows me to breathe, allows me to hide; rendered in a silver that reflects all of the light.

I’m Sable again. A man at the station tells me about somewhere called the Crystal Plateau and the name is magic so I go there. The sand on the way is grey and blue, and huge plumes of smoke bubble out of the ground rising up into spirals. It’s high. I climb walls, translucent white towers, and the body of a stone warrior until I reach the summit. There is a storm up here. The rain is black, the sky around me is yellow and starry. When lightning hits the peak, shards of crystals appear suddenly in spikes. I realise I can collect them; I put lightning in a bottle. I am safe. And when I am done, I stand on the edge of the Plateau, looking down at the grey sand far below me. I jump right away and float down slowly in a red, glowing bubble. When I land, the bubble pops and I am safe.

Sable never gets an opportunity to misbehave. She never gets a wild child moment. She does nothing wrong because nothing can go wrong. She is passive, observant, and kind. And that’s fine. But maybe I wasn’t ready for her to go home because her growth had been too straightforward. It had been quantitative not qualitative, I don’t know if I believed she had changed at all. If Sable had kicked the stabilisers off, or if her adventure had been more volatile – if the lightning had hurt, or the bubble had failed – home would have been a real sanctuary and welcome ending. I walk in all directions when I do my own exploring, but if I follow routes that lead towards the edge of the park (where I stand and scare myself), home seems like a good idea after all.

And as I write that, I don’t want the game to become dangerous in any way. I am dragging my virtual twin kicking and screaming into the void with me, so that she knows what I need. I enjoyed Sable but it was a bit like having fun at a sleepover and just getting to the point where I want to play truth or dare, but my friend wants to call it a night; or the adults have come to wrangle me back into the house after my great escape, and now I’m having to untie my gingham and sit down for dinner with everybody else. I enjoyed the game but because I enjoyed it so much, I wanted more. More from her character, more for her character; more from the Gliding and more from the world. Ideally, if possible, a map that was completely generative in a game that developers were constantly pumping updates into. New maps, new quests, hidden tunnels, and secret temples that only appeared once a month under a full moon if you looked across the oasis at the perfect angle and – no, these are unfair problems to have. I enjoyed the aesthetic, esoteric wash of the outstretched game but I wish I could have outrun the ending forever.

In a sense, an unsatisfying ending is more honest to my situation right now. You know, when I leave home, I am happy to be leaving the venus fly trap that didn’t even need to move quickly to catch me. But it is also true that when I leave home, my chest hurts, and my legs feel spiked, my heart overreacts and my temperature climbs. I don’t want to go home but I have to. I can try to escape the ending, but the night ends and winter will end, the podcast I am listening to will always eventually start thanking its sponsors, and the game is a finite resource that I have to accept. Even if you were to present me with a game so endless that nothing was out of bounds, it still wouldn’t feel like enough because really what I want is to be endless myself.

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sables runs past a glowing blue arch under a huge moon, wearing a strange mask

sable hovers in a red glowing bubble inside a greenhouse with strange plants

Sable runs along the spine of a huge skeleton that is hanging between rocks in a desert

a crystal farmer leans over Sable and says that  The purpose of the Gliding is not to choose. Choice is the Glidings end. Indecision is its intended form.