Sable: ugh

Negative reviews are kind of annoying; but I’m a bad mood and might as well express it, and maybe draw some game design lessons.

I’ve been looking forward to Sable for years. I tried it tonight and bounced off it so hard I got a refund.

From pictures, it looked like it took a lot of inspiration from Moebius. In-game, it’s not quite as impressive: it’s all flat colors and the overall effect is to turn a complicated 3-D scene into simple flatness. And the cutscenes for some reason are low-FPS. For what it’s worth, Moebius usually modeled his shapes with meticulous linework and subtle coloring. But eh, not a big problem.

The big problem is the terrible UI. This is foreshadowed by the moment you get control. You’re in some sort of temple, facing a big sculpture of a face. You can walk around, climb the face, stand on top of it looking outside through a hole in the roof you can’t get out of. Turns out you’re supposed to ignore all that and walk out the other way. Lesson 1: when you highlight something with details and lighting, players will think it’s important and spend time on it. Don’t waste those cues on nothing.

I walked out and ran into a child who offered something I was told I wanted, in return for some beetles. Fine, it’s My First Fetch Quest. You can talk to other people and they’ll give you a vague hint where the beetles are (“go east”). Fine, only…

  • There’s no indication of where east is. It turns out you need a compass, which you get later on.
  • I went east and saw no beetles. The compass highlights points of interest, but there was nothing to indicate where the beetles are. It’s a big world, you can lose insects in a lot of places.
  • Everyone you talk to will give you that same option to talk about the beetles, which you can’t skip.
  • Since I’m in a bad mood, I might as well complain that no one explains why I want the thing the child is offering. Is it a side quest, or something I need to advance the story? No idea.

Lesson 2: Playing hunt-the-pixel was tedious even back in the ’90s. Don’t be mysterious about what you want from the player.

Next, I talked to someone who was supposed to have a glider for me. Cool, supposedly this is the key to the whole game. It’s not ready yet for some reason… fine, it’s a multi-stage quest. But the first step is, he wants you to ride a beater glider to test it out (i.e. preview the skills). The conversation implies that it’s right next to him.

The glider isn’t there. All that’s around him are a few boxes. You can wander around camp or the surrounding desert… there’s nothing that looks like a glider. You can talk to people… no hints. You can bring up the compass… nothing points to a glider. You can talk to Glider Guy again, and he explains where the beetles are, then tells you he won’t talk to you till you’ve flown the glider which he won’t tell you where it is. There is no option to skip the beater glider and get the real one instead.

I looked around for awhile and gave up. If it’s a bug, it’s pretty bad that it makes the tutorial fail. If you’re supposed to wander around the big area available to you until you find it… come on. Lesson 3: don’t hate the player that much. When you’re obviously gating further progress to a task, don’t fucking hide the thing in some non-obvious location.

I did read a few reviews, and obviously some people are progressing easily enough. That’s nice. But to me, the time I spent with the game told me one of two things.

  • Maybe the developers really do hate the player– it’s supposed to be a frustrating grind. In which case, I’m glad I found out within the refund period.
  • Maybe the developers didn’t test their game. Like most developers, their idea of testing was “I ran it once and it didn’t crash.” They know where the damn glider is, so they don’t see a problem. Did they try watching someone else play their game? Even for an indie studio, that level of non-testing is not acceptable.

I’m mildly curious, but very mildly, where these things were. But that’s lesson 4: put the frustrating bits later in the game. Once I’m committed to a game, I’m willing to put up with grind. (It’s astonishing how much time I’ll put into grinding in Minecraft.) But the first hour or two of a game is key to making me feel committed. At that point, you’re still selling the game. Make it interesting and don’t make it impossible.

One more thought: a game can decide that a particular quest item shouldn’t just be highlighted on the map, but there are alternatives besides “randomly hide the thing in a large area and don’t show any clues at all.” E.g. the minimap in Borderlands will highlight you the area where you should hunt. Dishonored had the Heart which gives you the distance to the sought item; by heading to where it beats faster you get the direction. Minecraft has you locate strongholds by throwing an item which will point in the right direction.