Sable: Masks, Escapism, and a Desert named Adulthood.

A review?

There are many masked protagonists in games. Dead Space’s iconic helmeted engineer Isaac Clarke immediately comes to mind. So do Halo’s and Doom’s respective space marine-clad super soldiers. And of course, Dishonored’s Clockwork masked assassin of the empire Corvo Attano. I think the first-person point of view is also a kind of mask. It provides a player cipher through an anonymised body. That quiet lead could be anyone.

Until a sequel or a remake or late game reveal. The mask comes off. They open their mouths. A creative decision to seize back that anonymity. It’s important that you know there’s a person beneath this guise and they don’t look like you. They don’t sound like you. 

I’m not as pressed about racial diversity in gaming protagonists as much as I used to be. Some days I would rather not be perceived lest I be privy to how a creative team caricaturizes any part of my compound identity. Maybe that’s why it took so long for me to notice that Sable’s protagonist was brown.

I remember when it hit me. Speeding around the desert on a hoverbike. Kicking up trails of dust and rotating the camera, every moment a perfect still waiting to be framed and sent to unsuspecting friends who would politely praise my basic photography, I noticed the back of her neck peeking out from behind her mask and kissed by the desert sun. It was this deep earthy clay, It was like mine.

I’m not sure what happened to the world in Sable. There are colourful cliff faces that intimidate and entice in equal measure. Old spaceships half submerged in bright sand. Broad expanses of nature give way to the intricacy of the man-made. Its world harkens to Jean Giraud’s iconic style -- thin-inked, sharp outlines framing splashes of colour that have inspired some of the most iconic sci-fi landscapes in pop culture. The gameplay borrows directly from a more contemporary influence, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Your character, Sable, can climb just about everything in this open world, limited only by a depleting stamina bar. She can glide gently on the wind until her feet touch the ground. She solves puzzles in temples and does quests on her travels. Her hoverbike, Simoon, marries the two influences and is your main way of navigating the desert.

What ties it all together into something special and entirely singular is the writing. For the first hour of Sable, you’re preparing for “the gliding.” It’s a coming-of-age ceremony, where a young person builds their bike and sets out into the world deciding who they will become before returning home. The gliding is the context which takes these influences and re-textures them as metaphors.

The gliding takes you all across the desert but it’s always at your own pace. Sable, the protagonist, meets people from different walks of life and they all ask her to do something somewhat pertaining to their occupation. It’s like an internship. After each quest, she’s rewarded with badges which she can turn in for a mask, her chosen profession. At the end of the game, you pick your mask and you return home signalling “this is who you are.” 

Adulthood can feel aimless and unconquerable. You’re spat out of the worst tutorial that doesn’t really prepare you for any aspect of life. For the first time, there isn’t a track or a path to follow. I’m 28 this May, rapidly approaching the point where it’s indefensible to say “I’m in my mid-twenties.” I’ve considered going back to school in chase of “structure,” or feedback, or a mentor to yell at me. It shouldn’t be like this. The freedom, suffocating yet alienating, is a selfishness I’ve clawed out for myself. I’m in my gliding.

Sable is my escapism. Brown people with the agency to choose their careers and allowed room to fail. Parents unmarred by the realities of poverty and the spectre of colonisation. Like many children to poor or formerly poor adults, my career options were intentionally limited. The plan was always vaguely some form of doctor, lawyer, or engineer. The jobs that made money. The ones that would take care of not only me but my parents. My father had one suit of uniform that he had to wash daily to be let into his own school. His shoes, already too small for his growing feet, would disintegrate before the term was over leaving him to hop from shaded patch to shaded patch to spare the soles of his feet from the burning asphalt heated by an ever-present Jamaican sun. My stepmother, who practically raised me, spent her childhood in a squatted home. She shared a bed too small for the number of bodies piled on and they had to fall asleep to sirens and gunshots.

They believed that their choice was between tenderness and preparing their child for a world that would never have their best interests in mind. I don’t blame them for leaning into the latter. Career choice was the realm of white folks and the privileged. Sable imagines a world where the past, present, and future of indigenous and brown/black people are within their control. A world where generational trauma is no longer hereditary. Jadi, Sable’s matriarch, sets the tone for the rest of the game.

“When you leave today, you will no longer be Sable, clan-child of the Ibexii. You will simply be Sable, and the rest will come. But no matter what you are, no matter where your journey takes you, I will always know you. I will always love you.”

Unmoored from colonialism, from capitalism, Sable is allowed to simply exist. The dessert of her twenties is a grand adventure instead of looming dread. In the open world you can go anywhere, getting lost is the point. People in her world miss their gliding, the freedom they felt when they were still finding themselves. See that mountain? You can go there. Climb it or try to. The worst that can happen is you fall, unharmed, back where you started. If halfway up that climb something across a valley catches your eye, you can just glide there. Effortlessly pivot. No cost, no debt. 

Sable never takes her mask off. She’s gendered but not in a way that matters, she’s never treated differently. I never doubt for a second that I’m her, not once. The only trace of her physical identity that I am privy to, the colour of her skin, only serves to further reinforce our kinship. Games, to many, are avenues for escapism, but for whom and from what? Often not for everyone, not for me. In Sable’s world I am free, My family, my people, they’re all free. Agency willed back into their lives. Emancipated from capitalism. Untethered from the long chain of history. 

“But though you go by yourself, you are not without friends. You are not without family. You are not without love. These things you will always carry with you as you do your mask.”

Hi, You’ve made it this far

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