Sable is one of the most intriguing games to come out of E3 2018. Revealed at the PC Gaming Show, the game’s stunning aesthetic evokes the work of legendary French comic artist Moebius, the pen name of Jean Giraud. Even more intriguing is that this singularly beautiful game is coming from two self-taught developers who work in a spider-filled shed in North London.
“There are lots of spiders,” says Daniel Fineberg, one half of Shedworks (geddit?), the developer of Sable. “There are lots of spider droppings as well. I don’t know if you realise that spiders leave droppings, but they definitely do.” The other half, Gregorios Kythreotis, chips in: “Spiders are better than flies though, I’d much rather be living with spiders than flies. Flies are a real pain in the arse.”
The Shedworks shed (Photo: Greg Kythreotis).
Insect infestation notwithstanding, it is a rather nice shed. Then again, that’s probably to be expected – it’s at the bottom of Greg’s parents’ garden, and his dad is an architect. In fact Daniel’s dad and Greg’s dad studied architecture together, and their families have known each other for a long time. Greg followed in his father’s footsteps by studying architecture at university, whereas Daniel opted for English literature, and they both graduated in 2014 – which is when they decided to start Shedworks.
“We hadn’t seen each other going on 10 years up until that point,” recounts Kythreotis. “Daniel’s dad was having a look at my architecture work in the third year and giving me a few critical pointers, and then he asked me at the end of the conversation, ‘what are you interested in doing after you graduate?’ I think it was clear from my work that I wasn’t really that interested in doing architecture: I did a very video game-focused project in my third year based on the movement mechanics of games like Fez and Echochrome, and it wasn’t stuff that’s really done that often in architecture.”
“He said ‘what are you looking to do?’, and I said I’d really like to make video games, and he said ‘oh, Daniel’s really interested in doing that as well, you should have a chat’. So we went to the pub, we got a pint and we got talking, and we said look, we’re not going to find work in games straight away, so why don’t we try to make our own work experience?”
The duo had a huge amount to learn in a short space of time. Neither had any experience of making games. Fineberg’s only programming knowledge was from an ‘Introduction to Java’ course he took at university. “The first year, year and a half was just us teaching ourselves the skills that we needed,” says Fineberg. “I was teaching myself programming, and Greg had a sense of how to do 3D modelling, but 3D modelling in architecture is a very different process, it’s a lot more mathematical and technical. In video games it’s more like sculpting. We had to teach ourselves a lot of skills.” The pair relied entirely on YouTube tutorials, Lynda.com and various web courses to learn everything they needed to know.
In the early days, Shedworks relied both on freelance work for other studios and the fact they were working in a shed. Working in Kythreotis’s parents’ garden means that, as long as they're fine with the odd spider, there are barely any outgoings. “We have no overheads, basically, we have some laptops in a shed and it’s the two of us,” says Kythreotis. “We kept the operation small, and that’s allowed us to survive on very little for a number of years. It’s very useful in London. If we were outside London, we probably could have afforded to move out at some point and find a place where other people were working.”
“We also get to work in the same room as each other," adds Fineberg, "which is so important, and it’s something that a lot of indie studios don’t really get. They’re all working from their own homes, they’re often spread across continents.”
One of the freelance jobs that kept the pair going was Fineberg’s stint as a programmer on the Nintendo Switch game Snipperclips. “That was the four months leading up to the Switch launch... It was amazing! It was my first chance to develop on a console, and obviously it was extremely exciting that that console wasn’t even out yet. The one thing you can’t teach yourself as a programmer is how to work with other people, and programming in a team is very different to programming on your own. I think I learned a lot from that, just being on a team.”
“Having the Nintendo QA department behind you when you’re fixing bugs leading up to release – that’s something I’ll probably never have again, but those people are machines," laughs Fineberg. "They’re based in Japan – you write your code in the afternoon, then you go home and they test it overnight, and you arrive in the morning you’ve got this massive report of what they found. The things they did to that game are just amazing.”
The money from the Snipperclips contract gave the pair enough space to start working on a prototype of Sable, an open-world exploration game in which the eponymous hero discovers ancient monuments and fallen spaceships scattered across an alien desert. The duo started full-time work on Sable in August 2017, and in November it was picked up by publisher Raw Fury.
“They took a big chance on us,” says Kythreotis, “because the stage we were at when they signed us, we weren’t even ready to pitch. But Callum, the guy who signed us, was really keen. They got the game, they really got the game from day one. And one of the things we discussed really early on was ‘do you want to put combat in this game?’ and we just said ‘no’. And they said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ That was the entire discussion.”
“Not even ‘fine’,” adds Fineberg. “They said ‘cool, that’s good, that’s interesting.’”
The concept had always been about exploration anyway. “Not just physical exploration of space,” says Kythreotis, “but exploration of character. We have a main character called Sable, and the story that we want to tell is a kind of coming-of-age tale about her and what she’s learning about her place in the world. Also places she hasn’t been or heard of, and things to do with other cultures within this society.”
“There is no combat in the game. There’s no traditional levelling-up, survival mechanics going on or anything like that, it’s a game about telling stories and exploring. Exploration has been key to everything, to every decision we’ve made. It was the thing we started with – seeing something in the distance in the desert, and just the sense of wonder and curiosity that aroused.”
“The actual story, that’s quite freeform," says Fineberg. "It’s up to you where you go and who you talk to and what stories you choose to follow.” So in that sense, I ask, could you 'finish' the game without seeing most of the story? “Yes that’s the intention. Hopefully, if we have enough content, that will be the experience of most people – they experience the things that they discover for themselves, and there will always be a couple of different things that they will miss. A really good reference for that, and a thing that we think about a lot, is 80 Days.”
80 Days is an interactive fiction game that initially came out on smartphones in 2014 and was later ported to PC and Mac. The writer, Meg Jayanth, is working with Shedworks on Sable.
“It’s a dream for us,” says Fineberg, “because it means she’s really good at thinking about story in that way. Because you can experience it in any order, everyone gets their own version of the story. 80 Days is a non-linear story but it’s not quite the same as a branching story. In a branching story, you have hundreds of decisions, and each time the player could pick A or B, and that’s a whole new path and you have to write a whole new set of dialogue. It’s more like lots of little stories, and each story might have one or two choices in it. It’s more like lots of short stories than a sprawling web that’s all interconnected.”
The pair list the anime makers Studio Ghibli and French artist Moebius as two of the principal inspirations behind Sable’s meticulous line-drawn style. Moebius, who died in 2012, was enormously famous in the French BD (bande dessinées) scene through comics such as Blueberry and The Incal, the latter a collaboration with Chilean-French writer, filmmaker and general all-round visionary Alejandro Jodorowsky. The Incal has been hugely influential in the world of sci-fi and film — indeed, The Fifth Element owes a large debt to its storyline and overall look. In fact Moebius had a hand in creating storyboards and concept art for the movie, along with Alien, Tron and The Abyss.
Above, a screenshot of Sable, below, artwork by Moebius (image credit)
But these are far from the pair’s only inspirations, with both noting that Star Wars was also a big influence on the initial concept. Kythreotis draws from his knowledge of architecture, while Fineberg's English literature degree brings in influences from weird and wonderful fiction.
“I think that’s one of our big strengths,” says Kythreotis, “that we don’t come from games, we have an education outside of games, so our references aren’t necessarily video game-related. The big architectural reference I’m looking at at the moment is Carlo Scarpa. And Alvaro Siza, John Soane, Archigram, Japanese Metabolism. Japanese Metabolism and Carlo Scarpa are my big go-tos for this project, I think.”
Tomba Brion by Carlo Scarpa (Image credit, CC BY 2.0)
“In terms of literature,” says Fineberg, “probably the thing that I think about most is a book by Ursula Le Guin called Always Coming Home. It’s about the people who live in California several thousand years in the future, and it draws very heavily from Native American culture. It’s just about the people and their history, it’s got bits of poetry in it, songs, stories, and I like the idea that the work is just an exploration of a people. That’s a huge one for me, I think.”
Shedworks has been thrust into the spotlight after a trailer for Sable was played at the PC Gaming Show at E3, which met with an ecstatic reception from press and gamers alike. “It’s been surreal to be honest,” says Kythreotis. “It’s been unbelievable. It’s a dream project for us, and we never anticipated people would be this interested in what we’re working on. We thought it was going to be pretty niche.”
Fineberg adds: “Going by what people have been saying, we’ve managed to make a thing that appeals outside of video games, possibly more than it appeals to people in video games. Japanese Breakfast, the artist doing our soundtrack, she has a really big following on Twitter, and we’re hearing people who like her music are saying ‘I don’t really play games but I’ll get this now.’”
I asked Fineberg when he realised just how big the reaction to Sable was. “The moment I realised that this was actually happening was at the PC Gaming Show when they started playing the trailer. I had my phone in my pocket and it was on silent, and the second the trailer started, my phone just started buzzing, buzzing and buzzing. We went out on stage, and all through the interview my phone was in my pocket just like buzzing away, endless notifications. That was kind of crazy, that made me realise ‘oh, this is actually a really big deal!’”
Sable is shaping up to be something well worth keeping an eye on, and that striking visual style may only be the most obvious reason why. Greg Kythreotis and Daniel Fineberg’s unusual list of influences, coupled with the writing talents of Meg Jayanth, suggest that this might be something out of the ordinary. Shedworks is planning to bring Sable to consoles and PC in 2019.