Best Of 2021: Sable's Final Choice Is At Once Heartrending and Joyful
The indie hit Sable proves that even a gentler world requires serious responsibility.
The span of playing Sable is between contemplating a choice to the uneasy resolve of making a decision. Sable's story begins as its title character leaves home to travel around her corner of a vast, desert world. Throughout her travels, she gathers masks that represent the various jobs and roles found across her culture, such as a mechanist, climber, or cartographer. After her journey, she must then return home to choose the mask she will wear for the rest of her life.
In a certain sense, Sable's ending is signaled from the very beginning and unfolds more or less as expected. When she finds a mask that suits her–which can happen whenever the player so wishes–she returns home to the people that raised her to make her choice. The problem is that this journey changes her. It introduces a world of new possibilities, of potential selves. Choosing Sable's final mask is as easy as deciding who you want to be–and we all know how agonizing that choice can be. Sable spoilers ahead.
However, in reality, much of this choice's difficulty comes from the material world. At least in the places in which I have lived and with which I am familiar, choosing a career comes with intense material pressure. Becoming a doctor or a lawyer might have big financial payoff, but obtaining the training necessary can be devastating financially. Many, even most, other jobs pay too little or are looked down upon. Even liberating choices of identity, like coming out or a political awakening, often come with discrimination or violence in their wake. Sable foregrounds these issues by crafting a world without their existence. It focuses instead on the joyful agony of choosing who to be. The promise of a better world is not an end to hardship, but that we would have the time, the resources, and the support to deal with the regular difficulty of life.
Sable's multiplicity of cultures are not without inequality or struggle, but are nevertheless kind and welcoming. When Sable departs from her home village, she does so without proper supplies or a concrete place to stay. This is no danger or oversight. There is no question that Sable will find food, water, and a place to stay. The gliding stone gifted at the start of her journey should prevent death or serious harm, but will not prevent the regular scrapes and scrambles of exploration. There is no question, though, that she could get medical care, should she need it. In short, most of Sable's material needs are cared for as a matter of course. She comes by education and training in a similar fashion. Though her teachers often ask Sable for her help, they offer their own expertise freely. Rather than a cost, there is a trade, a fair exchange of services and ideas.
Additionally, there is no pressure for Sable to be anything in particular. None of Sable's many parental figures nag about how being a mechanist is a good living, or how cartographers make more money. Again and again, they emphasize that they'll be proud of her no matter what she chooses. This does not mean that the choice does not come with consequences–when she returns home, one of Sable's nomad tribe mentions that they are too small to support an entertainer, for example. Some of the game's more particular masks imply roles in specific locations. However, any of these roles serves real needs. There is no shame in Sable leaving home or staying. She will be supported and loved in whatever she chooses.
While Sable must not bear unfair expectations or the crushing weight of debt, she still must bear the quiet burden of responsibility. Accepting a role in the community also means accepting the problems that role must face. Sable's choice is free, but it is not carefree. Throughout the game, she sees examples of the trials that might befall her when she accepts a mask. A climber will explore the dangerous parts of the world, without a gliding stone to catch her fall. A mechanist must care for the tech that allows her community to thrive, well aware that the failure to do so properly could cause serious harm, if not death. Additionally, her choice of mask means the end of her time exploring potential selves. Sable's final choice is freeing and confining all at once.
Standing before all the masks can feel like considering alternate lives. It feels tragic to close Sable off to what could be, just as any serious choice fills me with dread at open possibilities that I am about to close. Sable's choices, however, do have joyful certainties. Whatever mask she chooses, she will have a community that celebrates her and a place to call her own. When the game closes, it shows Sable putting on her new mask and returning to her village to celebrate, but then fades to black. Her choice is her own to live with, not our own. Those certainties have to buoy the imagination of Sable's future life. Sable imagines a world where we can focus on the heartaches that are the essence of life. It is not tragic, but is instead the kind of transcendent joy that can only come from a choice well made.