Sable (Demo): The Trouble with a Timeless Desert

Sable exists outside of time, and yet it is time for her to leave.

Her clan elder hands her a compass she’d used in her own coming of age ceremony, and describes it as an ‘artefact’.

Sable worships at the grand temple which the goddess Roshana still inhabits, yet it is delapidated and destroyed.

The valleys are dry, the electric dam is kept powered. In crashed ships she finds working glider bike parts and recordings of fatal flights.

The voices of the dead last forever in the desert, playing over and over and over.

A key part of an exotic, oriental image is its timelessness. In this way the ideal other can be preserved forever, contextless. A ruin still in use indicates its own traditionalism, but of course it must be ruined, for who in civilisation has ever seen a desert temple in good repair?

My one wish for Sable was that it wouldn’t replicate the narratives embedded in its aesthetic tradition. I’m not convinced that it escapes that trap.

Mimicking the comic style of the famous artist Jean Giraud (Moebius), the game borrows his propensity for deceptively simple, gorgeous line art of science fiction landscapes, and a focus on desert structures, machinery and spiritualism.

The style of Jean Giraud (Moebius)

The wanderers of Sable share more than this style with 20th century fiction though, they also belong to narrative stereotypes of storytelling and art featuring visions of nomadic and religious desert life. But, while Moebius took this style from serving France in occupied Algeria during the war for independence, the game is several steps and years removed, and exists as a 21st century text adopting a French man’s vision of North African deserts, dulled by the conventions of an indie game going for soft sentiment.

This amounts to a litre of poster paint over the top of its narrative, making it difficult to distinguish these people from the cultural imaginary of the magical, racialised nomad. Sable, a Christian name that stands out amongst the rest of the clan, even appears surprised at some of her own culture during her whistle-stop ethnography of Ibex Camp.

These are spiritual people. They are magical. They wear antelope horn face masks, and they have temples and minarets. They know of an ancient force, and they sleep in colourful tents amongst ruined stone buildings. They have coming of age rites that involve leaving the clan behind, and they speak only with wisdom. For these are wise desert folk, yes?

These are the noble, humble nomads of North Africa and the Middle East. They are those subjugated by the empire whom the artist that inspires the game’s style belonged to, and who have only ever been portrayed in the imaginary as either curious or heathen.

There’s no case to be made that that is irrelevant to Sable because it takes place on another world, in another time, because that’s where the tribespeople and Arabs are supposed to live to the western audience. They are supposed to not have history, to keep worship and tradition, either in ruins or in lavishness (indeed both), not because that is representative, but because dozens, hundreds of cultural products have created this ideal imagined truth about certain types of people. That they are outside of time.

The Ruins of the Smaller Temple at Baalbec, David Roberts (1796–1864). Oil on canvas, 1849–1850.
Prayers in the Mosque, Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 – 1904). Oil on canvas

If this all seems pretty normal and not an issue, that’s because we have had several decades of depictions of specifically Islamic culture in North Africa and the Middle East as belonging to the destroyer, the displaced, the Sheikh, the nomad and the ruined desert, torn apart by military occupation, and imagined versions of the people who live there.

Sable’s demo’s depiction of this as an almost utopian vision of a clan without conflict, who turn themselves into ethnographic curiosity for the player, is a particular kind of conservative, sanitised exoticism found in video games and moralising narratives about the noble savage.

This is what has aided, for instance, a global hesitation and aggression towards freeing Palestine from the trauma of escalating apartheid. It is the white cultural desire for an impeccable native, and the ability to demonise entire peoples, religions and regions of the world when that standard isn’t met, that has made Sable’s opening really stick in my throat.

The demo doesn’t go further than the point at which the glider bike you’re gathering parts for is completed, and I hope, I really hope, that the rest of the game quickly moves on from the sentimentaling, timelessly exotic tone of this first section, because riding that bike seems like fun.

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