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Ambient adventure Sable gives an indie pop star her gaming debut

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The Nausicaa-style PC game enlists Japanese Breakfast as composer

Sable is already a standout at this year’s E3 event; the 2019 adventure game from indie studio Shedworks is a gorgeous mixture of graphic novel-like artwork and a calming open world. But one of the most defining features from the game’s teaser trailer, which offers just a peek at Sable, is the music — which, for lifelong gaming fan and accomplished musician Michelle Zauner, comes as a labor of love.

Zauner is better known as Japanese Breakfast, whose second album, Soft Sounds from Another Planet, was released to critical acclaim last year. She’s more than just the frontwoman of a rising indie pop band, of course; she’s an artist, and a writer. She’s also, by her own proud admission, very much into video games. She designed one of her own last year, inspired by her album. Now she’s branching out into a much larger project: creating the ambient sounds of Sable.

“Having this kind of open world game that you explore, that’s really rooted in nature, and finding snakes and climbing mountains puts you in a really soothing space,” she told Polygon ahead of Sable’s world debut during this year’s PC Gaming Show. That’s what drew her to the game, she explained, just as much as her interest in exploring the world of game music.

One of the beautiful landscapes of Sable.
One of the beautiful landscapes of Sable.
Shedworks/Raw Fury

Ambient sounds are perhaps something we take for granted when playing games, but they’re crucial in defining the overall feeling of them. Consider The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a calming experience despite its difficulty and copious challenges. So much of what’s soothing about it, Zauner said, is how unimposing its score is. That’s a core part of the ambient genre, and it’s what Zauner considered when crafting Sable’s score — she wanted to ensure that this beautiful, quiet game would sound as welcoming as it looked.

“A lot of the music is linked to places or images I’ve seen that [designer Gregorios Kythreotis of developer Shedworks] created,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun looking over my notes of, ‘OK, like, ‘cave,’ and imagining myself in a cave with glowworms. What does that sound like?”

That task is new and exciting for Zauner. The process is far different from how she creates her own, vocal-driven, highly personal music. Instead, she must embody a world she has yet to go hands on with; she turns to instrumentals, largely synthesized ones, in lieu of her live band.

Despite her newcomer status, it sounds like she’s grasped composing for games thus far. It helps that Sable is almost an embodiment of Japanese Breakfast’s own music and its peers, all of which draw from ambient sounds and other emotive artists as influences. The game stars Sable, a young traveler who ends up on an entirely different planet. She embarks upon a journey during which she meets new tribes, encounters several fallen buildings and, ultimately, finds herself. It’s open to interpretation, and it doesn’t appear to impose anything upon the player: This is Sable’s world, and it’s up to the player to define how she explores it.

Japanese Breakfast remains top priority for Zauner; she even recorded a new song by the band, “Glider,” for the teaser trailer above. But she’s already looking forward to dipping her toes into the game soundtrack waters again.

“It’s been really fun to learn as I go,” she said. “I just want to make something that’s fun to listen to. It’s fun, too, because I get to play a lot of video games and say I’m doing work right. ‘It’s just research!’”

We’ll hear more of Zauner’s score, and see more of Sable, in the months ahead. The game will launch in late 2019 on both PCs and consoles. Check out a bunch of images below.