The best Sci-Fi, in any medium, are those that immerse us in another world, while shining a light on our own reality. Citizen Sleeper, then, is among the best.
You are a Sleeper. You sold yourself to a corporation in an attempt to pay off your debt. As your body lies in suspended animation, your emulated consciousness slaves away for the company in a mechanical body. After somehow escaping their clutches, you flee into space and find yourself aboard a half-derelict Space Station, Erlin’s Eye, – a lawless place that’s home to all sorts of inhabitants.
But most importantly, the Eye is free of any corporate control.
Here’s the rub: you are Corporation property. The Corp are hunting you down to return what is theirs. And to make matters worse, they built in a fail-safe to your mechanical body: ‘Planned Obsolence’. Put simply, you cannot survive for long without regular drug supplements that just so happen to be proprietary to the Corp. Your struggle for survival forms the basis of the early-game as you roam the station in search of help.
There are three character types to choose from in Citizen Sleeper. All of them have a fairly similar skill set with the exception of one strength and weakness. The Operator class, for example, has a higher digital interfacing skill (useful for hacking systems) but lacks in raw strength. The skill tree itself is very simple, but offers some enticing perks that can really change your fortune later in the game.
Taking inspiration from TTRPGs, every interaction on the Eye uses a set of 6 dice to perform skill checks. The higher the dice roll, the better chance of a positive outcome. Some actions require a certain skill level, while others will negatively affect you if you roll a low number.
As with any good Capitalist system, your major concerns are your health (Condition) and where your next meal is coming from (Energy). Without the aforementioned Corp drugs, your Condition depletes by one bar each cycle (day). The lower the bar, the fewer dice you have to interact with. If your bar is completely empty, you breakdown. Likewise, with Energy, if you become starving, your condition depletes at double the rate.
A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.
Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms
On the surface, Citizen Sleeper’s gameplay may seem like a series of random dice rolls and good luck. But actually, you need to manage your dice carefully like a precious resource. As I’m exploring the dockyards, I spot an opportunity to make friends and influence people by picking up a few shifts as a scrapper. I go all out, using my highest dice to tear through the metal with ease. Naturally, this leaves me with low Energy so it’s time to eat. Except, I only have a couple of low dice (ones and twos) which I use to find food, failing abysmally.
The next cycle, I wake up, starving and in poor condition. So, I decide to use all of my dice in the search for food. Soon enough, I meet a charming street food vendor named Emphis who replenishes my Energy with a bowl of fried fungus and a friendly chat. The dice rolls are a neat mechanic that encourages managing your limited resources strategically. Towards the later game, there isn’t as much of a survival challenge (due to the various skills/perks you gain), but by then you’re so engrossed in the world and its story that it won’t matter.
In Citizen Sleeper, everything revolves (pun intended) around cycles – from the Eye turning through ink black space to the story clocks that indicate your progression. Some of these clocks fill up when you perform a series of successful tasks via skill checks, while others count down as timers or warnings. When you wake up to the news that a Corp Hunter is hurtling towards the Station, a menacing red clock begins ticking toward your doom. It’s a simple yet incredibly effective way to heighten tension, which sends you scurrying around the bustling downtown area of Lowend, in search of a solution.
Life, uh, finds a way
What drives Citizen Sleeper, rotation by rotation, is its wonderful storytelling. Particularly, the writing which is beautifully evocative – poetic even. But unlike similar narrative-based games such as Norco and Disco Elysium, it rarely treads into the esoteric. There are a few instances that feel didactic, and perhaps a little on the nose – one character remarks that people are just numbers in a corporate ledger – but then again, having gone through redundancy recently myself, that’s exactly how I felt.
The game’s greatest strength, though, are the people that inhabit the Eye. With them, you’ll uncover corporate conspiracies, repair spaceships, start a liquor distillery, grow fungi and babysit your friend’s daughter while he goes out looking for work. Even the most morally ambiguous characters are capable warmth and love. It’s a profoundly heart-warming experience, knowing that friendships and alliances form aboard the Station because of your actions.
Each character is bought to life through the gorgeous graphic novel style artwork. Their portraits manage to convey such detail in a single image – from the scars on Emphis’ arms to the half-veiled rain Mac that obscures Sabine’s face – you get a sense of who they are right from the beginning. And, while subtle at first, the Station is alive with the clanking of hammers against ship hulls, the hustle of busy market places and the whisper of secrets in cavernous tearooms.
The first time the credits rolled felt a little early, like I’d not done everything I wanted to do. But that’s just as well, because you pick up right where you left off, and there’s so much more to explore. I came across three endings/credit rolls in all, so it’s worth spending more time aboard the Station. It’ll never feel like a chore though; there’s something about Erlin’s Eye that makes you feel truly at home.
I’m not sure how much difference my choices actually made to the game, but it felt like everything I’d done to get here was my own. In some ways, I’ve never felt more a part of a character in any other RPG I can think of. I feel like I’ve made friends for life.
Ultimately, Citizen Sleeper is the constant ticking of clocks, a cycle that starts anew each day. Whether that’s your Condition deteriorating, your Energy waning, or a Hunter on your tail, it is relentless. In essence, you’re just one unlucky dice roll away from nothing. It’s the perfect metaphor for the precarity of life under Capitalism.
Later in the game, you meet Lem, a doting father, and his adorable daughter, Mina. Lem wakes up each cycle, driven by the desire to provide a better life for Mina. He goes out each day to the dockyard in hope of a shift. Sometimes he’s lucky, sometimes he isn’t. But he keeps on. And for the last few days, Citizen Sleeper was the reason I kept getting up in the morning. And that’s very special indeed.