I’ve had a bad case of post-Elden Ring blues lately. After 130 hours of nonstop FromSoft adventure, I was struggling to find another game that compelled me enough to do more than pick it up for an hour or two before sighing and putting it down again. Then I played Citizen Sleeper and devoured the whole thing in two days.
Citizen Sleeper scratches the parts of my brain that loved Disco Elysium, but it’s both shorter and (despite its dystopian premise) sweeter overall. You play as a Sleeper, an artificial vessel created by a mega corporation to settle a debt to a human being. While the human is frozen in stasis elsewhere in the universe, his consciousness has been transplanted into the Sleeper and forced to do horrendous manual labor under grim conditions. But that life was massively sucked away, so the Sleeper fled, arriving on a space station called the Eye in hopes of building a life of his own.
While not entirely tabletop like, say, Divinity: Original Sin or Disco Elysium are, Citizen Sleeper embraces the spirit of dice-drunk storytelling in a streamlined and accessible way. At the start of each day (or “cycle”), you will be given a number of six-sided dice depending on how much energy your Sleeper has, which are rolled automatically and can then be assigned to take action on your choice around the space station. These actions incur rewards or penalties depending on their results, so there is a level of strategy involved in choosing to spend higher value dice on riskier or more important actions, while casting weaker roles. on trivial tasks. There are character classes and a stat tree that impact all of this, but it’s all introduced slowly and gently, giving you time to get used to the available activities and which ones are important.
Citizen Sleeper is mostly the work of one person: Gareth Damian Martin, who started the project immediately after their previous game, In Other Waters. They tell me that on the day In Other Waters was released in 2020, they suddenly realized that they only had funding so far and that they should immediately start working on something else. Fortunately, they had already floated an idea for a slice-of-life sci-fi project. Inspired by the success of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, Damian Martin enlisted the support of Fellow Traveler and got to work.
The tabletop influence came naturally, as Damian Martin had become interested in running tabletop games while they were working on In Other Waters, specifically Blades in the Dark. They liked how Blades in the Dark focused on consequences after each roll of the dice and found themselves wanting to avoid the trap of other tabletop video games that require players to re-roll the same action until they can overcome a certain obstacle. This ultimately influenced the direction of Citizen Sleeper.
“Immediately I had this idea of giving people dice up front so they don’t have that awful moment of ‘I rolled a terrible dice. I hate this game because it’s just This very quickly became thematically important to me, because I had this feeling that, well, we roll the dice every morning when we wake up… Some days you roll five ones, some days you roll of the six.
Citizen Sleeper Screens
“I wanted to try and make a video game RPG where you choose what you do, where you show up, where you go each day, and it affects story progression. That’s how I like to run RPGs. I like to see what interests the player and build around them as I go.
Like any good tabletop game, Citizen Sleeper’s excellence lies in its storytelling. At first, the story he tells is often anxiety-inducing, as the Sleeper struggles to shake off his pursuers, find the medicine he needs to avoid planned obsolescence, and earn a living. In some ways, its early hours are more of a management sim than an RPG, but that quickly changes as the sleeper begins to make connections and explore hidden corners of the space station.
Of course, in a tabletop campaign, players are constantly chatting and negotiating with a DM, and the story is constantly changing on the fly based on their actions. A video game like Citizen Sleeper will always inevitably have fixed results. But Damian Martin says the element of tabletop storytelling has always permeated their thinking about how they developed the story, even if ultimately the player sees fixed results.
“I tried to think, instead of the story that I necessarily wanted to tell, I thought more about the themes that I wanted to explore, and then all the types of characters that might exist in relation to those themes in this world. “, they say. “I just started by putting them all in their place, then I would write a little story for one of them, then I would move on and write a little story for another, then I would follow the implications of these stories.. Which to me is more like GMing. You don’t have time to write Lord of the Rings and then guide people through [it]. You just have time to do the ring and Frodo and Mordor or whatever, and then you get it back as you go. I tried to capture this while working on the game, even though I knew it, that’s not how the player would feel.
Although set in a dystopian space future on an abandoned space station and featuring the equivalent of a sentient AI on the run, Citizen Sleeper is not an epic space adventure. This stems from Damian Martin’s own relationship with science fiction and the difficulty of relating to the protagonists of great space heroes like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. They relate more to stories like Cowboy Bebop, which they describe as “a bunch of freelancers who are roommates in space.”
“I think my generation experiences a lot of precariousness…The Sleeper is just a science fiction version of precariousness. You have this debt and you must settle it. And so you fall asleep and you’re copied and this other version of you goes and does the work for you, but what’s that to them? How does it feel to be someone who doesn’t even qualify as a person? Society does it for us too. We see that some people are citizens and some are not.
“It’s the science fiction that I would love to play…When I watch Star Wars, I always look over the shoulders of the characters, I try to see the people who are spreading the market or what’s going on in- I recently watched The Book of Boba Fett and there’s a bit where they just introduced this incredibly cool ringtone station type setting and there’s these factions and they spend about five minutes there, then they’re just like, ‘Anyway, let’s get back to Tatooine.’ And I was just like, ‘No, please leave me here. Leave me behind to find out what life is like for these people.
Citizen Sleeper is therefore a little story of individuals struggling under the sway of big money and great power, banding together to support and defend themselves, and ultimately finding meaning in their lives even when everything around them is cold. and indifferent. I won’t spoil the multiple endings, but there’s plenty of hope beneath Citizen Sleeper’s grim exterior. I was surprised to walk away from a story about struggling in a capitalist hellish state of overseeing the impoverished gig economy, feeling rejuvenated and alive.
Rebekah Valentine is a reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
This article was edited after publication to include the correct pronouns of Damian Martin.