I’ve been having a bad case of post-Elden ring blues lately. After 130 hours of uninterrupted FromSoft adventures, I was struggling to find another game that made me want to do enough more than pick it up for an hour or two before sighing and putting it down. Then I played Citizen Sleeper and wolfed it down 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) gentler overall. You play as the Sleeper, an artificial ship created by a mega-corporation to work off a debt for a human. While man lies frozen in stasis somewhere else in the universe, his consciousness has been transplanted into the sleeper and forced to perform horrific physical labor in grim conditions. But that life sucked massively, so the sleeper fled and arrived 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, Citizen Sleeper embraces the spirit of cube-driven storytelling in a simplified, accessible way. At the start of each day (or “cycle”), you are given a set of six-sided dice, based on your sleeper’s energy, that are automatically rolled and can then be assigned to perform actions of your choosing around the space station. These actions result in rewards or penalties depending on the outcome, so spending higher value dice on riskier or more important actions while throwing away weaker rolls on trivial tasks requires a degree of strategy. There are character classes and a stat tree that affect all of that, but it’s all rolled out slowly and gently, giving you time to get used to which activities are available and which are important.
Citizen Sleeper is largely the work of one person: Gareth Damian Martin, who started the project immediately after his previous game, In Other Waters. He tells me that on the release day of In Other Waters in 2020 he suddenly realized that he only had the funding for it up until that day and he needed to start work on something else right away. Fortunately, he had already thrown around an idea for a slice-of-life science fiction project. Inspired by the success of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, he got support from Fellow Traveler and set to work.
The tabletop influence came naturally as Martin became interested in tabletop games while working on In Other Waters, Blades in the Dark in particular. He liked the way Blades in the Dark focused on the consequences after each roll of the dice and found that he wanted to avoid the trap of other tabletop-like video games of forcing players to repeat the same action until they to overcome a certain obstacle. This ultimately influenced the direction of Citizen Sleeper.
“I immediately had the idea of giving people dice up front so they don’t have that horrible moment where I rolled a horrible dice. I hate this game because it’s just random.’ That became so important to me thematically very quickly because I had this feeling, well, we roll the dice every morning when we wake up… Some days you roll five ones, some days you roll sixes.
Citizen Sleeper screens
“I wanted to try to make a video game role-playing game where you decide what you do, where you show up, where you go each day, and that affects how the story unfolds. That’s how I like to play RPGs. I like to see what the player is interested in and then build on that.”
As with any good tabletop game, Citizen Sleeper’s excellence depends on its storytelling. At first, the story it tells is often frightening as the sleeper struggles to shake his corporate pursuers, find the medicine he needs to halt planned obsolescence, and earn a living. In a way, the early hours are more management sim than RPG, but that quickly changes as the sleeper begins to make connections and explore the hidden corners of the space station.
Of course, in a tabletop campaign, there are constant player discussions and negotiations with a DM, and the story keeps changing on the fly based on their actions. A video game like Citizen Sleeper is bound to always have certain outcomes. But Martin says the tabletop storytelling element still pervaded his thinking as the story was being developed, even if the player ultimately sees solid results.
“I was trying to think about the story I really wanted to tell, I was instead thinking about the themes I wanted to explore and then all the kinds of characters that could exist in this world related to those themes.” , he says. “I just started putting them all in their place and then I would write a little bit of history for one of them and then I would go ahead and write a little bit of history for another and then follow the implications of those stories. Which feels more like GMing to me. You don’t have time to write Lord of the Rings and then walk people through the book [it]. You only have time to make the Ring and Frodo and Mordor or whatever, and then just pick it up as you go. I tried to capture that while working on the game, even though I knew the player wouldn’t experience it that way.”
Though set in a dystopian space future on an abandoned space station and playing the equivalent of runaway sentient AI, Citizen Sleeper isn’t an epic space adventure. This comes from Martin’s own relationship with science fiction and his struggle to identify with major space heroes like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. He’s more referring to stories like Cowboy Bebop, which he describes as “a bunch of freelancers who are roommates in space.”
“I think my generation has a lot to do with precarity… The Sleeper is just a sci-fi version of precarity. You have this debt and you have to work it off. And so you go to sleep and get copied and this other version of you goes off and does the work for you, but how is it for them? What is it like to be someone who doesn’t even qualify as a person? Society does the same for us. We see that some people are citizens and some people are not citizens.
“It’s the kind of sci-fi I’d like to play…When I’m watching Star Wars, I’m always looking over the shoulders of the characters, trying to see how people are standing at the market stall or what’s in — I recently watched The Book of Boba Fett and there’s a bit where they’re introducing this incredibly cool ring station setting right now. And there are these factions and they spend about five minutes there and then they just say, ‘Anyway, back to Tatooine.’ And I just said, ‘No, please leave me here. Leave me to find out what life is like for these people.’”
So Citizen Sleeper is a smaller tale of individuals fighting under the thumb of big money and power, banding together to support one another and fighting back, and ultimately finding meaning in their lives even when everything around them is cold and is indifferent. I won’t spoil the various endings, but beneath Citizen Sleeper’s grim exterior there is a lot of hope. I was surprised to say goodbye rejuvenated and alive to a story about struggle in an impoverished, surveillance capitalist hell state of the gig economy.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
https://www.ign.com/articles/citizen-sleeper-hope-capitalist-space-hellscape Citizen Sleeper offers hope amidst a capitalist space hellscape