With 2022 quickly wrapping up, we’re looking back on the games that have resonated with us the most. Next up: Citizen Sleeper.
Citizen Sleeper is a game that believes in its player. It begins with some incredibly lofty sci-fi concepts, such as your character, a titular ‘Sleeper,’ a robot with a copy-pasted version of a human mind housed within, created solely to give a soulless megacorporation reusable labor. There’s very little time for the questions raised by such a mind-pretzelling premise, at least at first, as you begin your experience hiding from your former corporate overlords on a derelict space station called the Eye.
Starving, penniless, and suffering from an internal design flaw that degrades your mind the longer you’re away from your bosses, you begin your time on the Eye with a daunting challenge: find a way to survive. You have no friends, plenty of people don’t trust you just because you’re a Sleeper, and you know that the people you fled are likely sending someone to collect you. Your new neighborhood is your welcome.
Citizen Sleeper’s unique dice mechanics will help you navigate this area of outer space. You start each of your in-game days (called “cycles” since there’s no sun to orbit and make days or nights) with a set of dice rolls, ranging from 1 to 6. You get more dice the higher your condition (which can also be replenished with expensive stabilizing medication). You spend these dice on various tasks around the world – foraging for mushrooms, working a shift at a bar, doing salvage in the scrapyard, etc. Higher dice are more likely to succeed, but lower dice can be a challenge if you have a deadline and must complete some tasks quickly.
Hacking cloud-data storage servers requires specific dice outcomes. You need to plan your day around which dice you will use for certain tasks and which tasks you feel more comfortable taking chances on. When and where you use your best dice, and what you do on those rough days where none of your dice are particularly good, make up most of the tension in Citizen Sleeper’s gameplay.
The tension in the game is not just due to the dice economy. It’s a sense of community and your own place within that community that emerges after several cycles. Each of the memorable characters in The Eye are beautifully drawn by Guillaume Singelin, a comic book artist, and written with distinct voices. The Eye is home for farmers living in a community, hardened spaceship technicians, and hardened mercenaries. They all have interesting things to share. These NPCs are by far the most charming, friendly, and approachable in any game. They each feel like a real human being trying to survive in this dark future.
As you move through the days, making progress and growing closer to your neighbors, Citizen Sleeper pulls an incredibly subtle trick: it makes you feel like you’re really finding your place in the community. Slowly, and assuming you’re doing your part and not being a jerk, people can warm up to you, you can get a nicer place to stay than the storage unit you arrived in, and you can build up a real support system that clearly, tangibly, makes your life easier. It never feels easy or unearned, but Citizen Sleeper makes good on the idea that, even in an abusive system, even in a world that turns people’s minds into mass-produced drones, collective action still works. Even on a shattered space station, we can all lift each other up to make a better existence without resorting back to the inhumanity which got us there.
The elevator pitch for Citizen Sleeper is something like “visual novel/TTRPG-inspired life sim where you play a poor robot who needs medicine.” That is, technically, accurate, but it misses the true worth of this special game. Citizen sleeper gives you the feeling that you are slowly becoming your own person day by day, little by little. You are reclaiming humanity one beautiful conversation at a time, and making new friends. If that’s not the pinnacle of narrative games, what is?
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