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 the kind of game that believes in the 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. Welcome to your new neighborhood.
As you get your bearings in this particular patch of outer space, Citizen Sleeper brings in its unique dice mechanics to determine how you get through the day. 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. The higher your condition (which can be replenished by buying expensive stabilizing medicine), the more dice you get. 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 have a higher chance of success, while lower dice present a daunting gamble when you have a deadline ahead of you and need to accomplish some tasks as soon as possible.
Certain challenges, like hacking cloud-data storage servers, require specific dice outcomes, so you have to plan your whole day around what dice you need to use on certain tasks, and what tasks you feel more safe taking your 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 (beyond the dice economy) really comes from the sense of community, and your own place within it, that emerges after a few cycles. The Eye is full of memorable characters, each one beautifully rendered by comic book artist Guillaume Singelin and written with clear, singular voices. Farmers living in a commune, hardened mercenaries, and down-on-their-luck spaceship technicians all call The Eye their home, and they all have fascinating things to say. These are hands down some of the best, most endearing and personable NPCs in any game in 2022, each one feeling like a true human being struggling to scrape by in this lightless 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 crumbling space station, we can lift each other up and make a better life without the inhumanity that 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 lets you feel like you are slowly, little-by-little, day-by-day, becoming your own human being. You are reclaiming your humanity, one gorgeously-drawn conversation, and one new friendship at a time. If that’s not the pinnacle of narrative games, what is?
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