I’ve had a bad case of the post-Elden Ring blues lately. After 130 hours of non-stop 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 back down again. Then I played Citizen Sleeper, and ravenously devoured the entire thing in two days.
Citizen Sleeper scratches the parts of my brain that loved Disco Elysium, but it’s both shorter and (despite its dystopia premise) gentler overall. You play as a Sleeper, an artificial vessel created by a mega corporation to work off a debt for a human being. While the human lies frozen in stasis somewhere else in the universe, their consciousness was transplanted into the Sleeper and forced to do awful manual labor under grim conditions. But that life massively sucked, so the Sleeper fled, arriving on a space station called the Eye in hopes of building a life of their own.
Though not fully tabletop in the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin or Disco Elysium are, Citizen Sleeper embraces the spirit of dice-drizen storytelling in a simplified, accessible way. At the start of each day (or “cycle”) you’ll be given a number of six-sided dice based on how much energy your Sleeper has, which are rolled automatically and can then be allocated to take actions of your choice around the space station. These actions result in rewards or penalties depending on their outcomes, so there’s a level of strategy involved in choosing to spend higher-valued dice on riskier or more important actions, while throwing away weaker roles on trivial tasks. There are character classes and a stat tree that impact all this, but it’s all introduced slowly and gently, giving you time to get used to what activities are available and which are important.
Citizen Sleeper is mostly the work of one person: Gareth Damian Martin, who began the project immediately on the heels of their previous game, In Other Waters. They tell me that on In Other Waters’ release day in 2020, they realized suddenly that they only had funding for it up to that day, and would need to immediately begin work on something else. Fortunately, they'd been tossing around an idea for a slice-of-life science fiction project already. Inspired by the success of Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, Damian Martin got the backing of Fellow Traveler and went to work.
The tabletop influence came naturally, as Damian Martin had gotten interested in running tabletop games while they were working on In Other Waters, especially Blades in the Dark. They liked the way Blades in the Dark focused on consequences after each dice roll, and found themselves wanting to avoid the trap of other tabletop-like video games that force players to reroll the same action until they can pass a certain obstacle. This ultimately influenced the direction of Citizen Sleeper.
“Immediately I had this idea of giving people dice up front so that they wouldn't have that horrible moment of ‘I rolled a terrible dice. I hate this game because it’s just random.’ That very quickly became so thematically important to me, because I got this feeling of, well, we roll dice every morning when we wake up…Some days you roll five ones, some days you roll sixes.
“I wanted to try and make a video game RPG where you choose what you do, where you turn up to, where you go each day, and that affects how the story progresses. That's how I like to run RPGs. I like to see what the player is interested in, and build around them as they go.”
Like any good tabletop game, Citizen Sleeper’s excellence hinges on its storytelling. At first, the tale it tells is often anxiety-inducing, as the Sleeper struggles to shake their corporate pursuers, find the medicine they need to hold off planned obsolescence, and eke out a living. In some ways, its early hours are more management sim than roleplay, but that quickly changes as the Sleeper begins to make connections and explore the space station’s hidden corners.
Of course, in a tabletop campaign, there’s constant player discussion and negotiation with a DM, and the story is constantly changing on the fly based on their actions. A video game like Citizen Sleeper is always inevitably going to have set outcomes. But Damian Martin says the tabletop storytelling element still pervaded their thinking in how they developed the story, even if ultimately the player sees fixed outcomes.
“I tried to think about, instead of the story I wanted to necessarily tell, I thought instead about the themes I wanted to explore and then all the kinds of characters that might exist in relation to those themes in that world,” they say. “I just started by putting them all in their places and then I'd write a bit of story for one of them and then I'd move on and write a little bit of story for another one and then follow the implications of those stories. Which, to me, feels 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 make the ring and Frodo and Mordor or whatever, and then you just pick it up as you go. I tried to capture that as I worked on the game, even though I knew that, that's not how the player would experience it.”
Though it takes place in a dystopian space future on an abandoned space station and stars the equivalent of a runaway sentient AI, Citizen Sleeper isn’t some epic space adventure. That comes from Damian Martin’s own relationship with science fiction, and struggling to relate to big space hero protagonists like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. They relate more to stories like Cowboy Bebop, which they describe as “a bunch of freelancers who are flatmates in space.”
“I think that my generation experiences precarity a lot …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 you get copied and this other version of you goes off and does the work for you, but what's it like for them? What's it like to be someone who doesn't even qualify as a person? Society does that for us too. We see that some people are citizens and some people aren't citizens.
“That's the sci-fi that I would like to play … When I watch Star Wars, I'm always looking over the shoulders of the characters, trying to see the market stall people or what's happening in- I was recently watching The Book of Boba Fett and there's a bit where they just introduce this incredibly cool ring station type setting. And there's these factions and they spend like five minutes there and then they're just like, ‘Anyway, back to Tatooine.’ And I was just like, ‘No, leave me here, please. Leave me behind to find out what these people's lives are like.’”
Citizen Sleeper, then, is a smaller tale of individuals struggling under the thumb of big money and big power, banding together to support one another and fight back, and ultimately finding meaning in their lives even when all around them is cold and uncaring. I won’t spoil the multiple endings, but there’s a lot of hope contained under the grim exterior of Citizen Sleeper. I was surprised to walk away from a story about struggling in an impoverished gig economy surveillance capitalist hell state feeling rejuvenated and alive.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
This article was amended after publication to include Damian Martin's correct pronouns.