Citizen Sleepers wants you to be a better person
and for once I was
Most video games increase in difficulty as they go on. Usually, you gain items and experience points to level up your character and in doing so are met with stronger enemies and harder challenges. It’s the classic hero’s journey as you grow in strength and abilities to take on the final big bad boss. Not so with Citizen Sleeper, a role-playing sci-fi video game by Gareth Damian Martin. No, as you progress in Citizen Sleeper things get easier. Decisions you are asked to make become less risky and keeping yourself alive becomes just one of your daily tasks rather than the deadly threat it is at the beginning. You would think this might mean the game becomes boring. But what actually happens is that you, the player, become kinder.
Let me rewind a little and explain. In the world of Citizen Sleeper you play as one of three ‘sleepers’: a digital copy of a human housed within a mechanical body that does not belong to you, but the corporation who made you. At the beginning of the game you have escaped your fate and landed on Erlin’s Eye. A circular waystation on the edge of a solar system that is in economic and moral collapse. The tagline for the game is “Roleplaying in the ruins of interplanetary capitalism”. If we’re living in late-stage capitalism now then this is late-stage capitalism to the power of ten. And because of this and the fact that you are placed in a body that has in-built obsolescence you must find work to earn credit so you can buy food and the life-saying medicine that prevents your body from shutting down. Over time your condition will degrade limiting the number of actions you can take in a day. Likewise not eating to restore your energy causes your condition to fall faster, as can failing certain risky tasks.
These tasks and the story beats that accompany them are played out in dice rolls. At the beginning of each day you receive a set number of dice depending on your overall condition. The worse off your body is the fewer dice you receive. If you’re familiar with ‘spoon theory’ you already understand how this works. It is here that a risk vs reward strategy comes into play. Depending on how good the dice rolls are will influence the outcome of the actions you choose to do. The higher the number the less risky the action and the more certain you can be of a postive or neutral outcome. Eventually, you will earn abilities that boost your dice rolls or even allow you to re-roll them, but in the early game every roll, and every negative outcome counts. And because of this, any decision you make that does not immediately benefit you, either through earning you credits or food, is not to be taken lightly.
And so in the early game stages when my high dice rolls were a precious resource and life felt precarious of The Eye I was coldly calculating in who I chose to help. I agreed to work with a mercenary to rebuild their ship, not because they were as desperate as me but because I hoped that my good deed might be repaid in kind. Likewise, I assisted the scrapper who’d let me sleep in an old container, not to pay back my debt but because it was a safe bet for earning more credits. Nearly always I got back more than I put in and so slowly life became more manageable.
I moved out of the container into a stable home (with a stay kitty to feed!), I had reliable work to earn credits or enough free high dice rolls to make gambling a safe bet. I no longer worried about where my next meal would come from. I had a method of ensuring the ongoing supply of the medicine I needed to prevent my body from decaying. And crucially I had found a way to stop the corporation who ‘owned’ me from ever finding me. I felt safe in my new life. And so it didn’t matter so much what resources I gained from my actions that day — it was likely I didn’t need them.
Instead, I started doing what was unimaginable at the start of the game. I helped others for no other reason than wanting to. No longer bound to the terrible day-to-day difficulties of survival I started to look around myself at the space station for who else needed assistance. I babysat for a single dad so he could earn the chance to escape the waystation, I helped rebuild a run-down bar that was supposed to be the heart of the community, I found a way to unite a group of refugees fleeing their dying planets. It wasn’t wholely selfish or without reward. But the reward I was seeking this time was more of their story and the knowledge that they would be okay. Or at least whatever ‘okay’ looked like in this world. Any time that the text alluded to a character feeling like they had found their home as a consequence of my actions I teared up.
There are very few villains in Citizen Sleeper. Most people are just trying to get by as best they can (you included). And in nearly all instances your faith and trust in people is rewarded. This felt like a game that wanted me to succeed despite setting me up at the beginning with what looked like a hopeless situation. Never have I wanted so much to play a game, not to beat it, but to pay back the kindness that I had been bestowed on me.
At multiple points in the story I too was invited to leave the station and every time I chose to stay. Not because I wanted to gather more credit or hoard more scrap metal, but because The Eye had truly become my home. Somehow out of the despair and danger of the existence I had been borne into, I had made a home. I had friends. I had my stray cat to feed. I had purpose. Living had become easy and I wanted to continue helping others. Funny that, what can happen in society once someone’s basic needs are met, isn’t it?
Citizen Sleeper is available on PC, Mac, Xbox, and Switch and I would recommend you play it immediately.