For day 22 of our RPS Advent Calendar, we're going to make a break for it. Let's escape our enforced drudgery and make a new life for ourselves, out on the outer reaches of space in a lawless space station where we can be anything we want!
Have fun existing at the fringes of interstellar society in Citizen Sleeper!
Rachel: It looks like 2023 will be a fantastic year for sci-fi. There’s the Dead Space remake, Telltale’s The Expanse, Deliver Us Mars, Atomic Heart, Kerbal 2, Aliens: The Dark Descent, not to mention Starfield leading this ever-increasing fleet. But I don’t think any of these grand sci-fi stories - including Bethesda’s expansive, all-encompassing RPG - will feel like the gritty, scrappy sci-fi of Citizen Sleeper.
In Citizen Sleeper, you play as a digital consciousness in an android body called a Sleeper, who has just escaped the clutches of a megacorp who's now determined to hunt you down and get you back. You can’t remember the exact reason you left, but the last thing you do remember is stuffing yourself into a battered cargo container to ship out into the dark depths of space - so it must have been pretty bad. That container has now washed up on Erlin’s Eye, a half-ruined space station on the edges of a galactic civilisation, and to survive you’ll need to pick up odd jobs and carve out a life for yourself, assigning the day’s dice rolls to different story objectives to try and get the best outcomes, while also earning enough money to live and see the next day on this unruly space station. Your new life as a corporate-owned runaway starts here.
Thematically there’s a lot to chew on. Sci-fi and cyberpunk stories often vaguely allude to grand ideas - AI consciousness, the future of humanity, corporate ownership, body augmentation, what ugly beast capitalism will have morphed into in hundreds of years - but Citizen Sleeper actually explores these ideas, depending on what story threads you decide to pull on. There are multiple routes to explore and each path I decided to take, and the ending that it lead to, felt immensely satisfying.
But what I love the most about Citizen Sleeper is its rag-tag cast you get to know. Scrap metal workers, bartenders, food vendors, engineers - they're just average people trying to make the most out of a shitty situation. It really feels like everyone shares a silent understanding that if you’ve somehow found your way to Erlin’s Eye, life has royally fucked you, and that companionship paves the way to an immense feeling of community. An old scrapyard worker will offer you a paid job to help you get on your feet. It doesn’t pay much, but money is money. A tattooed, burly food vendor will see that you’re starving and quietly shove a free meal in front of you.
When you start to work out the rhythms of gig-work and are a little more settled, you too can then reach out your hand to help others who need it. Everyone is here for a reason whether that be good or bad, whether that be fair or unfair, and being able to receive kindness and give kindness in return is a powerful sentiment in a world that feels like it’s out to get you. I loved slowly befriending each person and learning about their story and how fate had led them to life on the Eye, creating a certain kind of bond that is only built through mutual struggle. There's an incredible amount of warmth and intimacy to Citizen Sleeper's rabble of outcasts and that feeling is what makes Citizen Sleeper one of the best games of the year. It really is a stunner of a game.
Hayden: It took me a little while to grasp some of the more technical sci-fi lingo in Citizen Sleeper. Hacking into data nodes and getting confronted by a digital dog named Hunter, who has a head like a mini Sarlacc Pit from Star Wars, is certainly strange. No matter how alien things became, though, Citizen Sleeper’s focus on time made it all feel personal. Time is precious for a Sleeper, and that’s a very relatable struggle.
Fail to find a regular dose of stabiliser drugs, and your body will degrade until it no longer functions. Various timers tick down each day, warning you of the impending consequences of your actions. A limited number of dice represent the few actions for which you have time before needing to sleep. It all works to mount pressure, pushing you to make a choice, any choice, with the little time you have.
Limiting the amount I could poke the world meant the ripples I did create were more meaningful, because they felt solely mine. Despite the mechanical simplicity of my actions (you select dice for each action to achieve good, neutral, or negative outcomes), I became engrossed in life on the Eye in a way few other RPGs manage. Over time spent chatting with characters or chasing individual questlines, I listed goals to complete and developed desires to fulfil, and therefore so did my Sleeper. Citizen Sleeper’s scarcity of time had prompted me to engage with roleplaying without even considering it, and the connection that created makes Citizen Sleeper one of my favourite RPGs of recent years.
Katharine: Like Rachel and Hayden, there's a quiet, soulful melancholy to Citizen Sleeper that really sunk its roots into me this year, and a large part of it is down to Amos Roddy's beautiful lo-fi soundtrack. The music of Citizen Sleeper is innately tied to the tales of its struggling cast for me now, instantly calling up those quiet, wistful moments I shared with each of its characters, and the enduring relationships I formed with them over the course of my time there.
I think of Lem and his daughter Mina, who I eventually left the world of The Eye with on a colony ship heading to a newer, brighter future. I think of Feng the engineer, who saved my life from my corpo pursuers, and whose life I ended up saving in turn as we worked to bring down one of The Eye's most corrupt officials. I also think of Ankhita the mercenary and the ship I helped to rebuild for her as she tracked down her mutinous crew mate, and Emphis, my beloved mushroom pal, who kept me fed and watered throughout my time there. And who could forget my darling stray cat, who I gave biscuits to every day in the hope of seeing it one more time in my makeshift apartment building?
But I also remember the faces of those I didn't get to know so well. People like Tala, who gave me a job in her bar. We had great plans to build a distillery, but my card for the colony ship got called up before I had to time to see it through. There's also Bliss the mechanic, whose salvage firm I happily invested in but never got to see it truly take off. A big apology to NeoVend 33, too, the sentient vending machine whose AI consciousness is hiding from the malicious Hunter and Killer programs lurking in The Eye's network. And Ethan, poor Ethan the bounty hunter that once had my name on a list, but ended up burying himself in a bottle and massive amounts of debt. Maybe I'll get to know these folks better on the next run, because there definitely will be a next one here. That I'm absolutely certain of.