July 15, 2024

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Citizen Sleeper review: a subversive sci-fi RPG with tabletop freedom

Citizen Sleeper review: a subversive sci-fi RPG with tabletop freedom

Partway through Citizen Sleeper, I realize that the closest thing I have to real kin on this entire space station is trapped inside an ancient vending machine. Neovend 33 is a cranky little thing, but who can blame it? The AI has been dormant, gathering dust in a locked bay, hoping that someone like me — a dysfunctional Sleeper barely holding it together — would come along to help. Long after I bid Neovend farewell, it stays planted in my head like a seed, and I’m alone in facing the impracticalities of my own existence. And when I finish the game, left with nothing to do but exist, I miss Neovend, deeply.

Citizen Sleeper is the new narrative-driven, text-heavy role-playing game from Jump Over the Age (aka Gareth Damian Martin, the creator of 2020’s In Other Waters) that uses a dice system inspired by tabletop games. The player controls a Sleeper — an emulated “person” fleeing from the Essen-Arp megacorp in a proprietary body frame designed for “planned obsolescence.” It’s not far off from consumer tech now — hardware purposefully designed to wither in the face of endless updates and opaque new operating systems (or in the case of bionic eye company Second Sight, hardware that bricks itself in the face of bankruptcy). For Essen-Arp, these frames are a failsafe to prevent escapees like me from getting too far before they can send someone to bring me back. It is possible, though, to partially repair the Sleeper’s body, which is more than can be said for many electronics today.

Pulling from its tabletop inspirations, Citizen Sleeper has a range of three character classes. I choose one as far as possible from my real-life traits: the careful, structured Machinist who excels at engineering-type work. I awaken, filled with anxiety, on Erlin’s Eye (or simply “the Eye”), a decaying space station. My frame is in need of repair, and after meeting junk salvager Dragos, it becomes clear that I need to earn some “cryo,” a cryptocurrency that’s been isolated from the market. Capitalism is an endless bitch, but I quickly learn that even in the face of truly bleak choices, the game always allows the Sleeper to retain a soft, haunting sense of humanity through dialogue and actions. Fleeting scenes of violence and brutality also offer vulnerability, and I come away from them filled with conflicting flashes of sadness and resentment. One subplot, involving a hired goon named Ethan, is grimly moving, and at the end of his story, I dwell on the ugly minutiae of humanity in a universe where individual lives don’t seem to matter.

It takes me several cycles to build momentum toward narrative immersion, as well as a bit of fledgling confidence on the Eye. “Cycles” are the increments of time that move the game forward (they’re basically working days). Each cycle requires managing my condition (the state of my body), my available dice rolls (the actions I can perform), and my energy bar (the food situation). The worse my condition, the fewer dice I have. With each new character I meet, or area I explore, the game unlocks a new “drive,” or broad objectives to pursue — like joining a commune or finding a way to remove the Essen-Arp tracker from my traitorous frame. The essential idea behind Citizen Sleeper is to survive and use drives as loose pathways to fulfill your own needs, whether that means learning more about your past or figuring out your future.

The early tutorial cycles aren’t complicated if you’re familiar with turn-based tabletop RPGs that run on dice. Still, it takes me some time to find a good rhythm. By the time I hit cycles 30-40 I feel a singular, laser-like focus as I enter the Greenway, where I must forage for fragile mushrooms. I immerse myself in delivering noodles, unloading cargo, and scavenging for scraps to repair little parts of my body.

All of these small tasks serve greater objectives — particularly the drives to help others — and they fill narrative lulls and waiting periods with a sense of purpose, even if it is just busywork. I stubbornly spend at least 3 cryo a day feeding a stray cat, in the hopes that maybe the game will eventually cave and allow me to have a pet (it doesn’t).

Neovend 33, an AI in Citizen Sleeper, has been stuck in a vending machine for years

Image: Jump Over the Age/Fellow Traveller

As each cycle goes on, I explore more of the Eye and get acquainted with its ad-hoc bureaucracies, sojourning mercenaries, and enterprising merchants. After an event known as the “collapse,” the station became a lodestar for misfits and fugitives, a refuge for casualties of industrial greed, and a hideaway for restless AIs. There’s Emphis, a street food vendor whose body is marked with the telltale signs of corporate biotech; there’s also Sabine, an enigmatic doctor with suspicious motives. One of my favorite NPCs is Feng, a hacker born and raised on the Eye, determined to exorcize his home of its corporate past. It’s clear that Sleepers like me are a rare sight here, though, and the practical realities of living in this lawless place mean that many people view the Sleeper’s valuable body as a means to an end. Everyone on the Eye knows their place in the world except me.

One thing that threw me off is that the credits play after every “proper” ending, and then I’m returned to where I left off, free to work on any remaining drives or just putter around the Eye. (I was a little confused the first time it happened, but continued playing — I’d passed up a chance to leave my body for good. But the second time it happened, I realized that this was by design, as if the game was repeatedly testing my desire to be truly free.) Finally, I complete all the drives and choose, against all sense, to stay on the Eye instead of escaping to the promise of a better life. At this point I’ve amassed enough resources to keep my body going for 40 or 50 cycles — if I keep doing my chores, I can exist as long as I want to. The panic and desperation of the early cycles are long gone, and my cup overflows with cryo. I have nothing left to do.

My spontaneous decision to stick around on the Eye, long after I’ve exhausted all my drives and lingering curiosities, threw me for a loop. I rejected all of the game’s proffered endings in favor of a self-induced limbo, which forced me to confront my expectations of clean, neat closure; I’m not sure how it’ll all resonate with someone who chose a more finite way to wrap things up.

An overhead view of a section of The Eye in Citizen Sleeper

Image: Jump Over the Age/Fellow Traveller

But the game’s greatest strength (and also its most infuriating choice) is to untether me from concrete objectives and let me exist without a reason. I continue going through cycles to feed the cat, play games of tavla for cryo, and help out at the local bar. At first, I expect an endgame surprise, like a sadistic JRPG boss hiding in the wings (which would be a decidedly uncharacteristic move for the developer), but nothing happens. What am I supposed to do without a drive? Why am I even here? It’s almost trollish, but I realize I have no reason to expect more. The abruptness of the “ending,” or rather the vague flexibility around my particular end, is bewildering, but I respected it as a sort of passive-aggressive drag.

When I finally decide to end the game, I leave my Sleeper in the Greenway, where I imagine they can keep on going about their quiet, private routines. I’m not sure I’ll come back to the Eye again, because even if I make different decisions on another run, Citizen Sleeper’s most potent power lies in that first playthrough, when you arrive with nothing, and know even less. This isn’t so much about “replay value” as it is about the singular experience of a journey that — in keeping with the fiction of being a ragged Sleeper trying to survive — is very much a one-way street. Did I do right by my Sleeper? I don’t know. But all things must come to an end, and I feel like they would understand.

Citizen Sleeper will be released on May 5 on Windows PC, Mac, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Jump Over the Age. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.