HIGH It’s a marvelous Swiss watch of storytelling and experience.
LOW Selling all of my data a couple of turns too soon.
WTF There’s no ending if you [REDACTED]???
It’s rare that a follow-up title from a developer connects with me if their last one didn’t click, but that’s exactly what happened with Citizen Sleeper — and not only did this one click, it’s one of the year’s best.
I loved the concept of In Other Waters, the debut release from developer Jump Over the Age, but the approach was too dry and abstract — it felt more like a mental exercise than a videogame. As such, I was a hesitant to get into Citizen Sleeper, but I gave it the benefit of the doubt and I’m glad I did! While both games share the same narrative focus and unconventional approach to mechanics, the expanded systems, detailed artwork and wider scope of the world in Sleeper make all the difference.
In Citizen Sleeper, the player takes on the role of a synthetic human who’s on the run from the corporation that created them. They stow away on an interstellar freighter and end up at a remote space station near the tail end of the universe. Once there, they’re free to pursue whatever goals they wish in an effort to carve out whatever kind of life they can.
Mechanically, Sleeper is a little hard to describe.
In large part, it’s a visual novel with story told through chunks of text accompanied by wonderful still images. However, it’s also a resource management affair, as there are several kinds of ‘currencies’ needed to perform actions and move storylines forward. At the same time, it reminds me of dice-based boardgames that have been adapted into electronic formats — Tharsis is the closest point of comparison that comes to mind. And the world? It’s a simple 3D render of the station with hotspot locations sprinkled across its surface.
Broken down this way, Citizen Sleeper might sound like a random hodgepodge of spare parts mashed together, but nothing could be further from the truth.
When the game starts, things are a bit confusing. The player reads a few paragraphs explaining their situation, and then dice come into it. Literal dice. At the start of each in-game ‘day’, the player is assigned a certain number of dice with values from 1-6. These dice are to be slotted into events and activities, and their value determines how successful the player is.
Attempt to earn some cash at a day-labor job by using a ‘6’ die, and the payday is good. Try the same job with a ‘2’ die and it’s the player might go home with nothing to show for it but injuries. Use up the dice and the day is over – time to go home, get some shuteye and prepare for the next.
When the player gets ‘tired’ or their synthetic body starts to break down, they have fewer dice to use. This leads into finding ways to replenish energy and repair, which then leads to ways they can pay for or earn such service, which then leads into exploring the world for opportunities.
While trying to work out how to survive, players will come across not only the means to replenish their resources, but a surprising number of characters who populate the station, each with their own story and sidequest. This discovery, both of the wonderfully rich characters and of the surprising scope of the world (which initially seems tiny!) is marvelous.
Once the player has discovered more hotspots to visit and made the acquaintance of a few faces, it’s up to them how to proceed. There are a wide number of plotlines to pursue, and each one has branching choices – trust the fleeing scientist or not? Spend time with the lunch cart chef or move on? Support the commune’s work or shore up the local syndicate’s grip on the station?
Every single story and character is well-written and compelling, both on an individual basis and in the larger sense of the themes they represent. As a work of Science Fiction, Citizen Sleeper runs the gamut – the corporatization of space, an individual’s right to autonomy, the ethics of creating artificial life, transhumanism and more. It’s a masterwork of rich vignettes, each one waiting to be discovered and unwrapped.
While each of Citizen Sleeper’s aspects are well done in their own right, what’s even more impressive is how ingeniously everything fits together. The dice system is straightforward and clearly lays out how to accomplish tasks. The tasks’ role in moving storylines forward is elegant. The stories are fascinating, and provide more than enough motivation to dig into the world. These seemingly-disparate elements support each other perfectly.
However, even with all of this success, I’m not sure that Citizen Sleeper would be as amazing as it is without its heart. When the game begins, things are confusing and staying alive is a struggle. Money is tight, options rare, and there aren’t many welcoming faces. It often feels like failure is only two moves away, but when friends are made and connections forged, the quality of life improves. Before long a support system materializes, resources become more plentiful, and new avenues of exploration become apparent. In this way, the player goes from surviving to thriving, and actually does build a life for themselves out in the distance of the universe.
Citizen Sleeper isn’t harsh or punitive despite the pressures and perils the player might face. No, it ultimately feels like a slow, incremental triumph over adversity in a way that I wish was as easy to accomplish in the real world. This genius array of interlocking circles and Swiss watch gears is flawlessly synchronized with every piece spinning as it should, and it ultimately delivers not only a top-tier Sci-Fi tale, but a larger commentary on community, friendship, and the experience of life itself.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Jump Over the Age and published by Fellow Traveller. It is currently available on PC, Switch and XBX/S. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBX. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Fantasy Violence, Use of Alcohol, and Language. While there is some non-graphic gun violence and some characters do die, the majority of the game is conveyed via text only. The content here is on-par with many Sci-Fi novels that might appeal to teens (or above) so the rating is a good indicator in this case.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All communication happens via text and the text is resizable. The game is turn-based and there are no audio cues needed for gameplay. This experience is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. Controls are straightforward – one button to confirm selections, one button to cancel, one to switch between the real world and the “online” world, and the sticks choose selections and scroll the map.